Death of Cool

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

In the early 1990s, it had been very difficult. Flagstaff's downtown was ripped open to repair its crumbling infrastructure, and Green endured her bouts with city leaders. "It looked like Beirut," she recalls.

Many businesses struggled to survive and some went bankrupt. The hotel project, she says, almost wiped out her and her husband financially. But they managed to survive and now are benefiting from the downtown's popularity.

Green says the key to the success of Flagstaff has been keeping the old stuff alive.

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

"If you take down the historic fabric," she says, "you won't have anything left."

Since the early '70s, she's watched closely how demolition-happy Tempe has redeveloped its downtown.

"Tempe tore down its historic buildings and built new ones to look like the old ones," she says. "It's just not the same. It's good we have the old buildings here."

Under former Tempe mayor Harry Mitchell, the city swept the so-called "derelict" businesses off Mill Avenue and drove away hippies and artists who congregated downtown.

"I don't think it was considered by most people to be a very safe place to go," Mitchell said in a 1992 interview with the Tempe Historical Museum. "There was certainly not anything to draw Tempeans downtown."

According to Mitchell, most downtown property owners didn't care what the city did with their land when redevelopment began.

"I think it was very easy to start redevelopment downtown because people felt what should be done is just bulldoze everything and start all over," Mitchell said 12 years ago.

The cleared sites were replaced with new, much more expensive buildings that few of the businesses that had lined Mill Avenue could afford to occupy.

"Many people were concerned that they would not be able to pay the rents," Mitchell said. "Of course, our argument was that if this is successful, they'll make more money, they'll be able to afford higher rents, and they're going to do more business."

The merchants' fears were justified. Many of those who bought into Mitchell's plan went out of business, and Mill Avenue continues to struggle to attract a mix of tenants who can afford the high tariffs.

Turnover is high and vacancies linger for months and, in some cases, years. The climate on Mill is so difficult that the city has hired a retail expert to recruit businesses to downtown.

Once Tempe started swinging the wrecking ball, it couldn't stop. The town wiped out an old residential neighborhood of cottages west of Mill that provided housing to students, artists and assorted bohemians.

Down went the buildings housing Rundles Liquor Store, the Q&Brew, Long Island Pizza and Restaurant Mexico. Up went the Chase office building and its garish, seven-story parking garage with its harsh fluorescent light bulbs fouling the night sky.

Tempe's redevelopment frenzy grew increasingly out of control under Mayor Neil Giuliano. A prime example of that has been the rise and fall of Changing Hands Bookstore.

The independent bookseller opened in 1974 and soon moved into one of Tempe's first redevelopment projects on Mill. The small-scale project and city incentives provided an opportunity for regular folks to start businesses. Over the next decade, Changing Hands became the heart of downtown Tempe.

But rather than embracing this small-scale success, Tempe wanted far bigger projects. As one large-scale redevelopment project after another reshaped downtown -- culminating with the $200 million Tempe Town Lake and now-bankrupt Brick Yard -- the cost of doing business went up and up.

Finally, Changing Hands had to move off the Avenue. Customers told the store's owners that they no longer liked coming into downtown Tempe because they had to pay to park.

"[The parking problem] was the beginning of the end," says Susie Brazil, one of the owners of the store.

Changing Hands is now in a strip mall in south Tempe, where it is thriving because of a combination of loyal customers (who eschew the big Borders store on Mill) and a cadre of new suburban patrons.

Brazil hopes that downtown Tempe will return to its funky past, but she's not expecting miracles. Downtown Phoenix, she says, is where opportunity awaits to create a diverse and vibrant urban center.

Her words of advice to Phoenix planners: Don't let corporate businesses dominate the landscape. Instead, "keep it a little quirky."

If only Tempe's city fathers had taken such advice back in the day. Instead, Tempe's downtown is a prime example of how government's encouraging expensive redevelopment projects can ruin a city center. As the faux historic buildings went up, the character of Tempe went under.

This once-soulful downtown now has a Starbucks. It's got a Hooters and a Gordon Biersch, as well. It's got a Ruby Tuesday and a Fat Tuesday. It's got a Quizno's, a Jack in the Box, and Burger King's around the corner.

There's a P.F. Chang's, a Pizzeria Uno, a Z'Tejas, and a Chili's Grill & Bar. It's got a Body Works, Z Gallerie and a Fatburger. And, of course, there's an Urban Outfitters and an Abercrombie & Fitch.

All chains.

What it doesn't have is a homegrown breakfast shop on Mill.

Until such an essential downtown business returns, Tempe will remain in search of its soul.

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

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