The Devil Went Down to Phoenix

. . . will it be any better than downtown Tempe?

Ironically, while the university has contributed significantly to Tempe's economy as far as providing jobs, it has failed to do pretty much anything for its hometown that it's now promising for downtown Phoenix. But Phoenix has given its trust and $223 million in voter-approved bond money, not to mention a good part of its sparse cityscape, to ASU, an institution with no résumé when it comes to urban design of its own.

To be fair, ASU's key development guy, Wellington Reiter, the dean of the college of design, wasn't at the university until recently. Downtown Tempe's fate was sealed long before he arrived, and it's possible under his guidance ASU's downtown campus will do the things ASU says it will.

But it is true that ASU has not done much, recently, to add interesting retail to downtown Tempe or to integrate the city and the school. The ASU Foundation building at College Avenue and University Drive is shiny and new, with a big parking garage and street-level retail — filled by a row of fast-food chains. At the same time, cool businesses like reZurrection Gallery, Plush, and Kontrive have closed shop. Yes, new dorms are going up, promising more permanent residents, but they look like fortresses.

This building on the corner of Fifth Street and Mill Avenue in Tempe — just down the street from City Hall — has been boarded up for years.
Megan Irwin
This building on the corner of Fifth Street and Mill Avenue in Tempe — just down the street from City Hall — has been boarded up for years.
ASU professor Nan Ellin
Laura Segall
ASU professor Nan Ellin

Location Info

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Downtown Phoenix

Washington St. & Second St.
Phoenix, AZ 85004

Category: Community Venues

Region: Central Phoenix

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And one has to wonder where ASU was, as a community leader, during the Tempe City Council debacle earlier this year that could have brought either one of the most interesting "anti-mall" development companies in the country to town, or a group including some of the best artists in Arizona. The deal tanked, and now the land adjacent to Tempe's center for the performing arts on Rio Salado Parkway will sit empty for at least a year. Where was someone like Wellington Reiter?

Reiter refused to talk to New Times for this story, and he's the go-to guy on ASU Downtown, according to the university's press office, which declined to offer an alternative. Nan Ellin, a professor of urban and metropolitan studies at ASU's downtown campus, did speak briefly. She's widely regarded as a leader in the effort to make downtown viable. She says she's already seen her students react to the changes ASU's brought.

"In the beginning, students would come in very disoriented," she says. "They would just come to class and leave. Our lobby was empty. Now just in the last two weeks we're seeing students hang out in the lobby and cafe. The next step is going out and using the city."

It sounds encouraging, but for the moment, at least, downtown Phoenix and downtown Tempe have one thing in common: When it comes to entertainment, there isn't much beyond the local Hooters.

Many downtown ASU students, like Melissa Benfield, who's working on her master's in social work, drive in, do what they need to do, and drive out.

Normally, Benfield goes to class and heads straight back to Mesa where she lives. The one afternoon she had to stick around after class for a 6:30 p.m. meeting, she found herself stuck in a virtual dead zone — no place open to grab a quick dinner, nothing to look at, no one to talk to.

There are a whole lot of people working to fix this problem downtown. And there are a lot of projects in the works aside from the university: Luxury condos are popping up everywhere. There are major plans to develop an entertainment district along Jackson Street, west of Chase Field, and the city has hired a San Francisco consulting firm to help it plan nine new downtown districts and revise zoning ordinances.

Adding to the momentum, organic local energy has gathered around areas like Grand Avenue and Roosevelt Row. Businesses like MADE art boutique and Tammie Coe Bakery have emerged on Roosevelt, and while they might not be making millions, they are signs of life on a formerly empty street.

Phoenix just might be poised to become an interesting, urban downtown.

Or it might not. There's enormous potential for any city to screw up. Yes, in Phoenix, which has a dismal history of failed urban redevelopment schemes (think: Patriots Square Park — luckily, also on the chopping block, in this new wave of change), but also nationwide, civic planning is eminently easy to get wrong. When New Times published its downtown series three years ago, the paper brought Richard Florida, the rock star of urban planning, to town, to tell a packed house at the Orpheum Theatre how to fix the city. He had some good ideas about how to attract the creative class — give them coffee shops and bookstores, and they will come. (Well, not quite that simple, but close.)

Trouble is, city leaders all over the country read The Rise of the Creative Class, and have been busy taking Florida's advice, and applying it in pretty uncreative ways. City planners all think the same way. They all want "a 24/7 pedestrian-friendly urban environment" with "mixed-use, live/work space." They want clear signage — "way-finding devices," they call it — to let the downtown user know where he or she is at every moment. In such master-planned downtowns, there's no room to explore, no way to get lost. Every single experience has been engineered by a group of people in love with new-urbanism, with the same idea of what is cool and interesting.

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1 comments
Electrica
Electrica

Who ever makes decisions here is sort of retarded. They expect people to go out and have fun when they are under constant threat of having their body searched for metabolites. METABOLITES of marijuana and false DUI arrests that even attorneys' wives can't escape the threat of. All that great revenue from so many arrests goes into a big black hole in the middle of the city never to be recirculated. What a bunch of sadistic nuts that run this place. They do not realize that their own greed is sucking the life out of a place that could be flourishing!

 
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