Operation Mickey Mouse

Could downtown Phoenix get more soulless? Yep! Check out Jerry Colangelo's secret plan.

And all this presumes that what Colangelo and the other movers and shakers want for this city's downtown is a massive shopping mall.

Jerry Colangelo already controls operations at the 5,000-seat Dodge Theatre, the 18,400-seat America West Arena and the 49,000-seat Bank One Ballpark. Despite more than $500 million in public and private investment in the facilities, they have failed to stimulate the urban revival that Colangelo and other promoters promised.

Jerry Colangelo refuses to divulge exactly what's going on with his downtown scheme.
Jackie Mercandetti
Jerry Colangelo refuses to divulge exactly what's going on with his downtown scheme.
Jerde built a six-block-long canopy of lights in downtown Las Vegas.
John Dougherty
Jerde built a six-block-long canopy of lights in downtown Las Vegas.

Colangelo, managing partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Phoenix Suns, is now saying again that downtown Phoenix is on the threshold of becoming a major urban center.

And there is reason to believe he is right: A $100 million biotechnology complex is under construction, a light-rail project is planned, a $600 million expansion of the Civic Plaza was approved recently, a $300 million, city-owned, 1,000-room downtown hotel is proposed, and -- most important -- Arizona State University has announced that it will build a downtown campus for 12,000 students.

The question is, what shape should this new downtown take?

Interestingly, while Phoenix's arts community and an enlightened cadre of small-business people and academics have been arguing for a diverse downtown that would attract local residents and not just tourists, Colangelo and a handful of downtown power brokers have secretly turned to Jerde Partnership to develop ideas on how central Phoenix should evolve.

Last spring, private business interests here -- led by Colangelo -- paid Jerde several hundred thousand dollars to prepare an initial study on how hundreds of acres of downtown might be developed to include thousands of new housing units and vast areas of retail and commercial projects.

The sports-and-entertainment mogul is now spearheading an effort to raise another million-dollars-plus to employ an urban designer (Jerde is obviously in the front seat) to move forward on a master plan for such a development.

Colangelo and the others -- including members of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership and Phoenix Community Alliances -- are tightlipped about exactly what's going on. While insiders say the secrecy is about staving off the kind of real estate speculation that has paralyzed development in parts of the downtown core for decades, Colangelo's critics say it is about giving the power brokers time to corner the market before presenting a master plan to a compliant Phoenix City Council.

City officials, meanwhile, are expressing ignorance about what the project would entail. Even Mayor-elect Phil Gordon only received a superficial briefing earlier this month.

Colangelo tells New Times that anybody who wants to find out more about the strategy for the mega-development can kick in money for the master plan. Otherwise, they can wait and see what gets cooked up by Colangelo and the other tycoons.

"There is going to be all kinds of input, but we need more money to take it to the next step," Colangelo says.

The mayor-elect says Colangelo has assured him that if the master plan is finally developed, many facets of the downtown community will be involved in implementing it.

"I'm excited in the sense they said, Let's come up with a plan that's inclusive,'" Gordon says.

But others wonder how any master plan backed by Colangelo and drafted by the likes of Jerde could call for anything more than a prefab monstrosity like CityWalk.

Some critics also question Colangelo's motives. They say he may be trying to bolster sagging revenue at his sports venues by locating a soulless yet cash-producing mega-project nearby.

This claim may not be all that far-fetched, since both Colangelo's sports franchises are struggling. The Diamondbacks are awash in debt and slashing salaries, which was highlighted recently by trade rumors involving pitching ace Curt Schilling. And the Suns, which used to sell out America West Arena in the Charles Barkley days, are now unable to keep seats filled.

It's true that, if history is any indication, a Jerde shopping project would inject downtown with more tourist cash. Though Phoenix is not the same kind of tourist mecca as Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas or Orlando, it does do a very respectable tourist and convention business, particularly in the winter months.

What it wouldn't do, say many urban experts, is turn downtown into a vibrant urban core for its own citizens. It would be about as far from being a cool urban landscape as a big-city downtown could get.

Arizona State University architecture professor and urban designer Nan Elin says downtown Phoenix could benefit from a carefully designed master plan that would trigger housing and retail and commercial development. But she has serious concerns that Jerde is the company to be entrusted with such an important task.

A master plan, she says, "could be a good thing if it is done right. But if it is done like a theme park -- a big Horton Plaza or a CityWalk -- then it would be a disaster."

Elin says Jerde doesn't do "real urban design with neighborhoods where people live and people go to school."

"This is a city," she says of downtown Phoenix. "This is different."

Greg Esser, co-owner of the downtown eye lounge gallery, agrees. He says a successful downtown must be much more than a tourist-driven shopping mall.

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