Featured Story:Rethink, Repurpose, Listen

By Jack DeBartolo III
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Rethink, Repurpose, Listen

A leading architect in Phoenix shares his vision for embracing the past while building for the future

Though incorporated only 134 years ago, Phoenix is now the sixth largest city in the nation, home to nearly 1.6 million people within its boundaries. Compared to her older “top six” siblings – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia – Phoenix is geographically the second largest, with over 500 square miles of incorporated land, while accommodating the lowest density, with just under 3,000 people per square mile.

Comparatively, Phoenix is a moody teenager desperately trying to grow up. The fast pace of recent development and enormous growth, in a relatively short timeframe, likens this city to a gawky teen, complete with a “body” that is awkwardly larger than its current level of control and poise can effectively manage. This teen, though physically large enough, is certainly not yet a “full-grown” metropolis.

There have been several rapid-fire population booms in the short history of Phoenix, bringing large numbers of transplants to the Valley from all over the nation. With each infusion of inhabitants, coupled with the inevitable increase in available money and city tax-base, there has typically been a quick, from-the-hip, rapid development response within the built environment that has seemingly been more concerned with hastily providing for the influx of new inhabitants and less concerned with long-term strategies implemented for proper development and city growth. The hungry child simply took in whatever it could devour within reach, without much thought for what a diet of better “nutritional value” might do to bring about healthy adulthood.

Phoenix is a moody teenager desperately trying to grow up.

This “just-in-time” approach to nurturing the urban growth has resulted in the haphazard, far-reaching, unconnected development that typifies the urban Phoenix landscape. It has previously always been so easy to buy cheap land and build cheaply; it has always been more appealing to move outward than to remain in the developing interior. The result of this attitude is an infrastructure that is now physically massive and over-stretched. Yet, we are faced with a cityscape full of holes, empty lots and vacant buildings; the result of construction in a time when it seemed like there was no end to the growing demand.

With the downward trends of the recent economic situation, the cost to the city and to the building developers to continue to expand outward is unable to be met. A shift is occurring, where cities, owners, and developers are seeing the value of remaining closer to the interior, developing new solutions to old problems. Today, more clients are considering the reuse of an older (relative term) structure to meet a new need, instead of buying more land and building something new. This paradigm shift is positive and has the potential for making a richer, more sustainable city – where old skating rinks become churches, old grocery stores and machine shops become restaurants, and warehouse buildings become high schools. Phoenix, like her older siblings, may finally become a city with stories and layers, history and connections, use and reuse.


New City Church (photo by Bill Timmerman)

Adaptive reuse is an old term, but it is currently being applied to the language of a city filled with buildings that were never intended to be repurposed, much less slated for preservation. Great cities make use of great old buildings, but they have been historically constructed of authentic, old, durable materials that have integrity and honesty in their use and function. The real challenge to the Phoenix design community comes when we are faced with reusing buildings that were not constructed to outlive their initial use, when the construction materials were based on minimal investment and lowest initial cost. Architects, designers, and shapers of the urban realm must search for ways to root out and find quality, preserve the richness that we do have, reuse what we can, and re-purpose that which has value.

Despite the young age, Phoenix still has a history and a culture that, though fragile and delicate, is in tact and dotted with several significant historical events and important architectural achievements. Already some, in the name of quick development and lower initial costs, have been threatened or have even been erased from cultural memory. The city must elevate the value being placed on architecture as the “mother art.” Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Without an architecture of our own, we have no soul of our own civilization.”

It is critical that designers, architects, developers, and planners RETHINK the nature of adaptive reuse as a wonderful way to REPURPOSE the rich and delicate history of our city, before we carelessly consider removal. Reuse may not always be the appropriate option, but in all cases, it makes sense that it should be seriously considered and tested before moving forward with a new project. Lorenzo Perez, of Venue Projects, (one of the creative minds behind the Windsor/Churn project on Central Avenue) offered a wise piece of advice: “Inspired re-development is enhancing communities, stabilizing neighborhoods, cultivating art and culture, incubating local businesses and renewing life in old properties.” This is an important lesson when we think about the mid-century architecture of Phoenix from 1945 to 1975. “Landmarks anchor us into both time and place,” said Alison King of ModernPhoenix.net about the rich area known as “Architects Row” at Central Avenue and Camelback Road, where the recent revival of several of these “landmarks” have resulted in thriving businesses growing out of adapted structures.

When asked if he would like a new building or an old building for a restaurant, Chris Bianco, the award winning chef known for his famous Pizzeria Bianco, said, “I would always prefer the funky old one.” Life becomes richer when things tie into and relate to other things; it is powerful and transformative when old things inform the way new things are done.

It is powerful and transformative when old things inform the way new things are done.

The reuse of an existing facility has many layers – it makes references to a past and to a future – superimposed one over the other and creating a potential for something far richer than the often-typical “one-dimensional” nature of new architecture often tends to be. When an old space can be revived to take on a new use, both the past and the future use of the building are celebrated and honored. Restaurants have often led the way in this pursuit. The well-known La Grande Orange restaurant and grocery, as well as the neighboring Postino, adapted inside the old Arcadia Post Office, were ably transformed in the mid-1990s.


La Grande Orange (photo courtesy of LGO Hospitality)

Typically, it takes a team of sensitive and creative people who know their discipline well and can collaborate as they LISTEN to the old structure, straining to understand what it can become and what it already is. This initial “reading” of the building is one of the most critical steps in the adaptive reuse process of design and needs to happen early and carefully by a team of experts. The existing building will provide significant clues to the new use of the spaces. For example, in a recent adaptive reuse of the 1963 Arizona Bank building, which was transformed into the new Vig Uptown restaurant, the precast concrete vault was discovered under layers of remodeled cover-ups and celebrated as the wine storage area in the middle of the new restaurant, Chris Bianco said while discussing the added value brought about when creative designers, builders, and engineers sit around a table and collaborate to come up with powerful reuse strategies for existing facilities. The western mentality of forcibly building or making whatever you want ­– or getting “raspberries in January,” as Bianco calls it – is a wasteful and shallow approach compared to rich design that locks a building to its place, history, and time. Bianco is passionate about reusing old buildings as a way of celebrating what it was and what it wants to be – even if the space is “imperfectly-perfect,” or in his words, “so not-cool that it’s cool.” It requires looking deeply at the structure and evaluating its strengths and weaknesses, analyzing its qualities, and using excellent design to accentuate the finest elements of the structure.

A critical step is demolition and clean up. Once it has been decided to reuse the building, Bob Hardison of Hardison/Downey Construction, which renovated ASU’s Manzanita Hall, said, “It is highly recommended that you clean out and ‘scrape back’ the old structure, before you fully conceive its new use.” Often this can involve a process of removing years of buildup and layers of added ‘inexpensive’ elements such as lay-in ceilings, or layers of vinyl composite tile, in order to reveal and expose the essential ‘bones’ of the structure. This is often where we find the soul of the building. We take it back to its origin and can see the form, material, and light. This can allow us to see the value it may bring to the next generation of use. Often, even mediocre buildings from the ‘40s and ‘50s have elegantly simple structural systems or contain beautiful rationality in their order and making. These unique elements, especially compared to the less endowed lower-initial-cost (read “cheap”) buildings of our recent history, can become the critical gesture of a project. It is vital that these evaluations happen early enough in the process to allow them to influence and shape the new program and new use.

Adaptive reuse has the power to transform the fabric of our city.

As Phoenix looks to the future, we must begin to re-think building for the future. True sustainability must include the idea that quality buildings, while using more sustainable materials, must first be constructed to outlast their initial use. Sustainability must have an eye toward a future beyond the initial purpose, allowing the idea of sustainability to be economical, cultural, historical, and material. By applying rational thinking to the design and development process, it will inspire others to re-use the structure and design buildings that reference their surrounding context, both natural and urban. The role of existing structures will continue to change as the city transforms and matures – they will be a landmark and a piece of history, as well as the future – and they will become increasingly more valuable as we see the land below them become more precious and the cost of new construction continue to rise.

Adaptive reuse has the power to transform the fabric of our city. If used appropriately, it cannot help but add richness and depth. If we reuse the quality structures we currently have and build new structures with integrity and honesty about their longer life – the built realm will contribute to the richness of our city. It will nurture our young city to develop beyond the teen years and become a productive and mature adult, as the largest southwestern city in the nation.

An earlier version of this article was originally published in FORUM, a digital magazine produced by AIA Arizona. It has been adapted and republished with permission. Header photo by Bill Timmerman.

Jack DeBartolo III

Jack DeBartolo III, AIA is the principal architect for DeBartolo Architects.

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