Though some abandoned warehouses sit unprotected, their history crumbling with their walls, the Phoenix Warehouse District draws the attention of the downtown community as it welcomes in numerous tech startups and entrepreneurs.
Despite all the hype surrounding new startups, and the recent rebranding with the “WD” logo scattered about the area, Michael Levine, artist and historic preservation developer, thinks that the attention is in the wrong place. “The truth of the warehouse district is that the only thing that matters is saving the buildings,” Levine said. He is frustrated that many of the people in the area are not there for the betterment of it, but rather “they’re there for their own devices.”
Levine also said the area needs an architectural critic and design guidelines, because “the people who are coming in making buildings are making faux warehouses…where the entire façade, the entire structure that you see is only a year and half old, and it looks ‘warehouse-y,’ but it’s crapitecture.” Levine moved to Phoenix in 1990 and has since worked to save seven buildings in the warehouse area from being demolished. Phoenix Historic Preservation Officer, Michelle Dodds, called Levine the Lorax of the Warehouse area. “The Lorax speaks for the trees; he speaks for the warehouses.” “Michael was the pathbreaker,” said Jon Talton, current economics columnist for The Seattle Times and former columnist at The Arizona Republic. “He had the chops and the skills to take old buildings and rehab them.”
Levine’s love of old buildings started at an early age. In his late teens, Levine sold fences where he grew up in Brooklyn, and would drive around finding inspiration in all the potential he saw in the boarded up, beaten down buildings. Levine went to school for architecture, and later switched to fine arts. “I didn’t want to be a historic preservation advocate,” Levine said. Speaking frankly, he added, “I almost wish I didn’t do it. I mean if I focused on my own art I might be better off.”
He said his original business plan was to make enough money in manufacturing so he could then make all the art he wanted. The way he got into historic preservation was unlike many of the other developers of downtown. “It was all organic,” Levine said. “No one else was saving the buildings and I also had the skill and opportunity and a crew of talented guys around me, and the tools I was using for my sculpture and my art were the same tools that could be used to renovate buildings.”He treats the structures like he treats his art.“The buildings are large sculptures to me,” Levine said. “I don’t treat them like architecture, I treat them as faithfully peeling back the years of neglect that came on the buildings.”
Courtney Klein, CEO of Seed Spot, a non-profit organization dedicated to entrepreneurship, talked about how the preserved character of the building Levine renovated and donated to them, adds to the atmosphere of the work place.“There’s just a different element that feels much more creative and open,” Klein said. “It just creates, I think, a mental shift that you’re not in a traditional space and you don’t have to think or act in, you know, traditional ways.” Levine said, “there are these demarcations or flags that were planted, that, when the buildings are gone, just become stories.” The stories are what people connect to. There’s nothing architecturally special about the buildings themselves, he said. Local, provincial, modest and utilitarian are the terms Levine thinks most fitting for Phoenix architectural design.
“The best building in the warehouse area would be the worst building in any major metropolitan warehouse district. But that’s the beauty of it,” said Levine. “That from the humble beginnings, that Phoenix has continued to grow.” Despite the years of work and progress made, Levine still faces a struggle to preserve the history he so greatly values. Talton and Dodds also acknowledge an ongoing struggle.
“Historic preservation is never done in Phoenix,” said Talton. “Compared to bigger cities, Phoenix has a long way to go in valuing historic preservation and making it happen. It has a long way to go in drawing more developers who have the kind of skills that Michael has. And then, in doing infill that sits with the existing buildings in an urban way rather than a suburban way.”
“Our historic properties make us unique from other cities,” Dodds said. “It makes us special and we have a real important history to tell, and so, if we don’t protect that, then we lose part of who we are.”“I have a really simple line in my logic for architecture,” Levine said. “It’s all spikely,” he chuckled, using a phrase coined from his years in Brooklyn. “It’s all do the right thing.”