Michael Crow: Downtown's savior?
Michael Crow: Downtown's savior?
Emily Piraino

Colangelo Eats Crow

One day isn't enough. Phoenix should be celebrating Cuatro y Cinco de Mayo.

A two-day party would allow us to fete not only the Mexican Army's smashing defeat of the French Foreign Legion on May 5, 1862, but also the founding of Phoenix on May 4, 1868.

Next year, if things go right, Phoenix could host a two-day festival in the heart of downtown to extol the Mexican victory, which played a crucial role in the American Civil War, and honor the date Phoenix was officially recognized as a town.

But before that should happen, Mayor Phil Gordon and the Phoenix City Council first must drive a stake through the heart of Phoenix's narrow-minded downtown business community headed by Jerry Colangelo -- clearing the way for a renaissance led by artists, small business people, downtown residents and Arizona State University.

By next year, with bars serving alcohol until 2 a.m., thanks finally to the Legislature, I'm hoping there will be a grand opportunity for the city to rejoice over the end of Colangelo's unfettered power to dictate downtown development.

"There are certain individuals who think they are the center of the universe," says downtown businessman and former Arizona legislative leader Alfredo Gutierrez, referring to Colangelo and his business buddies.

"But they have just met Michael Crow, who is the center of the universe," Gutierrez says. "And this is good, in terms of what might happen downtown."

If you've just rocketed in from outer space, Michael Crow's the frenetic president of Arizona State University, who's also an advocate of first-class urban design. The former executive vice provost at Columbia University, Crow was named ASU president in July 2002. Crow thinks on a global scale, is connected at the highest level of government and has the resources of a major research institution at his fingertips.

He's a huge leap forward when it comes to leadership talent in Arizona. No longer need we bank on some huckster from Chicago (whose claim to fame's managing a slew of overpaid athletes) to call all the shots in our core city.

Crow, 48, wasted nary a nanosecond here before launching his long-term plan to create what he calls the New American University at Arizona State. Not only does Crow brashly intend to vault ASU into the ranks of the world's great research and academic institutions, he believes the university must be fully integrated into its community.

Crow wants to abandon the college town concept and inject Phoenix's inner city with the vibrant diversity of a university campus. His ambitious plans to transfer a bunch of ASU colleges to downtown, creating a campus of more than 15,000 students, can only bring massive benefits.

This is not an effort that stops with merely leasing a couple of buildings and furnishing them with computers and chalkboards. ASU intends to transform downtown's brutal landscape into a happening urban core that works in harmony with our extreme desert climate.

"ASU's eager to work with Mayor Phil Gordon and the city of Phoenix in true partnership," intones Crow.

The university's entry into downtown Phoenix is among the most important developments in the city's relatively short history. Crow's arrival on center stage provides Gordon a desperately needed alternative to Colangelo and his business cohorts, who've failed to turn around downtown despite receiving hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for sports and entertainment venues.

"ASU gets it on what's needed to make a great downtown and therefore make Phoenix a great city," Gordon told me a few days after the city council held a special April 26 meeting to hear presentations on downtown by ASU and Colangelo's group, Phoenix Futures.

Councilman Greg Stanton also supports ASU's vision for downtown Phoenix. He says the university's plans are clearly a notch above those so far mustered up by Phoenix Futures.

"Make no mistake, of the two plans, I want to make sure we accomplish the goal of having a real downtown university in the foreseeable future," says Stanton, who played a key role in creating the joint ASU, University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University biotechnology campus that will soon emerge at the corner of Seventh Street and Van Buren.

Following the architectural maxim that "great cities are characterized by the casual use of open space," ASU has assembled an impressive array of national, university and local architects and urban designers to figure out how best to create a great urban center in this desert metropolis.

"If we are not doing civic good along the way, we will go back to the drawing board," says Wellington Reiter, dean of ASU's College of Architecture and Environmental Design, who is spearheading the university's downtown team.

ASU wants to transform downtown into a hospitable microclimate -- even in our blazing summer months -- with the widespread use of shade and solar energy.

On a more tangible note, the ASU Downtown Capital Center Campus is slated to include the College of Nursing; the Public College, including the schools of public affairs and social work and the Morrison Institute of Public Policy; the School of Community Service and Development; the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications; KAET-TV; the School of Health Management and Policy; and University College, a new endeavor to include extended education.

The campus wouldn't be lumped in just one location. The university plans to utilize existing buildings and new structures across the urban landscape. Officials are currently scouring downtown for potential sites, and expect to have a formal list by the end of June. Completion of the campus is expected by 2009.

Most of the facilities will be within a five-minute walk of half a dozen light-rail stations to be built in the next few years. Light-rail is crucial to ASU's plans, since it will connect downtown Phoenix with ASU's main campus in Tempe.

The buildings making up ASU's downtown campus will not just be used for academic purposes; there will also be a housing, office and retail component to the massive undertaking.

What ASU plans to do is a radical departure from the way downtown has developed in the past. The idea behind the major core-city projects of the last 20 years -- including the Arizona Center, the Mercado, America West Arena, Bank One Ballpark and the Dodge Theatre -- is to pull people inside, strip them of their cash and dump them back on downtown's desolate streets.

This despite Jerry Colangelo's vow that the BOB and the arena would revitalize our inner city.

Last fall, it appeared that our future would be hijacked by the Godfather of Phoenix Sports and his cronies, who seemed intent on jamming a giant downtown shopping mall down our throats.

Phoenix Futures -- Colangelo's network of moguls from the banks, utilities and the daily newspaper -- has busied itself developing a master plan for downtown that would have the unstated, but obvious, goal of enriching each member of the group.

I'm told that the Phoenix Futures will present its big idea to the city council in June, and expects the city to adopt the master plan by the end of the year.

That's the way things have always been done around here. The Godfather tells the city what to do, and the city does it.

Will it be different this time? Gordon has repeatedly said the city will be reviewing the ASU and the Phoenix Futures plans and will ultimately develop its own plan for downtown.

To make sure this happens, Phoenix should hire its own master-planning consultant to help sift through the competing ASU and Phoenix Futures ideas.

Without an impartial mediator, ASU will be at a clear disadvantage.

Phoenix Futures has tapped the leadership of two downtown business organizations to spearhead its planning effort -- Downtown Phoenix Partnership president and CEO Brian Kearney, and Phoenix Community Alliance president Don Keuth.

Joining them are two of the Godfather's best buds: prominent Phoenix architect Mo Stein and consummate downtown mover and shaker Mel Schultz, a partner of Colangelo's in his far-flung real estate investments, as well as a lobbyist for Pinnacle West Capital Corporation, the holding company for Arizona Public Service Company.

The Downtown Phoenix Partnership, founded by Colangelo, receives more than $1 million of its annual $2 million budget from the city, which means that Kearney's enjoyed huge influence over what gets developed downtown.

Keuth and Stein also have their hooks in Phoenix city government. Both serve on the nine-member Phoenix Planning Commission, which will sit in judgment over Phoenix Futures' master plan (though Stein tells me he won't participate in Planning Commission discussions about the plan because of his role with Phoenix Futures).

With such an impressive list of henchmen at its disposal, Jerry's downtown master plan -- created by mega-mall designer Jerde Partnership of Venice, California -- not long ago would have seemed a slam dunk.

What has happened is, Crowe and ASU, whether they wind up dominating the thinking about the future of downtown or not, have had a powerful effect already on what Colangelo and his partners believe they can get away with.

During last week's city council planning session, Keuth suddenly announced that Phoenix Futures won't bring in the massive shopping mall that downtown business insiders say was once envisioned and what Colangelo himself suggested to me last fall.

This is big news and a major change of direction. I like to half-joke that Jerry and his partners are eating Crow, because they fear the city won't approve another gigantic destination project.

Phoenix Futures now stresses that it wants to see a mix of national and local retailers clustered around light-rail transit stops. It wants a number of downtown streets narrowed. It wants low-cost retail space to be available along those streets for small businesses.

This doesn't mean that big chain operations won't dominate its plan, it just means that Phoenix Futures is moving toward inclusion of something else.

Phoenix Futures projects the need for 10,000 additional downtown housing units in the next decade and estimates that the area should add a million square feet of retail space in a 1.5-mile-square area. (The Biltmore Fashion Park has about 600,000 square feet of retail space.)

The development group now is also talking about pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, lots of shade, remodeling Patriots Square, protection of historic structures, mixed-income housing, a downtown farmers' market and making it safe for existing small businesses.

Whichever way City Hall goes, what's on the drawing boards has definitely improved. Who do we thank for that? Well, ASU, of course, but also the downtown artists and small business people -- whose cacophony of gripes about Colangelo's unfair dominance in downtown have often been reported in these pages.

The city's elected officials have a huge challenge ahead.

Phoenix's sorry excuse for a downtown is dead after dark and pitiful, compared to almost any other big American city, during the day.

Leaders at City Hall must overcome the sins of their predecessors, who sat back and let things go to hell in the proverbial handbasket.

City planners have ignored the fact that Phoenix is one of the hottest towns on the planet. Rather than utilizing simple building designs that have been around for decades to provide shade, Phoenix has built massive heat-seeking concrete plazas and installed metal bus benches.

There are no beautiful and accessible public gathering spaces.

What we do have are monolithic office buildings and a multitude of parking garages along with huge sports stadiums.

It's up to Mayor Gordon and the city council to make sure this changes. They should embrace ASU's concept for a vibrant downtown. Even though Colangelo and his partners are making some right noises, they cannot be trusted to do much more than, first and foremost, line their own pockets with cash.

They are merely mimicking the ideas of others, with little idea of how to make downtown cool (I'm not talking about just beating the summer heat here). For Christ's sake, one of their big ideas is to put a massive Target store in the middle of it all!

Where we're at today is largely City Hall's making, because it has allowed Colangelo & Co. to run roughshod over small entrepreneurs and the rest of us.

"The decisions in the next six months that the city will make are the most important in the last 20 years," says Fred Unger, a historic-property renovator who owns a 1931 art deco high-rise at the southeast corner of Central and Monroe.

If City Hall puts Michael Crow on a higher pedestal than Jerry Colangelo, it could be time for a new celebration around this time next year -- the Cuatro y Cinco de Mayo Festival.

E-mail john.dougherty@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8445.


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