Historic preservation is often challenging, but protecting Arizona’s historic buildings and neighborhoods is critical to economic growth, strengthening home values and maintaining Arizona’s identity.
That’s the message local, state and federal historic preservationists discussed with elected officials June 14 during a panel in Mesa at the 11th annual Arizona Historic Preservation Conference held at the Hilton Phoenix/Mesa hotel.
“Preservation is more than preserving old things,” said Mesa Preservation Foundation president Vic Linoff. “Historic districts are the oldest parts of cities, and if you don’t take care of them, they can be a drain.”
Former Arizona attorney general Terry Goddard moderated a panel of elected officials, which included Town of Florence vice mayor Tom Smith, City of Mesa councilmember Dennis Kavanaugh and City of Phoenix senior policy advisor Brendan Mahoney.
The panel discussed properties that have recently come into the spotlight, such as the David & Gladys Wright House in Phoenix’s Arcadia neighborhood, which was recently saved from possible demolition, and the 1928 Hotel St. James and 1909 Madison Hotel in downtown Phoenix, which could not be saved. The panel celebrated the restoration of the neon Diving Lady sign in Mesa.
Also, the panel discussed the challenges with preserving historic properties since the 2006 passage of Prop 207, which prevents a city from declaring private property historic without the full support of the owner.
“We need better incentives for people to want to preserve historic properties,” Mahoney said.
Goddard suggested Arizona lawmakers consider offering a residential tax credit to encourage homeowners to preserve their old homes, since the commitment on the part of the homeowner is expensive and time-consuming.
The panel unanimously agreed historic preservation results in strengthened city economies, but that the obstacles are a lack of funding combined with a growing volume of properties that could qualify as historic. A property must be at least 50 years old, demonstrate historical significance and possess historic integrity to qualify as historic, according to the City of Phoenix Planning and Development Department.
“There’s been a positive change in the understanding of the economic impact of historic preservation,” Kavanaugh said. “When companies come to Arizona, they ask what kinds of neighborhoods we have, and we’ve been able to showcase our neighborhoods.”
Smith agreed, and said that preserved historic districts raise home values. Mahoney shared his personal experience living in a historic home, and touted the vibrant Phoenix downtown historic neighborhoods, which attract visitors looking to walk around and enjoy restaurants.
Still, there must be a balance between preserving and developing, according to Tim Lawless, Arizona chapter president of NAIOP, the commercial real estate development association.
“If you look at parts of downtown Phoenix, for example, there has been a lot of organic economic development around historic areas, and many people find that unique and appealing,” Lawless said. “On the other hand, there is sometimes some abuse of those designations, and in that case, it can be an impediment.”
Lawless believes each local community should be able to make its own decisions regarding its neighborhoods, and that there must be flexibility in the laws to accommodate the changing needs of communities. One person’s historic property, might be another person’s eyesore, Lawless said.
“Our laws should be flexible enough to preserve the old and allow for the new,” Lawless said. “Whatever is historic or deemed historic, as long as that’s tightly prescribed by the Arizona legislature and fairly administered by the municipalities, that should be respected.”