The Devil Went Down to Phoenix

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

The final product? Downtown Disney, from sea to shining sea.

Chris Salamone, Tempe's director of economic development, has seen it happen before. Salamone came to Tempe in 2004 from Chula Vista, California, where he worked on urban-renewal projects. He's optimistic about the future of Mill Avenue, and he realizes it's going to take more than a proven development model to make Tempe, or Phoenix, for that matter, great.

"The scary part of redevelopment is you go to the catalogue and order benches and pavers," he says. "We all get together and say what's best and follow the trends. The public wants the real thing. They don't want the BS."

The result is Mill Avenue, a place where even the homeless are commodities. Think about it — New York's many neighborhoods ("districts," in urbanese) were not laid out on a map before they developed. No one sat down and said, "Okay, here's where we're going to put SoHo, and over there is where we're going to put the Lower East Side."

But that's what they're doing in downtown Phoenix. Though the city's proposed districts are unnamed for now, it's clear to see where the planners are going. There's an area designated "warehouse" toward the south end of downtown, with a subdistrict labeled "downtown industrial/artist." The "University District" sits nestled at the northwest corner of Copper Square, bordering what for now is labeled "Van Buren Commercial Mixed Use" on the map.

Walk around downtown Portland or Austin — two cities Phoenix is often compared to — and it's easy to understand why these places are so appealing. They weren't built on a national model of what consumers think is "cool," and they weren't decorated from a catalogue.

But stroll through downtown San Diego, on the other hand, and you know when you pass from district to district because it says so on the trashcans. Just like in Disneyland. (Or, for that matter, downtown Scottsdale.)

This hasn't happened in downtown Phoenix — yet. If the city isn't thoughtful in its planning, if ASU doesn't work to live up to the hype about becoming a socially engaged urban university, downtown Phoenix could easily become just as populated — but just as bland — as downtown Tempe.


With his shocking white hair and beard, John Minnet is like the grandfather of urban renewal, and the 73-year-old knows a lot about development here, although he comes from far away.

Minnet came to Arizona State from Oxford in 1991 as a visiting scholar and taught a few classes in the school of architecture — one on visions for Phoenix and the other on making streets into places. He is no longer teaching at the university; he's now a consultant. He lives in Tempe's Maple-Ash neighborhood and rides his bike to Casey Moore's for a pub experience, or to Tempe City Council meetings, to hear debates over development.

His British accent tends to get thicker, almost indecipherable, when conversations get particularly heated. It's impossible to listen to Minnet talk without getting excited about the possibilities for the future of Tempe and Phoenix — and disappointed about what's happened so far.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out obvious flaws. One of the first things Minnet noticed upon moving here was how unfriendly the streets are to pedestrians.

He remembers surprising himself once by getting in his car to drive from a store on one side of the street to another just across the intersection.

"I thought, 'This is absurd,'" he says. "I had never done that in my life."

From that experience, Minnet developed a very telling thesis which he later turned into a paper: Metro Phoenix was never meant to be a real city because in real cities people jaywalk. They jaywalk because they can. Physically, the streets are smaller; these places are built around a pedestrian culture. In Phoenix and Tempe, the broad streets are designed to hold as many cars as possible. Intersections are so wide they're impossible to cross even when you've got the light. When you do dare jaywalk, be prepared for shocked looks from other pedestrians and a ticket waiting once you cross the road.

If there was ever a spot destined to be urban, anywhere in these parts, it's the less-than-a-mile stretch from University Drive to Rio Salado Parkway, along Mill Avenue.

At least on Mill it's possible to cross the street in less than a minute, thanks to a narrowing to one lane not long ago.

Over the years, Mill has been home to favorite neighborhood bars — Long Wong's was a dump (not to overstate the point made earlier, but it really was Ground Zero for stinkiness on Mill — literally), but people still lament its closing, even five years later.

To be honest, that's because there's never been much there. Mill was never the cultural hub old-timers love to get nostalgic about. Vick Linhoff, owner of Those Were the Days!, one of the few independent businesses left over from the "old" Mill Avenue, finds the idea of Tempe building a "real" downtown a little funny.

"We should be clear, this really isn't a downtown," he says. "I grew up in Minneapolis, and there's dozens of areas this size that are just neighborhood districts. Downtown Minneapolis is downtown Minneapolis. It's truly a center of commerce."

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
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!

 
Loading...