Reporter Journal / William Hennelly

Phoenix Chinese center caught between pride, real estate realities

(China Daily USA) Updated: 2017-09-21 11:33

It may have been only 20 years old, but to some Chinese Americans in Phoenix, Arizona, the Chinese Cultural Center was worth a historical stand.

About 200 people attended the Phoenix City Council meeting on Sept 12, calling for the center's redevelopment to be blocked, reported.

That didn't happen, but they got something of a reprieve as the council voted 8-0 to allow a survey to determine the historical significance of the property on 44th Street.

The city preservation designation usually is for structures at least 50 years old, so the effort is a long shot, particularly because of the state's strong private-property rights.

More than 16,000 people have signed an online petition to save the center.

COFCO, the Chinese state-owned company, built the center in 1997, envisioning it as a tourist attraction that would connect Arizona and China.

COFCO sold the mostly unoccupied property in November 2016 to New York investment firm Angelo, Gordon & Co, which in turn sold it in June for $10.5 million to 668 North LLC, a real estate unit of True North Cos, a private-equity firm in Scottsdale.

True North is converting the building into new headquarters space for 350 of its employees. Also in True North's favor is the 2006 Arizona Proposition 207, the Private Property Rights Protection Act.

The 170,000-square-foot center has hosted festivals and the Phoenix Chinese Week. It had a dim sum restaurant, an Asian supermarket and a Chinese medicine shop. But occupancy rates dropped in recent years.

True North has pledged $100,000 to the Hance Park Coalition toward a new Chinese center at the Margaret T. Hance Park downtown and would relocate some of the center's elements such as the 30-foot tall paifang, or welcome gate, and keep the block-long garden at the current site.

"The craftsmanship used to design and install the roof tiles and wood timber is of ancient origin. These pieces can't be simply deconstructed like some modern-day Lego set," the Chinese United Association of Greater Phoenix said in a statement. The association did not respond to a request for comment.

Its president, Raymond Tang, submitted the preservation petition to the City Council on Aug 30.

"To suggest that the garden can be protected but the rest of the property and/or its Chinese relationship can be removed and relocated elsewhere is like a doctor saying we had to amputate your feet and hands but you are still whole," the statement said.

But in a Sept 12 editorial in the Arizona Republic, staffer Abe Kwok questioned the center's viability.

"Phoenix's true Chinatown where grocers, traders and restaurants thrived at the early part of the 20th century has long been razed and largely forgotten - in its place is a downtown with the Diamondbacks baseball park, the Suns basketball arena and commercial development," Kwok wrote.

"There are more folks in any typical week shopping, eating and commiserating at Mekong Plaza in Mesa or farther south at retail centers at the intersection of Dobson and Chandler. The Chinese Cultural Center has not been exceptionally important for a long time, if ever."

True North listed reasons why Hance Park would be more viable: It is near historic Chinese neighborhoods downtown; it is the site of the Chinese New Year festival; and the park houses other cultural attractions such as the Irish Cultural Center and Japanese Friendship Garden.

Jason Rose, a spokesman for True North, said in a release by the Rose+Moser+Allyn public and online relations firm that "the cultural center has struggled in recent years with numerous vacancies, which is why the property was for sale. Even at the peak in 2006 only 48 percent of the center had Chinese-related tenants.

"Today only 6 percent of tenants are Chinese-related, and the center overall is only 29 percent occupied. ... Additionally, there hasn't been a Chinese New Year festival held at the site since 2012."

Rose told China Daily that True North is moving forward with its plans, including the relocation of the center's items. He said "we never received a response to all of those items that we laid out, which means we'll kind of be in the unusual position of potentially saving and storing some of those items".

Contact the writer at

Most Popular
Hot Topics
The Week in Photos