Matt's Big Hassle

Three years ago, Mayor-elect Phil Gordon promised to make it easier for small businesses to renovate old buildings. But the problems faced by one indie restaurateur show that, if anything, it's harder than ever

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961

She wrote that book a long time ago, and she lived in New York City (Jacobs later moved to Toronto, where she died earlier this year), but the godmother of American urban planning is right on when it comes to downtown Phoenix today.

For Phoenix leaders and developers who are hanging their hopes on a downtown revitalization that owes a lot to the active arts community, Jacobs' argument for preserving old buildings rings especially true: "Well-subsidized opera and art museums often go into new buildings," she writes. "But the unformalized feeders of the arts — studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can absorb uneconomic discussions — these go into old buildings."

High-rise zoning has made property values so high that it's cheaper to tear down a building than to rehab it.
Steve Jansen
High-rise zoning has made property values so high that it's cheaper to tear down a building than to rehab it.
Beatrice Moore and Tony Zahn have spent two and a half years renovating a Grand Avenue warehouse that will eventually house artist studios and retail shops.
Laura Segall
Beatrice Moore and Tony Zahn have spent two and a half years renovating a Grand Avenue warehouse that will eventually house artist studios and retail shops.

Indeed, it's hard to imagine the existence of First Fridays — a long-running monthly event where downtown art galleries and artist studios open their doors to the public — without the string of old buildings that have made it affordable for artists and creative entrepreneurs to open galleries and boutiques.

Jacobs paints a scenario where new construction is so expensive that only chain stores and banks can afford the high overhead, edging out the smaller, more experimental enterprises that give the area diversity. It sounds a lot like what's happening in downtown Phoenix, where affordability has become a big problem for small businesses, especially in areas with high-rise zoning, and large-scale projects threaten to consume the landscape. According to Jacobs, that would be a huge mistake. Without old construction in the midst of new, she explains, downtown enterprises would be "part of a total attraction and total environment that is economically too limited — and therefore functionally too limited to be lively, interesting, and convenient."

In other words, without any serious efforts to rescue and reuse the vintage properties that are left, downtown could quickly wind up a bland Disneyland, devoid of the eclectic cultural amenities that are enticing people to move there in the first place.

Even the current urban planning guru, Richard Florida, points to Jacobs' 45-year-old observation. "Jane Jacobs always said, 'New ideas require old buildings.' I repeat like a mantra," says Florida.

Three years ago, New Times brought Florida, author of the influential book The Rise of the Creative Class, to Phoenix to talk about how cities attract young, dynamic, creative types who can boost the local economy with the power of their ideas. He made a strong case for the importance of street culture, nightlife and neighborhood hangouts like cafes and bookstores. City leaders paid close attention — in the Downtown Strategic Plan, published almost two years ago, they even spelled out the importance of a diverse mix of old and new buildings, adaptive reuse, and Florida's now-ubiquitous "creative class."

And while Phoenix has ushered in plenty of big changes — the downtown ASU campus, light-rail construction, CityScape — preserving the old buildings hasn't gotten any easier in the past three years since Florida came to town and Mayor Phil Gordon took office, promising to use his expertise on historic renovations to make it easier for others to do so.

"I like Mayor Gordon a lot, and I like what in general is happening with ASU going downtown," says Florida. "But old buildings are a critical part of the mix." Good urban design can work with the existing fabric, he adds.

It's tempting to compare Phoenix to other Western cities of a certain age, where downtown revitalization efforts meshed with historic preservation to make interesting old architecture a part of the city's unique character. But no matter who you talk to, nobody (not even Richard Florida) can come up with a perfect case study for Phoenix to imitate.

Starting with the obvious point of comparison — the buildings themselves — downtown just doesn't have the kind of dense, historic building stock that you'd find in Denver's LoDo, or in downtown Portland, or along Sixth Street in Austin (ground zero for the creative class, according to Florida). Those cities' hubs of culture and entertainment also happen to be based in commercial historic districts (all 35 of Phoenix's historic districts are residential). Whatever critical mass of old commercial buildings Phoenix might've had in the past has thinned out, and many properties have long been zoned for high-rise developments. Property values have skyrocketed, and, not surprisingly, so has the incentive for people to tear down old buildings.

"I'm not sure anyone's really keeping track of how many, but there are definitely some historic buildings coming down," says Barbara Stocklin, Historic Preservation Officer.

According to the Development Services Department, within the boundaries of Seventh Street to Seventh Avenue, from I-10 to the railroad tracks, 14 permits for total demolitions were issued through mid-November for 2006, 13 were issued last year, and four were issued in 2004. (The number of permits issued does not necessarily reflect the exact number of buildings that ended up getting torn down, though.)

"Frankly, the larger threat isn't to buildings on city property, but on private property," Stocklin says. "You can go to the city, get a demolition permit, and tear it down in two days."

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