The city is starting a process that could change two Phoenix street names long criticized as offensive and racist. 

The Phoenix City Council is initiating a process to change the names of Robert E. Lee Street and Squaw Peak Drive in north Phoenix, Mayor Kate Gallego tweeted on Thursday.  

Both street names are widely considered offensive — squaw is a derogatory word for Native American women and Robert E. Lee was the commander of the Confederate Army in the Civil War.

“Working with my fellow council-members we’ve moved to initiate the process for changing the offensive Phoenix street names of Robert E. Lee St. and Squaw Peak Dr. We will work with neighbors and city staff to start this process on July 1,” the tweet read.

A 2017 policy change allows the city to rename derogatory or controversial street names without resident approval.

How the process will work

The City Council will vote on July 1 to initiate the process. If the council approves, the city Planning and Development Department would conduct a review of the street names, including considering comments from the U.S. Postal Service and the fire, police, water and street transportation departments.

Within 21 days of City Council's approval, the Planning and Development Department will mail the first notice to affected residents, businesses and property owners to inform them of the proposal to change the name of their street, according to the city policy.

Phoenix would be required to hold two community meetings for residents to have their say, but ultimately council members would decide.

Within 90 days of the request, an item on the proposed street name change will be placed on a council meeting agenda, the policy says.

Two weeks before that meeting, affected residents will received a second mail notice informing them of the date, time and location of the council meeting. 

If the name change is approved, city of Phoenix fees related to changing a street name would be waived for all affected property owners.

The Planning and Development Department would notify all needed services of the change, including the Postal Service and the city's police, fire, city clerk, finance, law, water services, street transportation and neighborhood services departments, the policy says.

The Maricopa County Recorder, Maricopa County Assessor, Arizona Public Service, Salt River Project, Southwest Gas, Cox Communications, Century Link, 

Federal Express, United Parcel Service, and private mapping services such as Google, Bing, Yahoo, MapQuest and Wide World of Maps also would be notified about the change, the policy says.

Citizen petition drive launched

Less than a week ago, Phoenix resident Ryan Wampler created a petition to change the name of Robert E. Lee Street. At the time of this writing, it had nearly 2,500 signatures.

Wampler said he created the petition as a small way to help the Black Lives Matter movement, which was reignited in Phoenix and all over the world after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.

“We need to show our fellow Black Phoenicians that we care about them and they shouldn’t have to be driving down a road seeing something that is so offensive to them, and a part of our history,” Wampler said.

No name change efforts for 3 years

Although Robert E. Lee Street has received a lot of new attention since the petition was created, it’s not the first time the issue has been brought to the City Council.

In June 2017, Phoenix City Council voted to 6-3 to amend its policy to allow them to rename streets with “offensive or derogatory” titles without the support of 75 percent or more of the affected property owners, as previously required.

However, the change was largely pushed by then-Mayor Greg Stanton, who specifically wanted to change Robert E. Lee Street and Squaw Peak Drive.

Stanton, now a U.S. representative, resigned to run for Congress soon after the policy change.

In the three years since, no attempt has been made by the council to change the names.

Under the amended policy, the mayor or three council members can ask the city manager to pursue changes in situations where a name might be deemed offensive or derogatory.

No requests have been made in the past three years, according to the City Manager's Office.

Mayor Kate Gallego was on the council at that time, and she voted to approve the policy. She had taken no action since then.

Asked why she is choosing to make this move now, Annie DeGraw, her communications director, sent an email response: “The Mayor has only been in office since March 2019 and has faced the challenges of COVID, homelessness, police modernizations, housing affordability, and more. She has worked to make huge changes in all those areas and has done more in the last year than many do in the entirety of their time in public service. This is the next area of change she is working on.”

District 1 Councilperson Thelda Williams said after the council last voted on the issue in 2017, it “disappeared” and wasn’t brought up again.

Williams was one of the three council members who voted against the change, saying at the time it was because residents in the area were concerned about what it would cost them to change their addresses. This time she said she would support it.

“I’m agreeable to it if the residents are agreeable to it,” Williams said. “I understand it’s complicated to change everything, but I also understand it’s a new day in the world, and if a majority of people want to change it, I will support it.”

What residents, advocates say

Neal Burgis, of Burgis Successful Solutions, has lived on Robert E. Lee Street with his wife for 27 years.

The street is a mostly residential northeast Phoenix roadway with about 85 homes, two small apartment complexes and a charter school.

Burgis said they originally had concerns about buying the home because of the street name, and they would be happy to see it changed.

Burgis runs his business from home, so the name change would mean he'd have to change his letterhead and get new business cards, but he said he wouldn't mind doing that.