The Devil Went Down to Phoenix

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

The Lab has garnered national attention since it opened its first "anti-mall" by the same name in Orange County in 1992. Since that time, it's developed another art/retail center near The Lab, called The Camp, transforming the area into what it calls SoBeCa, a 39-acre arts district. The company knows what it's doing, in spite of strong resistance from neighborhood activists, who didn't want outsiders to do the job.

The Lab's competitor, SoBa, also had similar ideas, and even included plans for a large Special Olympics training center. (So political. How could anyone vote against a project that included the Special Olympics?) Another major component of SoBa's project was a commitment from the James Terrell archives to open a gallery in its space — a project that would have been a major cultural score for Tempe.

The October night the council was scheduled to choose between the two developers was a tense one inside Tempe City Hall. Salamone and his staff had recommended The Lab's project, amid major protest from the community.

The dorm at ASU's downtown Phoenix campus, at First Street and Polk. Development lawyer Grady Gammage
Laura Segall
The dorm at ASU's downtown Phoenix campus, at First Street and Polk. Development lawyer Grady Gammage
An afternoon on Mill Avenue in Tempe.
Laura Segall
An afternoon on Mill Avenue in Tempe.

Location Info


Downtown Phoenix

Washington St. & Second St.
Phoenix, AZ 85004

Category: Community Venues

Region: Central Phoenix


Ultimately, the council took the easy way out. It chose no one. Instead, it tabled the project, buckling under community pressure not to choose The Lab.

And so, when the performing arts center opens, it will be next to a dirt lot that will remain empty for at least a year. Both developers are so turned off by the city's behavior, and lost so much money on the project, they say they're taking their ideas elsewhere.

Tempe's loss could be Phoenix's gain. There are rumors that The Lab might be looking at Phoenix, and after the council vote, one SoBa developer hinted its project might be moving in that direction as well.

It's a logical step — maybe. If ASU's failure to actively engage Tempe is any indication of what it will do for downtown, Phoenix is going to need all the innovative minds it can get.

Development attorney Grady Gammage, who was involved on the SoBa side of the Tempe arts project, is skeptical that ASU will be what ultimately saves downtown Phoenix. If Tempe is any example, it certainly won't be the only thing, he says.

"The only businesses that thrived from students living there is a row of places to eat and drink beer," Gammage notes.

He's right. That, Mill Avenue has.

But most people agree downtown Phoenix wants something more. One of ASU's greatest chances to prove itself is with its proposed civic space downtown, an almost three-acre area bordered by Central and First avenues, which the university has $30 million in bond money to develop. The space is supposed to be a gathering place for students and professors, as well as people who live and work downtown. It's a great opportunity for the university to develop something unique for the Valley. Or not.

"I'm not sure they're ready for their civic space to be Washington Square," says Gammage.

Probably not. As of right now, plans for what the space will look like are pretty up in the air, though everyone seems to agree on certain basic ideas. It must have shade — lots of it — and some kind of water feature. In the middle of the space will sit the historic 424 building, left intact more because the city fought for it than because ASU cares about historic preservation. Already, old buildings like those housing the Jungle and Kings Cocktail have been torn down to make way for university buildings.

If an e-mail Reiter sent Richard Stanley, senior vice president and university planner, in May of this year about the civic space is any indication, the attitude toward saving and reusing old buildings is pretty arrogant: "The key images at the moment of the Civic Space as it relates to the Jungle are attached," he writes. "I think this small powerpoint shows in no uncertain terms the impossibility of leaving those structures in place. 424 was a huge concession. Enough I think."

Yet in spite of its reputation, there's no doubt that ASU's presence in downtown Phoenix will do something. It just can't be the only entity the city counts on for help.

Perhaps Gammage's hope for downtown Phoenix is most realistic. Though it lacks the optimism city employees and university flacks try to sell, he does recognize that ASU, and all the other projects slated for development, will help in some way.

"Downtown Phoenix is bad enough," Gammage concludes, "that any presence will help."

Next week: Urban gurus from Jane Jacobs to Richard Florida say it's essential to preserve old buildings, but Phoenix does little to encourage indie businesses to come downtown and open shop in a place with some history. Also: a peek at the future cityscape.

Read the whole series online.

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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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