Speech Therapy

Richard Florida jump-starts downtown dialogue

While no one seemed to disagree with the desirability of a bustling, action-packed urban center, a few said they doubt that things will change. "I love downtown, but I'd never invest in downtown Phoenix," said Brian Matlock, a 41-year-old real estate investor. "I wouldn't build here -- it's too risky. The city needs to create an incentive for small business to be here."

Louisa Stark, executive director of the Community Housing Partnership, which is headquartered near downtown, wondered what would happen to low-income families displaced by the Creative Class. "Mexican migrants have told me, Finally, things are happening downtown, and now the city wants to bulldoze our houses,'" she said. "Are we substituting one kind of diversity for another?"

Kris Lowrey, who lives in the Fillmore Lofts, said Florida was preaching to the choir. "He wasn't speaking to the people who can effect change."

Richard Florida, the Elvis of urban planning.
Matt Garcia
Richard Florida, the Elvis of urban planning.

Or maybe he was. Charla McCoy, City of Phoenix Village Planner for Encanto and North Mountain, said she came to the lecture with at least 10 fellow planners. "The political body that's here tonight is significant," she said. "I'm sure this will be a major topic in the city planning department."

Choir, schmire, said one Valley hotshot. "We need to preach to the choir," said Scott Jacobson, executive director of Valley Leadership. "And the choir needs to rehearse and to be brought together constantly. There are groups that are trying to get things done but that haven't been in the same room together until now." Jacobson said that continuing the conversations is most important now. He's involved in planning dialogue sessions between local leaders and the young, energetic Creative Class. "It's not about Richard Florida -- it's about the ideas and what spawns out of those."

The need for density, which Florida called the biggest challenge for Phoenix, became obvious that night. At 9 p.m., when the event let out, the streets were empty. And the dearth of small businesses -- the bakeries, flower shops, coffee houses and restaurants vital to any downtown -- became embarrassingly obvious an hour after that, when it was time for Florida to find dinner. (He wound up at My Florist Cafe near Seventh Avenue and McDowell.)

The morning after the event, Florida said it was a pleasant surprise to see such a large turnout of people interested in stimulating individual creativity rather than investing in mega-projects. To him, that signals a change from Phoenix's history as a conservative business town.

"I think there's a wide awareness on the part of people here that there's a new approach to tapping and harnessing human energy," he said. "Now the question is, will the people who have traditionally run Phoenix allow that energy to manifest itself and turn into a new form of development, or will they continue with more traditional strategies?

"That really is an open question, and in the answer to that lies your future."

Additional reporting by Jill Koch.

E-mail michele.laudig@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8497.

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