January 2023
Replacing City Hall
High-Profile Mixed-Use Proposal Ignites Controversy

You can’t fight City Hall, as the old adage goes, but you just might be able to tear it down.

As Prescott City Hall is relocating to the former bank building at 201 N. Montezuma St., several developers competed to redevelop the old location. The City Council chose Stroh Architecture from two finalists to buy and redevelop the 1.3-acre site. The winning proposal, dubbed Prescott Common, involves demolishing the 1962 building and replacing it with a five-story mixed-use complex to include 20,000 square feet of restaurant, retail and apartment space. The top two floors will feature 100 hotel rooms and 50 apartments. The final bid was $2.5 million, also offered by finalist Silo Holdings, which developed the Hilton Garden Inn downtown.

Stroh Architecture, known primarily for modern brick-and-steel designs, has built several public structures around Prescott, from the Prescott Public Library expansion to the Simmons Community to the Antelope Hills North Clubhouse addition, as well as a renovation of the Prescott Resort. The firm has also preserved several historic buildings, including the Rock House at Yavapai College, the Alarcon House and the Goldwater Building on the highly desirable Courthouse Square location nearby.

According to the city’s Request for Proposal guidelines, the project should be completed within three years of City approval to move forward. The project is currently in the refining stages, which involves several steps by City commissions.

A rendering of the project’s preliminary design was released to the public in November. As reported in The Daily Courier, public reaction reported by Mayor Phil Goode included a dozen complaints about it looking too “modern.” Many comments on social media have been negative as well, but more generally it has been well received. City Council and staff are working with Stroh to create a more ‘historic’ look.

Next Steps

First the project will require review by the Prescott Preservation Commission, probably in January after Principal Architect Doug Stroh adjusts the design. We should note that he has served as chair of that body. The architectural elements of the original design already include both historic and modern aspects, with terracotta and blonde brick integrated into the facade.

Next the project will go before the Planning and Zoning Commission in late January or February. After that review of the contract and design, the project will go back to Council with recommendations.

Third, Council will have to determine whether the proposed height is acceptable. At 60 feet it’s above the usual code limit of 50 feet, so approval will require a special-use permit. For context the Hilton Garden Inn is 55 feet tall.

Why not preserve it?

The old City Hall has been problematic for years because it couldn’t house all City departments in one place and support adequate customer service. It needed major renovations that Council considers too costly. In April 2021 the City Facilities Optimization and Property Usage Commission, an eight-member board, proposed building on a new site or purchasing a building.

Parker Anderson, a local historian who has written several books on local history, objected to the new building on the site of the first lot ever sold within the city in 1864. He wrote about Old City Hall on the Sharlot Hall Museum website, and also contributed an opinion piece to the Courier about why it should be preserved. Anderson argued, “The only people who will use this complex are wealthy tourists with six- and seven-digit bank accounts.” With restaurants, hotel rooms and apartments in the complex that may seem a stretch, but for a historian the loss of a 60-year-old building must sting, regardless of its major problems.

Bids closed on the property in May this year. Unlike the Elks Theatre, which was lovingly restored by a nonprofit group over years, no group stepped up to preserve the building when it went on the market in November 2021. It will face the wrecking ball in a matter of months.

Council responds

Council members have been upbeat about the project and its potential, expressing confidence that the public will respond more positively to the next design iteration.

Councilman Brandon Montoya said, “I think it’s a good project and I think in contrast to the other proposals, it seemed more community-minded than not. … There’s a lot of talk about keeping things local, and this achieved it with a local architect and a local construction company and developer. If we’re facing an economic downturn, keeping it local will bolster our economy.”

Montoya notes that the national trend in development is to make buildings more “people-focused” and accessible on foot, like the Courthouse Plaza, and he thinks the project is “a step in the right direction.”

Councilwoman Connie Cantelme said Council got some pushback on the modern look of the design, but explains that it was simply conceptual and will be altered to fit in better. “Construction is one of the most heavily regulated businesses,” Cantelme said. “They’re working on it now and are amenable to the changes being requested.”

Councilman Clark Tenney said, “I’m pretty enthusiastic about it. There are some folks who are sad that the old building is going away, but they should take a look at my office. There are brown streaks going down the wall from leaks when it rains. The basement floods, and there’s mold in the building.”

Annual maintenance and repairs were adding up to $240,000, says Tenney, who compared the building to an old car. “When someone bought it, it was great, but now it’s not worth keeping up.” The new building was worth the investment to make it work for the City and house most of its departments, he said, adding that he’s confident the Prescott Common project will “fit in” near the plaza.

“It will benefit the City in terms of tax base and in terms of shopping, restaurants and housing,” Tenney said. Another benefit is that the company will build in public space. “That made it very attractive to the City Council.”

Councilman Steve Sischka said that Prescott Common will create a new entertainment space in Prescott. “I think that that’s a forgotten corner in Prescott’s downtown area,” Sischka said. “What they’re planning will bring focus to that corner, like the Hilton Garden Inn brought to the end of Sheldon.”

The local team is invested in Prescott and how the project will impact downtown, Sischka points out: “I expect from their other projects that it will have the character of downtown, and that means that it’s warm and that it’s welcoming.” While some people have expressed a preference that Prescott Common look like other buildings on the Plaza, Sischka said, “What I say is you don’t want another Palace or another St. Michael’s because we already have those. They’re not trying to make it historical.”

Sischka said he would vote for the variance to allow the project to rise to 60 feet because that makes it financially feasible, adding that most projects of that type are at least 70 feet high, but the developers and architect “split the difference” to try to compromise and come closer to the 50-foot standard that the City has established. “I’ve found that no matter how good a presentation of a project is made, people come out of the woodwork against it,” Sischka said.

Councilwoman Cathey Rusing said, “I think this is going to be a legacy project. It’s a very prominent corner of the downtown and we want to make sure we get as much public input as possible on it. I’d like to see a timeline on the city website. We also need to decide what to do with the cowboy statue — should it stay where it is on the corner and be part of the building, or should we move it to the new City Hall?”

She noted that the federal building and post office across the street is tall as well, and she thinks, “that’s going to balance it out.” She recently attended a conference related to city development and said many are struggling with “blight,” so having a “vibrant downtown” is something Prescott wants to encourage through projects like Prescott Common.

Seeking the win-win

Doug Stroh said that negotiations between the City and the parties involved in the development are moving slowly, but he’s “optimistic” that the terms of purchase will be completed by the end of January. Then the project will go before the Preservation Commission and the Planning and Zoning Commission and get its water-allotment review. He doesn’t expect final approval before July or August.

“It’s one of those kinds of properties where we’re trying to do our best to please everyone,” Stroh said. “Our goal is to create a new and refreshing design for Prescott and to fit in with the historic character of downtown.” The brick, stone and steel building’s redesigned rendering will be presented in January or February, he says.

Building Prescott Common will “expand” the Courthouse Plaza to the south, offering a common public area 50 feet wide and 450 feet long. Stroh anticipates that this will be “an active area,” with live music, food and beverages, and sitting areas.

“Density is important to make everything work; the developer needs the height to have the 100 apartments and 100 to 150 hotel rooms,” Stroh said. He notes that the project would still be twelve feet lower than the Courthouse itself, which is why the 50-foot standard is considered low relative to industry standards. “We can’t afford to sprawl the downtown area much,” Stroh said. “Density is the way cities are going.”

Stroh, who has lived in Prescott for 32 years, said he’d like to see Prescott embrace height changes so that it becomes a city where young people can afford to live because of increased numbers of available apartments. “If you look at Flagstaff, historically the downtown was in the three- to four-story range and what they’re currently doing is five- to seven-story towers at the perimeter of downtown to create a lot of density, which energizes the area,” Stroh said, adding that he hopes this project becomes a catalyst for Prescott to change its height limit, because “50 feet is arbitrary.”

“My job is to try to make as many people happy as possible. I think the end result will be a great addition.”

Journalist Toni Denis is a frequent contributor.

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