The Devil Went Down to Phoenix

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

Downtown Tempe is not. But at one point it had the potential to become, at least, a really cool college town.

When Linhoff opened his doors 33 years ago, Mill was a stretch of independently owned local businesses. Today his store is the oldest independent retailer on the street, due in large part to the fact he owns his building and doesn't have to pay rent.

"There was enough life in the downtown that we thought we could capture some of that," he says. "There were antique stores. Changing Hands came a year later. There were, at one point, four or five bookstores. I'm disappointed there isn't more diversity [now]."

Vick Linhoff, owner of Those Were the Days!, has kept his shop open for 33 years on Mill Avenue.
Laura Segall
Vick Linhoff, owner of Those Were the Days!, has kept his shop open for 33 years on Mill Avenue.

Location Info


Downtown Phoenix

Washington St. & Second St.
Phoenix, AZ 85004

Category: Community Venues

Region: Central Phoenix


Gayle Shanks, owner of Changing Hands, opened her store for the same reasons. She managed to keep the shop open, and business thrived.

A few years passed before developers realized how animated the street had become and how much money there was to be made off the thousands of people who visited Mill each year. The Tempe City Council was easily sold on the idea. Rents soared, yet interest in the area dropped. It wasn't long before the older businesses on the street started to close their doors. Changing Hands opened a second location in a strip mall in south Tempe, and later closed its Mill location.

"I didn't feel comfortable anymore," says Shanks. "I didn't feel like it was my community."

Interestingly, downtown Phoenix is currently courting Shanks, trying to get her to open a second location downtown.

The chains have had much more success on Mill than the indies — but they can afford to lose money for longer periods of time than a local business. And they did lose money. Starting in 2001, Tempe's downtown went into a recession where sales-tax revenue dropped steadily for 27 months. People still might have occasionally wandered the streets, but no one was buying much. That's no joke for a district that depends on tourism and shoppers from the suburbs.

Tempe's leaders admit the shift toward large corporate projects and chain stores was a mistake. Mayor Hugh Hallman says the biggest mistake was spending 15 years turning Tempe into an entertainment/retail district and eliminating residential housing.

There simply are not enough people actually living in the area to sustain the large-scale retail Tempe banked on for so long, though no city official asked can give a hard number for what exactly "critical mass" might be. They just know they're building toward it.

One prime example of the city's failure to make things balance is the enormous, and expensive, Brickyard building. It cost millions of dollars to build, and the developer went bankrupt before it even opened. The building was sold to ASU. The university converted it into office/classroom space, but has done little with the bottom floor retail in the building — another action that calls into question the university's desire, and ability, to really create energetic retail on the ground floor of its classroom buildings — a major talking point for the downtown campus.

There are currently plans for 5,000 new residential units in downtown Tempe. ASU has just completed the first phase of its expanded residential facilities: The Hassayampa Academic Village opened its doors to 900 students this fall, and three more dorms should be complete by fall 2007. The city is following a simple formula to try to achieve the elusive critical mass: build condos, get people on the street, provide them with basic services like a grocery store, and voilà! Instant urban, active downtown.

Even worse, the city and the condo developers are so caught up in building this new, vital downtown, they fail to see how unbelievably artificial it could all become. People go to Mill, or any downtown, to experience something real, and the city needs to realize that culture is not created wholly by retail chains.

Unfortunately, this idea that condo developers are hoping to sell (starting at $400 a square foot) is still, honestly, just an idea. Light rail is still years from completion, so these new urbanites will still need their cars. And unless Hooters Buffalo wings and American Apparel tee shirts pass for culture around here, Mill still has some gaps to fill. Granted, there are some nice spots on Mill, but there are only so many vintage books one can buy and so many things on the menu at Caffe Boa. Eventually, the Mill Avenue condo dwellers will have to leave the 'hood to find something to do.

Though Tempe is attempting to position itself as forward-thinking, one of its biggest development flops ever just ended last month in a mess of politics and frustration.

A plan to develop the dirt lot next to the new center for the performing arts near Tempe Town Lake caught the attention of one of the most innovative arts/retail developers in this country — Lab Holdings, owned by Costa Mesa-based Shaheen Sadeghi. It also drew interest from a local consortium of developers led by Tempe attorney Gene Kadish.

The idea sprang from the desire to put three Valley art-production companies — Arizona Bronze, a Tempe-based foundry and sculpture garden; Segura Publishing, which produces fine art prints; and Meltdown Glass, a nationally recognized maker of glass products and sculptures — into a space that would also feature retail, galleries and studios for artists. It was a project that could have actually brought some culture to the area.

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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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