Operation Mickey Mouse

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

And why should they? If Phil Gordon were to demand something from Jerry Colangelo, he would be the first mayor to do so since Phoenix's version of P.T. Barnum started wheeling and dealing in the Valley more than 30 years ago.

There is palpable fear among artists and business people outside the Downtown Phoenix Partnership that once again City Hall will stand by shyly and let Colangelo put yet another mega-development into a downtown already overwhelmed with monolithic concrete structures.

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 ?

"It's always top-down, single vision versus a grassroots, organic structure," complains Greg Esser, the eye lounge co-owner.

Esser predicts that Colangelo's going into business with Jerde Partnership would mean another failure downtown. Esser is among an increasing number of small-business owners who insist that the only way to make downtown a magnet for Phoenix-area residents, and not just to tourists, would be to stop relying on mega-projects as a panacea and spread the wealth of economic incentives to small entrepreneurs.

What Colangelo is doing, he says, "is another symptom of the silver-bullet syndrome that one strategic development is going to be the cure for the economic and cultural development of the city."

Academics also raise concerns about the city's potentially relying on a general plan developed by a company such as Jerde.

"A community should not put all its eggs in one basket," says Ron McCoy, director of ASU's School of Architecture.

"A Jerde project as part of a revival of the urban core would be good," he says. "But to see a Jerde project as the whole scope of a revitalized core would not be so successful."

McCoy says downtown would be better off to base future development on nurturing small businesses that have potential to expand rather than continuing to support huge entertainment venues that rely on importing tourists or suburbanites for special events.

Reliance on big projects "sucks the air out of the small-scale entrepreneur," McCoy says. Communities succeed, he says, when there is room for both "small ventures and the big things."

Downtown developer and gallery owner Wayne Rainey condemns the very notion of a downtown master plan.

"I've never really believed in master plans," he says. "I just think they are too hard to pull off."

In addition, Rainey, who two years ago supported construction of a Cardinals stadium downtown, says he now believes the area must "stay away from huge mega-projects."

"I think it is more important for the city to plant the seeds and let the little projects develop," he says.

Nan Elin, the ASU urban designer, counters that the city could benefit from a carefully designed master plan that would trigger housing, retail and commercial development.

But based on its history, she says, Jerde Partnership is hardly capable of creating a true urban plan. Jerde's developments rely heavily on "importing themes from other places and other times" -- a practice she calls "form-follows-fiction" architecture.

"It's the drag-and-drop theory of urban design," she complains.

Downtown gallery owner Kimber Lanning resents the secrecy surrounding Colangelo's efforts to come up with a master plan and is one of those complaining mightily that the city is -- as usual -- letting a handful of self-interested business leaders dictate downtown's future.

Lanning snarls that what Colangelo is talking about is yet another quick-fix project, when such developments have failed to deliver a prosperous central city.

"Once again, the city is thinking in terms of tourist-type things," she says. "What about the people who want to live downtown? [Colangelo and his backers] are trying to out-mall the malls."

Lanning is convinced that downtown's future lies in supporting small businesses and artists. It is essential, she says, to invest in the street culture that will provide a unique alternative to the suburban shopping malls ringing the Phoenix area.

"With downtown, creating a funky area that is unique is the only chance we've got," she says. "I mean, the only chance we've got to build a vibrant downtown."

E-mail john.dougherty@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8445.

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