Big Scam Theory

Downtown Phoenix has always had its high points, but the Civic Center boondoggle isn't one of them

Someone -- why not Márquez? -- must prick the bubble of torpor so acutely ambered by Arizona State University novelist Ron Carlson. In his latest collection of short stories, At the Jim Bridger, Carlson eavesdrops on a couple in a Valley bar. She is a Phoenix newscaster who asks: "Is this a soulless place, or is it me?"

"It will have soul in a thousand years," responds the man in the short story.

"Should we wait?" she asks.

We're spending about a billion dollars in taxpayer funds for Civic Center expansion  to attract the likes of these nametag-wearing conventioneers.
Jackie Mercandetti
We're spending about a billion dollars in taxpayer funds for Civic Center expansion to attract the likes of these nametag-wearing conventioneers.
The Phoenix Civic Center.
The Phoenix Civic Center.

Perhaps the word soul is overblown, too, but why shrink from it? If urban residents cower, someone else will create a downtown that is uninhabitable.

Today, five developments are careening over the horizon.

• When the Arizona Cardinals chose to put their new stadium on the west side in Glendale instead of in downtown Phoenix, business leaders bemoaned the loss and took action. On June 5 of this year, they issued their letter calling for another billion dollars of investment in downtown Phoenix.

• On June 14, an arts task force was announced with the purpose of determining how culture could enhance economic development. Funded with $300,000 in local foundation capital, the task force ignored the significant efforts of First Friday and focused instead upon the "Big Box" cultures of the symphony, the ballet and other traditional venues of an older demographic.

• Last month, this paper's downtown series revealed that sports impresario Jerry Colangelo had secretly begun negotiations with Jerde Inc. to develop a master plan for downtown Phoenix without input from the public or city hall -- which has, after all, the legal responsibility for such undertakings. Jerde Inc.'s track record is mixed at best and is too often associated with a Disneylike vision of community instead of a concern for authenticity.

• This month, ASU President Michael Crow began a series of meetings with residents and officials regarding the university's plan to bring 12,000 graduate students and their classrooms into downtown Phoenix.

• The first stage of renovation got under way of what is expected to be a billion-dollar expansion of the Civic Center in order to attract hordes of conventioneers into what is otherwise a largely deserted downtown.

Some 1,300 people packed the Orpheum to hear Richard Florida articulate the vision of a vibrant downtown. It is a vista that includes a pulsing streetscape of bars, restaurants, music venues, cultural oases, gathering spots, lofts, row houses and all of the urban soul that attracts and keeps the educated work forces that populate industries built upon biosciences and computers.

Yet nowhere is that perspective represented in any of the five developments now shaping our downtown.

For 30 years, I have haunted the unlikely outposts of what existed in place of a real downtown. The question is: What will emerge out of the five forces for change in our midst? Will the master plan be aimed at keeping tourists and conventioneers distracted and amused, or will it be aimed at residents, those who already live here and those who should move here? Will the street culture of Márquez and Florida and First Friday have equal standing with the Convention Center mentality? Will we build housing as well as exhibition space? Will the next generation's search for urban soul ever be quenched?

Márquez wrote of 100 years, Carlson speculated upon 1,000. The fuse to your future will burn more quickly.

E-mail, or call 602-229-8404.

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