Another one bites the dust in downtown Tempe.
Another one bites the dust in downtown Tempe.
Emily Piraino

Death of Cool

I ventured up to Flagstaff the other day.

Just to walk around and enjoy its wonderful downtown at the base of Arizona's most impressive mountains, the San Francisco Peaks.

Rain, wind, sleet, snow flurries and occasional sunshine had left the air clear and crisp. The dramatic landscape and tumultuous weather had infused the town with an aura of healthiness.

Maybe the sacred spirits whom Native Americans say live on the peaks were casting their spell on the town.

Whatever it was, downtown Flagstaff should serve as a model to Phoenix and other cities hoping to create a vibrant, authentic urban core.

Forget emulating the monstrous mess that Tempe has built over 30 years of redeveloping its downtown. Tempe has driven off so many small businesses and replaced them with the monotony and sterility of corporate chain outlets that its leaders should be subjected to public whippings.

What Jerry Colangelo wants to do in downtown Phoenix -- install a Disney-esque mega-mall -- would be just a larger, glitzier example of Tempe's makeover fiasco.

The recent closing of one of Tempe's most famous businesses -- Long Wong's, the rock 'n' roll epicenter of Arizona -- is the latest casualty in the city's relentless drive to jam Mill Avenue with corporate crap. City leaders should be proud of themselves; they stood by silently while the last cool spot downtown was murdered.

They say there was nothing they could've done since the property owner wants to replace the building and Long Wong's owners didn't want to sign a new, more expensive lease.

But this sad outcome is simply a reflection of downtown Tempe's redevelopment philosophy that makes it prohibitively expensive for many independent businesses to survive -- let alone one that is trying to promote the arts.

Flagstaff's downtown stands in sharp contrast to Tempe's high-dollar, scorched-earth approach, in which most of downtown and its nearby neighborhoods have been bulldozed.

Flagstaff has left its historic buildings standing and embraced the diversity of small businesses.

Downtown redevelopment in Flagstaff began in the early 1990s, but city leaders and private property owners there wanted to keep the unique mix of existing downtown businesses.

Like Tempe before it, Flagstaff's downtown had fallen into disrepair. Because Flagstaff partnered with existing businesses, it was able to give its central city a face-lift at a relatively low cost. It replaced sidewalks, put in streetlights and improved water and sewer systems. Property owners assessed themselves to help pay for the improvements.

The project triggered a substantial wave of private investment, including a major office project and an underground parking garage covered by a community plaza. The result is, the new developments blend in seamlessly with their historic neighbors.

Downtown Flagstaff is filled with lots of small, independent businesses housed in stately brick buildings that sell everything from fly-fishing gear to beads to music to exotic imports.

There are a couple of bike shops, outdoor outfitters, offbeat bookstores, clothing stores, sewing shops and a place to get your shoes fixed. And, of course, there are a few places selling Indian jewelry, pottery and kachinas.

Downtown Flagstaff is anchored by two grand old hotels, the Weatherford and the Monte Vista, only a couple of blocks apart along Aspen Avenue. There are a variety of independent restaurants, from casual to fine dining, within walking distance of the hostelries.

The refurbished Amtrak train station connects Flagstaff to the world -- particularly in the summer when thousands of tourists descend on the town on their way to the Grand Canyon.

At night, it rocks out as locals, Northern Arizona University students and tourists enjoy a wide range of live music in cozy clubs that maintain a connection between musicians and the audience. Bands take to any one of half a dozen stages in the drinking holes clustered together within a few blocks.

Morning brings a different opportunity.

One of my tests of a great downtown is whether there is a homegrown breakfast shop. A place where folks gather every day and discuss the issue du jour over a full breakfast. A place where newspapers are scattered about. A cafe where the owner knows most of the customers and will come and bus the table.

Downtown Flagstaff passes this test with flying colors. You can hit a different independent breakfast shop every day of the week and walk no more than a few blocks. Kathy's, Cafe Express, Macy's and La Bellavia all offer a unique flavor and ambiance. None comes close to resembling the typical chain operation.

Downtown Flagstaff is in big demand. If a business closes up for whatever reason, it is quickly replaced by another entrepreneur willing to risk it all on a dream.

"Storefronts don't stay vacant very long," says Steve Lere, Flagstaff community development director.

The downtown business community is hostile to chain stores and fought vigorously to keep even a McDonald's from gaining a foothold.

"One of the concerns of the community is to keep the mom-and-pop businesses viable," Lere says.

Sam Green and her husband, Henry Taylor, have devoted about 20 years to restoring the Weatherford Hotel.

"It's really started to turn around in the last four or five years," she says.

In the early 1990s, it had been very difficult. Flagstaff's downtown was ripped open to repair its crumbling infrastructure, and Green endured her bouts with city leaders. "It looked like Beirut," she recalls.

Many businesses struggled to survive and some went bankrupt. The hotel project, she says, almost wiped out her and her husband financially. But they managed to survive and now are benefiting from the downtown's popularity.

Green says the key to the success of Flagstaff has been keeping the old stuff alive.

"If you take down the historic fabric," she says, "you won't have anything left."

Since the early '70s, she's watched closely how demolition-happy Tempe has redeveloped its downtown.

"Tempe tore down its historic buildings and built new ones to look like the old ones," she says. "It's just not the same. It's good we have the old buildings here."

Under former Tempe mayor Harry Mitchell, the city swept the so-called "derelict" businesses off Mill Avenue and drove away hippies and artists who congregated downtown.

"I don't think it was considered by most people to be a very safe place to go," Mitchell said in a 1992 interview with the Tempe Historical Museum. "There was certainly not anything to draw Tempeans downtown."

According to Mitchell, most downtown property owners didn't care what the city did with their land when redevelopment began.

"I think it was very easy to start redevelopment downtown because people felt what should be done is just bulldoze everything and start all over," Mitchell said 12 years ago.

The cleared sites were replaced with new, much more expensive buildings that few of the businesses that had lined Mill Avenue could afford to occupy.

"Many people were concerned that they would not be able to pay the rents," Mitchell said. "Of course, our argument was that if this is successful, they'll make more money, they'll be able to afford higher rents, and they're going to do more business."

The merchants' fears were justified. Many of those who bought into Mitchell's plan went out of business, and Mill Avenue continues to struggle to attract a mix of tenants who can afford the high tariffs.

Turnover is high and vacancies linger for months and, in some cases, years. The climate on Mill is so difficult that the city has hired a retail expert to recruit businesses to downtown.

Once Tempe started swinging the wrecking ball, it couldn't stop. The town wiped out an old residential neighborhood of cottages west of Mill that provided housing to students, artists and assorted bohemians.

Down went the buildings housing Rundles Liquor Store, the Q&Brew, Long Island Pizza and Restaurant Mexico. Up went the Chase office building and its garish, seven-story parking garage with its harsh fluorescent light bulbs fouling the night sky.

Tempe's redevelopment frenzy grew increasingly out of control under Mayor Neil Giuliano. A prime example of that has been the rise and fall of Changing Hands Bookstore.

The independent bookseller opened in 1974 and soon moved into one of Tempe's first redevelopment projects on Mill. The small-scale project and city incentives provided an opportunity for regular folks to start businesses. Over the next decade, Changing Hands became the heart of downtown Tempe.

But rather than embracing this small-scale success, Tempe wanted far bigger projects. As one large-scale redevelopment project after another reshaped downtown -- culminating with the $200 million Tempe Town Lake and now-bankrupt Brick Yard -- the cost of doing business went up and up.

Finally, Changing Hands had to move off the Avenue. Customers told the store's owners that they no longer liked coming into downtown Tempe because they had to pay to park.

"[The parking problem] was the beginning of the end," says Susie Brazil, one of the owners of the store.

Changing Hands is now in a strip mall in south Tempe, where it is thriving because of a combination of loyal customers (who eschew the big Borders store on Mill) and a cadre of new suburban patrons.

Brazil hopes that downtown Tempe will return to its funky past, but she's not expecting miracles. Downtown Phoenix, she says, is where opportunity awaits to create a diverse and vibrant urban center.

Her words of advice to Phoenix planners: Don't let corporate businesses dominate the landscape. Instead, "keep it a little quirky."

If only Tempe's city fathers had taken such advice back in the day. Instead, Tempe's downtown is a prime example of how government's encouraging expensive redevelopment projects can ruin a city center. As the faux historic buildings went up, the character of Tempe went under.

This once-soulful downtown now has a Starbucks. It's got a Hooters and a Gordon Biersch, as well. It's got a Ruby Tuesday and a Fat Tuesday. It's got a Quizno's, a Jack in the Box, and Burger King's around the corner.

There's a P.F. Chang's, a Pizzeria Uno, a Z'Tejas, and a Chili's Grill & Bar. It's got a Body Works, Z Gallerie and a Fatburger. And, of course, there's an Urban Outfitters and an Abercrombie & Fitch.

All chains.

What it doesn't have is a homegrown breakfast shop on Mill.

Until such an essential downtown business returns, Tempe will remain in search of its soul.

E-mail, or call 602-229-8445.


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