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Overview: State of the Chinese Cultural Center

Hundreds gathered to protest the sale and possible renovation to the Phoenix Chinese Cultural Center. Credit: Melina Zuniga/The Arizona Republic

By Roland Murphy for Arizona Builder’s Exchange

Times, markets and even communities all change, and in an area like Phoenix, they change quickly.

Built just 20 years ago, the 170KSF Phoenix Chinese Cultural Center was hailed for its unique architectural elements and as a connection point between Phoenix and China for both tourists and businesses. While the architecture of tiled roofs and traditional timber aesthetics were certainly distinctive in a field of modern glass and concrete, the attraction factor never quite took hold. Tenant businesses failed and vacancies increased, with even long-time anchor tenant Super L Ranch Market announcing in August it planned to relocate to Scottsdale.

As a result of shifts in market forces and growth in the area of 44th Street and Van Buren, True North Companies, by way of 668 North, LLC, purchased the site in June for $10.5M and announced plans to renovate it as a new headquarters and employee campus. In an announcement, 668 North cited the project as a revitalization that would have “a notable economic impact for the city.”

Unfortunately, it also had an impact on the local Chinese community and other supporters of the center, who claim they were caught off guard by the purchase and renovation plans.

Protests sprung up against True North, who expressed a desire to retain key elements of the center’s character and its value to the community. Proponents of the center undertook fundraising campaigns to buy the site back.

As of last week a petition to save the center had drawn nearly 16,000 signatures.

668 North’s Proposal

In its announcement and explanation, 668 North explained its intention to “preserve major portions of the site and relocate others.” Among the proposals the company has made are:

  • Preserving the center’s block-long garden at 44th Street and making it available for public use during business hours
  • Preserving or relocating nearly two dozen sculptures associated with the site, as well as other architectural or artistic elements
  • Donation of unused roof tiles to a future alternative location
  • Preserving or relocating the center’s welcome gate, and
  • Providing up to 8KSF for use by a non-profit as a community cultural center for three years or until a new permanent location is established.

The company also recommended Hance Park as a potential alternative location since it’s downtown – the traditional hub of the Chinese community – and adjacent to the Irish Cultural Center, which would help cement the area as a center for diversity and multiculturalism.

The company pledged to contribute $100K to the Hance Park Conservancy toward the establishment of a Chinese Cultural Center.

Barring that option, 668 North also suggested two sites in Mesa, adding it would still preserve as many major components of the center as it could until other organizations want to use them.

Study Proposed, but Value Questioned

Opponents of the company’s plan pleaded their case to the Phoenix City Council last week to save the center. While the council declined to step in directly, it did vote 8-0 to let residents commission a study of the center’s historical impact.

No timeline was set for the study, nor was there any mention of cost, according to an article in The Arizona Republic.

While there is no question about the impact and contribution of the Chinese community on the city and the state, there is ample doubt as to whether a case can be made for the historical significance of the center itself.

The site was only developed as the Chinese Cultural Center in 1997, and a property that young traditionally has a hard time gaining acceptance as a historically significant site.

Also, as pointed out in 668 North’s announcement, the center is only 26 percent occupied, and only 6 percent of the tenants are Chinese-related. Use of the property for cultural events has also declined significantly over the years, with the last Chinese New Year festival taking place there in 2012.

In an opinion piece last week, Republic columnist Abe Kwok intimated it may be the architectural iconography and a sense of misplaced and optimistic nostalgia fueling the opposition to True North Companies plans.

He pointed out most the Chinese and other Asian residents have long since moved to the East Valley and away from downtown, and that the center never reached its potential, even in its heyday. “There was no cultural or senior center as a magnet, no museum or exhibition space showcasing the history or significance of the Chinese in Phoenix, no dedicated space for community meetings, Kwok said.

He added the current options for the community are to accept the compromises True North has proposed, come up with additional funds to purchase more of the features they want, engage in a protracted legal battle or attempt to raise funds and buy the property outright.

“The bigger question, though,” Kwok said, “would be how to forge and maintain a cultural center that never was.”

In the meantime, the city council’s decision to allow a study did not put any restriction on the company’s decision to move ahead with its redevelopment plans at its own discretion.

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