Dec 9, 2016

Controversy Surrounding Iconic 1940s Phoenix Building May Be Nearing End

Photo of former Stewart Motor/Circles Records building, courtesy of

It was a moment that shocked Phoenix preservationists and strongly divided the local community regarding the future of a well-known local landmark famous for its post-World War II modern design.

Workers this past April demolished the north side of the former Stewart Motor Building, negatively impacting its status as a historic structure, and turning community activists and preservationists into firm opponents of a plan to turn the property into a 19-story mixed used site.

“That was a very bad choice,” says Sherry Rampy concerning the Empire Commercial Development’s decision to begin demolition.

“But I think they also recognize that now.  Judging by the first rendition, they have improved the development significantly,” adds Rampy, who is the president of the Roosevelt Action Association, a group that has been critical of Empire’s plans for the structure and site.

Built during an era when many auto showrooms dotted parts of downtown Phoenix, the Stewart Motor Building attracted generations of Studebaker-buyers drawn to its attractive showroom.

Because it represents both a certain era and architectural movement in Phoenix, many locals have for years argued that the Stewart building should be officially designated and protected as a historic landmark.

“But it’s not on any local, state, or national registry as an historic building,” notes Michelle Dodds, City of Phoenix Historic Preservation Officer.

“At one point, the previous owners were supportive of a process that was taking place to have that designation, but it didn’t go anywhere when one of the members of the Stewart family decided against it,” says Dodds.

“We are a private property rights state and don’t generally designate anything against a property owner’s wishes,” adds Dodd.

Designed by W.Z. Smith, Jr., one of Phoenix’s most in-demand architects in the 1940s and 50s, the 19,400 square foot building is known for such features as its round window bay, curved exterior corners, and a wholly unique interior mechanical floor turntable that was used for rotating the latest Studebaker models.

“It really is a classic structure in so many different ways,” says Rampy.

The building became, if anything, even more well-known after the Studebaker dealership closed and the space was repurposed as the Circles Records store in 1972.

After Circles finally went out of business in 2009, partly as a result of the national recession, the building became vacant and has stayed that way since.

But Phoenix realtors soon noted increased interest among developers and investors who talked of repurposing the site variously as a restaurant, entertainment venue, offices, or apartments.

Earlier this year the Empire Group’s Aspirant Development purchased the property for $2.6 million and said it wanted to turn the property into a mixed-use project.

Empire/Aspirant’s plans called for the building of more than 300 apartment units, seven levels of parking, and both restaurant and retail space.

In initial discussions with community groups, including the Roosevelt Action Association, Aspirant officials emphasized the building’s preservation as an integral part of the project’s development.

But whatever good feelings existed between the developers and the neighborhood almost completely evaporated last April when Aspirant demolished a portion of the building.

“It appears that the developer was acting in bad faith,” an angry Greg Stanton, Mayor of Phoenix, said in a statement after the demolition took place.

Although the demolition ceased, the public relations fall-out from it has continued throughout the year as preservationists and community groups have fought to deny giving the project a tax break known as a Government Property Lease Excise Tax.

But last month, preservationists scored a victory when members of the Phoenix City Council voted to impose a 30-day delay on issuing demolition permits for any commercial building 50 years or older.

At the same time, Aspirant worked to forge an agreement with the Roosevelt Action Association that calls for the company to preserve what’s left of the Stewart building, allow for a large public art exhibit with three murals on a part of the structure, and financially contribute to an ongoing historic preservation fund.

Jordon Rose, a well-known Phoenix attorney representing the developer, says Aspirant is currently working with the City of Phoenix’s economic development agreement “on the potential development agreement.”

“Once that is finalized,” says Rose, “the Phoenix City Council will take it under consideration in a public vote.”

Rose adds that, if all goes as planned, work on the site could begin in late January, noting that what is now being called The Stewart, “will not only be the tallest built in recent Phoenix history, but a building that should set a new standard in creative design excellence with the largest commitment to exterior public art in Arizona.”

Although some community activists continue to oppose the project, Rampy thinks the battle is nearing an end.

“I understand that developers don’t always want to talk to neighborhoods because they are afraid of the ‘cave,’ otherwise known as ‘citizens against virtually everything,” says Rampy.

“But, ultimately, working with the community is the only way any development can really get things done today,” she adds. 


By Garry Boulard

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