Death of Cool

As Phoenix considers how to revitalize its downtown, leaders should note how Tempe murdered Mill Avenue's soul

I ventured up to Flagstaff the other day.

Just to walk around and enjoy its wonderful downtown at the base of Arizona's most impressive mountains, the San Francisco Peaks.

Rain, wind, sleet, snow flurries and occasional sunshine had left the air clear and crisp. The dramatic landscape and tumultuous weather had infused the town with an aura of healthiness.

Another one bites the dust in downtown Tempe.
Emily Piraino
Another one bites the dust in downtown Tempe.

Maybe the sacred spirits whom Native Americans say live on the peaks were casting their spell on the town.

Whatever it was, downtown Flagstaff should serve as a model to Phoenix and other cities hoping to create a vibrant, authentic urban core.

Forget emulating the monstrous mess that Tempe has built over 30 years of redeveloping its downtown. Tempe has driven off so many small businesses and replaced them with the monotony and sterility of corporate chain outlets that its leaders should be subjected to public whippings.

What Jerry Colangelo wants to do in downtown Phoenix -- install a Disney-esque mega-mall -- would be just a larger, glitzier example of Tempe's makeover fiasco.

The recent closing of one of Tempe's most famous businesses -- Long Wong's, the rock 'n' roll epicenter of Arizona -- is the latest casualty in the city's relentless drive to jam Mill Avenue with corporate crap. City leaders should be proud of themselves; they stood by silently while the last cool spot downtown was murdered.

They say there was nothing they could've done since the property owner wants to replace the building and Long Wong's owners didn't want to sign a new, more expensive lease.

But this sad outcome is simply a reflection of downtown Tempe's redevelopment philosophy that makes it prohibitively expensive for many independent businesses to survive -- let alone one that is trying to promote the arts.

Flagstaff's downtown stands in sharp contrast to Tempe's high-dollar, scorched-earth approach, in which most of downtown and its nearby neighborhoods have been bulldozed.

Flagstaff has left its historic buildings standing and embraced the diversity of small businesses.

Downtown redevelopment in Flagstaff began in the early 1990s, but city leaders and private property owners there wanted to keep the unique mix of existing downtown businesses.

Like Tempe before it, Flagstaff's downtown had fallen into disrepair. Because Flagstaff partnered with existing businesses, it was able to give its central city a face-lift at a relatively low cost. It replaced sidewalks, put in streetlights and improved water and sewer systems. Property owners assessed themselves to help pay for the improvements.

The project triggered a substantial wave of private investment, including a major office project and an underground parking garage covered by a community plaza. The result is, the new developments blend in seamlessly with their historic neighbors.

Downtown Flagstaff is filled with lots of small, independent businesses housed in stately brick buildings that sell everything from fly-fishing gear to beads to music to exotic imports.

There are a couple of bike shops, outdoor outfitters, offbeat bookstores, clothing stores, sewing shops and a place to get your shoes fixed. And, of course, there are a few places selling Indian jewelry, pottery and kachinas.

Downtown Flagstaff is anchored by two grand old hotels, the Weatherford and the Monte Vista, only a couple of blocks apart along Aspen Avenue. There are a variety of independent restaurants, from casual to fine dining, within walking distance of the hostelries.

The refurbished Amtrak train station connects Flagstaff to the world -- particularly in the summer when thousands of tourists descend on the town on their way to the Grand Canyon.

At night, it rocks out as locals, Northern Arizona University students and tourists enjoy a wide range of live music in cozy clubs that maintain a connection between musicians and the audience. Bands take to any one of half a dozen stages in the drinking holes clustered together within a few blocks.

Morning brings a different opportunity.

One of my tests of a great downtown is whether there is a homegrown breakfast shop. A place where folks gather every day and discuss the issue du jour over a full breakfast. A place where newspapers are scattered about. A cafe where the owner knows most of the customers and will come and bus the table.

Downtown Flagstaff passes this test with flying colors. You can hit a different independent breakfast shop every day of the week and walk no more than a few blocks. Kathy's, Cafe Express, Macy's and La Bellavia all offer a unique flavor and ambiance. None comes close to resembling the typical chain operation.

Downtown Flagstaff is in big demand. If a business closes up for whatever reason, it is quickly replaced by another entrepreneur willing to risk it all on a dream.

"Storefronts don't stay vacant very long," says Steve Lere, Flagstaff community development director.

The downtown business community is hostile to chain stores and fought vigorously to keep even a McDonald's from gaining a foothold.

"One of the concerns of the community is to keep the mom-and-pop businesses viable," Lere says.

Sam Green and her husband, Henry Taylor, have devoted about 20 years to restoring the Weatherford Hotel.

"It's really started to turn around in the last four or five years," she says.

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