What kinds of homes should be built on the vacant lots scattered throughout some of Phoenix’s historic neighborhoods?
Should they look like the historic homes built decades before or should they be recognizable as a modern addition?
It’s a question that’s puzzled historic preservation professionals and pitted advocates and neighbors against one another in Phoenix and beyond.
National and local historic preservation guidelines seemingly contradict themselves, calling for new buildings to be distinguishable from, yet compatible with, surrounding historic structures.
As popularity in historic neighborhoods has swelled in recent years, the Phoenix Historic Preservation Office has seen a spike in applications for new builds in the districts — and many of the new additions have a cutting-edge look.
In an effort to combat the modern additions, a band of historic preservation advocates appealed a proposed new building all the way to the Phoenix City Council, forcing the council to make a "precedent-setting decision" on how new homes in historic districts should look.
Coronado case study
The proposed home at the center of the council’s decision was planned for an empty lot near 12th and Oak streets in the Coronado neighborhood.
Joel Contreras, a well-known designer and real-estate agent, designed the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house. Designs showed a sleek, modern structure with a slanted shed roof that ascends from 9 feet at its lowest point to 12 feet at its highest.
Contreras said the building would be either white or charcoal colored. Clerestory windows would wrap around the house in a thin band above eye level.
City planners approved Contreras’ design months ago. But when architect and Coronado resident Arthur Vigil caught wind of the proposal, he appealed it to the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.
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"When (a modern home is) in a historic district, it contrasts so drastically that it takes the attention away from the historic homes," Vigil said in February.
Vigil disliked many elements of Contreras’ design, but his main issues were the lack of a front porch and front-facing windows, as well as the roof design.
The appeal provoked a 1½-hour debate at the commission meeting in February, with Vigil and his supporters arguing that modern-looking homes interrupt the charm of historic districts and Contreras contending new homes designed to mimic historic architecture take away from authentic historic homes.
The commission ultimately denied Vigil’s appeal but stipulated that Contreras must add street-facing windows and a front porch.
The decision left both camps unhappy — and both appealed to the City Council.
Contreras, who technically won at the commission hearing, said the additional requirements regarding the windows and porch were "very discouraging for a designer."
Phoenix Councilwoman and Vice Mayor Laura Pastor (left) represents citizens that live in the Coronado Historic District.
Council vs. staff
During his presentation to the council, Vigil presented signatures from 125 "concerned neighbors."
"This case not only affects Coronado, it sets a precedent for infill development in all historic districts," he said.
Contreras encouraged the council to comply with the recommendation city staff made months ago — before the window and porch requirements were added. He said the staff is "highly trained" in historic preservation matters and more informed than the council on what is best for historic preservation.
The council did not heed his advice.
The council’s decision was swift. Councilwoman Laura Pastor, who represents the neighborhood, said she wanted Contreras to go back and work with the city’s historic preservation staff to design a home that is "more compatible with other nearby existing houses."
The other council members supported Pastor’s request unanimously and without discussion.
‘Impossible to build’
Contreras was livid following the vote. He said it means "we get to start over."
"It’s been like six-seven months ago that we started this process and now it gets kicked back. It’s impossible to build anything unless you’re getting forced to blend in," he said.
Contreras said he spent months negotiating with city staff prior to the appeal process to get the design to comply with staff’s requests. Now that process will begin again.
"The outrage from my end is that historic preservation staff are extremely well trained and that’s why this project was approved," he said. "I feel strongly that this was all based on public pressure."
He said the decision did set a precedent because it will discourage him and other "innovative preservationists."
"If the goal was to censor me from downtown, it’s worked. Do you think I’m going to want to touch projects after this, knowing that the highly-trained staff has no influence whatsoever?" Contreras said. "All it is is Laura Pastor making the decision."
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