Operation Mickey Mouse

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

A big question looming for the Diamondbacks is whether fans will continue to support a team of young, relatively low-paid players who may produce average teams for years to come.

The team drew 2.78 million fans last year, down from 3.2 million in 2002. Kendrick says attendance is projected to slip to about 2.6 million in the 2004 season.

At the beginning, Kendrick says Colangelo's philosophy was: win quickly and build up a fan loyalty that will remain during lean years.

Will the Suns gorilla be swinging from the  rafters of a downtown Phoenix development like L.A.'s CityWalk ?
Jackie Mercandetti
Will the Suns gorilla be swinging from the rafters of a downtown Phoenix development like L.A.'s CityWalk ?

"If we have a winning tradition and transition out of an older team into a younger team, people will be more likely to hang with us," Kendrick says. "We hope that will happen."

There are also storm clouds over Colangelo's America West Arena empire. Not only is the facility losing the National Hockey League's Phoenix Coyotes later this winter, its remaining major attraction is facing difficult times.

The Suns are struggling with lagging attendance and the prospect of flooring average teams fighting to make the playoffs for years to come. The team lost $5 million last year and is expected to lose $20 million this year.

In addition, it appears the Colangelo-controlled group that operates the city-owned arena is facing financial difficulties.

The Phoenix Arena Development Limited Partnership reneged on a deal with City Hall two years ago to remodel the interior of the arena. The city put $10 million into the project, and Colangelo's group was supposed to cover the balance of the $13.5 million in renovations to concourses, seating areas and rest rooms.

After the improvements were completed, the arena partnership failed to come up with its share of the money, forcing the city to reluctantly advance Colangelo's group a $3.5 million loan.

The city's investment in the arena revamps was based, in part, on a more ambitious promise for upgrades that Colangelo's partnership never kept.

The arena group had vowed to build a 75,000-square-foot sports, entertainment and dining venue on the plaza east of the arena in addition to the upgrades inside the venue. The plaza project, which was to be anchored by a Jillians sports and entertainment venue, was supposed to generate more than $350,000 a year for the city.

With the Diamondbacks and the Suns facing financial problems, it's not surprising that Colangelo and his partners are looking for ways to bring more bucks into downtown. Last June, the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, co-founded by Colangelo, announced it wanted a "destination retail-and-entertainment center" brought into the area.

Which is exactly what Jerde Partnership has done for cities around the world. But, many would ask, a destination center for whom -- tourists and seasonal sports fans? What about turning downtown into a living, breathing city center, a place where locals want to live and work?

A former student of visionary Arizona architect Paolo Soleri, Jon Jerde is the most influential shopping center designer in the world.

His projects span the globe and have had a profound economic effect on the areas where they are located. The L.A.-based firm contends that more than 500 million visitors enter Jerde projects annually.

The developments, which total more than 35 million square feet, include not only Horton Plaza in San Diego, CityWalk in L.A. and the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, but also the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota; the Gateway in Salt Lake City; Canal City Hakata in Fukuoka, Japan; and Buersplein in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

They are just a handful of the grand-scale projects that are acclaimed by many architects and critics as the essence of shopping mall design but rebuked by others as plastic monstrosities lacking real character.

In a lengthy February 2002 Los Angeles Times Magazine profile on Jon Jerde by Ed Leibowitz, Jerde's friend Robert Timme, dean of the University of Southern California architecture school, says he is convinced that Jerde will be recognized as one of the significant architects of our day.

"Great public spaces have always been where the markets are," Timme says. "Maybe for a time we'd lost the excitement of the market or bazaar, and Jon's brought that back into the language of architecture."

Leibowitz, who shadowed Jerde for more than a year, writes of the designer: "The critical assault on Jerde amounts to this: His architecture is a parody of a city, with all the grit and complexity wiped away. The architect, in thrall to the commercial developer, has built counterfeit space for private profit. He is ushering in that terrible future in which global capitalism dictates our civic life as relentlessly as it does our economic life. And his buildings are plain ugly; the corny surface flash of their façades masks the cheap stucco and dull interiors beneath."

In The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion, former New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable condemns Horton Plaza.

"The ultimate absurdity is achieved," she writes, "an edited and appropriated version of exactly those distinguishing organic features of a city that . . . reduce [it] to a merchandising theme."

Jerde's Gateway project in Salt Lake City has been hailed as an economic savior and condemned for its garish design. The 30-acre, $375 million project is expected to be just the beginning of development on another 650 acres west of Salt Lake's downtown.

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