Chinese Cultural Center

For Sister Cities programs in the East Valley, the Chinese Cultural Center in Phoenix is a popular destination when they are entertaining guests visiting from China. But that site may be leveled unless an East Valley coalition can persuade the new owner to accept an $18-million cash offer to buy it.

An informal group calling itself the East Valley Cultural Coalition has come up with an $18 million cash offer in private money to buy the Chinese Cultural Center in Phoenix – the focus of a long-standing controversy involving a Scottsdale company.

For the past year the center’s fate has been tied up in court after 668 North LLC – a private equity subsidiary of multinational Truth North Cos. in Scottsdale – purchased 95 percent of the site in June 2017 for $10.5 million with the intention of removing the rare Chinese artifacts and converting the site into its company headquarters and a technology campus.

Protests by the Chinese-American community and multiple lawsuits ensued.

But now members of the coalition are offering True North a cash payment of $18 million to end the litigation and rescue the center.

“It’s an 80 percent profit margin for what he’s paid for it a year ago,” said Felicia Vandermolen, founder/CEO of Nitro Live Ice Creamery in Gilbert and group chairwoman. “If he sells, all the lawsuits go away without prejudice.”

Greeting visitors to the complex on 44th Street is a pair of pi xiu granite statues – mythical creatures of good luck and fortune made of hand-carved stone shipped to Phoenix from the same quarry that was used to build the Forbidden City in Beijing during the Ming dynasty.

For more than two decades, the center’s imperial-style roof tiles, prayer garden and woodwork crafted by master Chinese artisans stood as a representation of the country’s 5,000-year cultural history.

But that could soon come to an end if the East Valley coalition can’t make a deal.

The proposal was sent to David Tedesco, True North company founder. He has until Dec. 30 to accept the offer.

Company spokesman Jason Rose said last Thursday he had not seen the offer.

“We appreciate and respect the thoughts and good intentions of everybody in the community,” Rose said. “But this is something we’ve heard before and it turned out not to be the case. The property is not for sale.

“The owner has tried to work with numerous parties over more than a year and was willing at one point in time consider credible offers, but none were presented,” he added. “Any offers to buy it are just over a year too late.”

Rose said the owner last year laid out criteria for offers to be evaluated seriously, such as putting down earnest money and showing proof of funds.

“To date no one has been able to provide a credible offer,” he said. “And so, that time has come and gone.”

According to the East Valley group’s proposal, $8.9 million is in an account at First American Title Co. and the balance is held in two banks in cash and certificates of deposit. The funds can be wired immediately into escrow upon execution of the purchase agreement, she said.

Felicia Vandermolen said the group is willing to buy the center as is.

The owner had 14,000 square feet of the tile roof removed to fix leaks from a torrential downpour on Oct. 13. An injunction was filed to stop the work but was lifted by a judge in December. Rose said repairs are continuing on the roof .

Felicia Vandermolen said the coalition includes a number of prominent people such as former Diamondbacks player Junior Spivey and that they come from Gilbert, Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Fountain Hills, Anthem, Chandler and Santan. The group’s active members number 20.

“We are not doing it for notoriety,” said Rich Vandermolen, co-owner and president of Nitro Live as well as Felicia Vandermolen’s husband. “We are trying to help make a difference.”

He said with tension such as trade issues with China going on, the group wanted to save the center to bring about more cultural awareness.

“The Phoenix Cultural Center is a gift to us from China,” Felicia Vandermolen added.

She said China has ties with Gilbert, Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix, building cultural, educational and business relationships through the Sister Cities program. Gilbert’s sister city in China is Leshan, which the Vandermolens have visited.

Representatives from the Chinese sister cities to the Valley are brought to the Cultural Center for visits, according to Felicia Vandermolen. The center also has served as field trips for school children and Chinese cultural events.

She likened True North’s proposal to remove all the Chinese cultural and religious elements to that of knocking down the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Mesa Arizona Temple.

The owner last year offered a number of solutions – such as giving $100,000 toward relocating the Chinese Cultural Center elsewhere, preserving and relocating some of the sculptures and signs, and preserving the garden and making it available to the public during business hours.

Rose said the proposals take two parties willing to engage in preservation talks and that has not happened.

None of the options, though, are viable as far as Elizabeth Mann is concerned because the artisans and the materials are for the most part gone.

Mann and her company BNU Corp. developed the Cultural Center, a 26-acre commercial-condominium complex, from 1990-96. It also includes a medical center and town homes. Her money partner was COFCO, a Chinese-holding company, she said.

She later sold her interest and COFCO took over ownership and management of the property in 2008, which eventually ended up in True North’s hands, according to Mann.

The center, which opened in 1997, was a project of the Phoenix Public Art program and Mann wanted it as authentic as possible.

“As a developer, I built it as a gift to the city because I am grateful,” said Mann, who emigrated from China. “I came here with $10 in my pocket.”

Mann hired Ye Juhua, the chief Chinese architect, who helped create a Ming-dynasty courtyard at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York.

She also hired craftsmen, whose ancestors built the Forbidden City, to install the Center’s tile roof and build the prayer garden, featuring replicas from five Chinese cities.

Mann traveled to China a number of times to go over plans and inspect the quality of materials to be used at the Center.

She and a Phoenix city official later went to China to secure special visas to bring back 30 master craftsmen from four different trades.

Every craftsman had to be vegetarian, pray and go through a ritual every day, according to Mann.

Work for them began at 4 a.m. due to the hot Phoenix sun. The artisans painstakingly drilled holes and hand-tied the tiles with wire onto the roof of the Center’s buildings. The tiles were made out of a special purple clay, the same used for China’s renowned purple clay tea pots.

More than 4 million clay tiles were made in China in factories that no longer exist, but only 1 million were hand-picked and glazed with melted-down turquoise, giving it a rich yellow color, and shipped to Phoenix.

Yellow is a symbol of royalty and no buildings outside those of the Forbidden City – the imperial palace for 24 emperors – were allowed to have yellow-tiled roofs.

The craftsmen also assembled all the hand-carved wood pieces in the garden, using a thousand-year-old technique to interlock them without one single nail.

“Everything was handmade,” said Mann, who made it clear she is not a member of the East Valley Cultural Coalition, just a retired grandmother.

The center contains replicas of the ceremonial arch to the Confucius Temple in Nanjing, West Lake in Hangzhou and the Surging Waves Pavilion, the oldest existing classical garden in SuZhou. The original is protected as a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and can no longer be replicated, according to Mann.

Nothing at the center can be replaced, as the techniques and materials are long gone.

For example, the mountain where the granite came from is now off-limits by the Chinese government, and the craftsmen have either died or retired along with their skills because their children no longer practice the trade, Mann said.  

“Everything there has a story,” she said. “This is public art.”  

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