Principle & Principals At Work, And Not, With Phoenix’s Chinese Cultural Center
During the 2006 election season many city officials throughout Arizona, including Phoenix, campaigned against Proposition 207. They warned many things why the “Private Property Rights Protection Act” should be defeated. Chief among them were that providing too much individual protection for homeowners and commercial property owners would hamstring municipal redevelopment and historic preservation efforts. Voters rejected such arguments and Proposition 207 passed with a sizable 65% of the vote.
This is an important history lesson as some want to suspend the law and dictate what the new owner of the twenty-year old Chinese Cultural Center near 44th and Van Buren can do with their property.
But not all.
As a mob rained down on Phoenix City Hall and demanded Mayor Greg Stanton and his fellow politicians lay fetal rather than display fidelity to state law, the city’s Planning Director Alan Stephenson took a more courageous tact, no matter how uncomfortable and inconvenient.
Having laid out in his staff report why Phoenix could not and should not circumvent clear private property rights embedded in Proposition 207, Stephenson’s knees did not get weak even when confronted by a full house of angry Chinese Americans. He didn’t win an award for being the most popular that day but his sobriety on the subject was necessary to avoid groupthink.
Stephenson understood that it would be a nice thing to keep a Chinese Cultural Center even if the Chinese owner and developer of the property abandoned it, and sold it, in 2016. But he also understood that someone needed to be the big boy in the room as politicians kowtowed.
After all, Phoenix has never designated a site for historic preservation against the property owner’s wishes, not even for the David Wright House in Arcadia. It’s never designated a site as such that’s only twenty years old either. And when it comes to Proposition 207’s clear mandate on such things you can work to change it, but you can’t ignore it until then.
This leads us to a few other principles and principals.
When Rawhide left, and left a hole in Scottsdale’s western heritage after a duration similar to the Chinese Cultural Center, residents understood it to be unfortunate but not worthy of upending the rule of law to harm the property owner.
When Monti’s La Casa Vieja in Tempe said that’s a wrap the 100-year old home of Carl Hayden was left untouched, but not even the 50-year old stuff that surrounded it.
When dissidents started this quixotic quest they asked for the garden along 44th Street to be “saved,” which it is now being, along with the preservation of a number of other items both on and off-site, even though the new property owner doesn’t have to. Now that’s not enough.
When people say that other elements besides the garden are irreplaceable are they sure some, if not all of them can’t be procured today on Alibaba.com?
When the Phoenix City Council votes to “study” the matter, a precursor to a Proposition 207 violation, and then accepts private funds from a special interest that is driving the outcome of the study how is that showing integrity the new owner purportedly lacks?
When opposition is being led by a person whose last claim to fame was having her office raided by the FBI for purported development fraud we ask ourselves if the real motivation here is not preservation of a Cultural Center but to use politics to bully an acquisition in order to collect more fees as was controversially done for the Phoenix Mart project in Casa Grande?
With issues like these it can be helpful to remember the epic dialogue of Sir Thomas More in a Man For All Seasons, the tale of a refusal to bend to King Henry VIII.
Sir Thomas More: You threaten like a dockside bully.
Thomas Cromwell: How should I threaten?
More: Like a minister of state, with justice.
Cromwell: Oh, justice is what you're threatened with.
More: Then I am not threatened.
Alice: Arrest him!
More: Why, what has he done?
Margaret More: He's bad!
More: There is no law against that.
Will Roper: There is! God's law!
More: Then God can arrest him.
Alice: While you talk, he's gone!
More: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!
Roper: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast– man's laws, not God's– and if you cut them down—and you're just the man to do it—do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety's sake.
Ultimately, the story of the Chinese Cultural Center will be that calmer heads will prevail in the forms of Alan Stephensons, judges or others, and that Arizona laws will not be laid flat for a center that while interesting, has never succeeded.
As Arizona Republic columnist Abe Kwok recently wrote, here’s a link, the property has long since ceased operating as such a cultural center, if it ever did at all. Where once downtown Phoenix was the neighborhood for the Chinese community, in more recent years it has migrated to form vibrant stores and neighborhoods in the East Valley. This left the “Chinese Cultural Center” in no man’s land. And now having been given up on by no less than the Chinese developer itself, it’s someone else’s land. And that’s a point adults should understand. Voters sure did.