Give the Godfather the Boot

The godfather of Phoenix sports: Colangelo
Jackie Mercandetti

The corporate big wheels are putting the screws to downtown Phoenix.

Each twist brings us inexorably closer to obliterating a rare and fragile opportunity to create an urban center unique to our corner of the world.

Anyone who thinks a corporate-dominated glitter mall with chain eateries and high-end housing isn't in the works for our fractured downtown has been lulled into complacency by an enticing illusion that an affordable, ethnically diverse community anchored by small business and gritty art galleries really matters.

It doesn't.

At least not to the power brokers calling the shots.

While we still don't know details of the downtown development game plan being crafted in secret by sports and entertainment godfather Jerry Colangelo and his stable of co-conspirators (utilities, banks, the city and the daily newspaper), one thing is certain:

They are thinking big, really big.

And moving fast, really fast.

Here's a peek inside Don Colangelo's crystal ball depicting his version of the Phoenix arising.

"I see a return to the inner city," Colangelo told me during an interview on a late September afternoon inside his spacious office at Bank One Ballpark.

"I can visualize ten or fifteen thousand housing units," he said.

"Retail coming back. Neighborhoods coming back. All of this connected."

To what?

"A town center," he said.

What kind of town center?

One that showcases the unique beauty and fragility of the rapidly disappearing Sonoran Desert?

A beautiful refuge for lovers to slip away for an hour at lunch?

A dynamic landscape punctuated with a labyrinth of sounds, sights and smells that lures creative young minds to revel in a city committed to creating the opportunity for individuals to flourish?

A place with a heart? A soul?

Because it won't come to that if Jerry Colangelo's vision of a town center is put into place.

And if you think people don't care what Phoenix's downtown is like, think again.

More than 750 citizens gathered on a recent Thursday night at the Phoenix Preparatory Academy to find out exactly what Jerry Colangelo has in mind for downtown. Too bad for them, and for the rest of us, that what everyone hoped would be a lively discussion over what is best for downtown turned into a choreographed pep rally.

Despite being the catalyst for the town meeting, Colangelo didn't show up. He's always the savvy businessman. My theory is that he's trying to create the faade that others are really behind what is his plan for the future of our city. His plan to keep the money in what he considers the right hands.

Though it didn't turn out that way, clearly the city was expecting a mob scene. New Times has reported over the past months that many in the downtown business community are fed up with Colangelo's being allowed to capture the lion's share of downtown development dollars for his stadium, arena and theater projects.

Thing is, these venues have failed to do what Colangelo said they would do: create a vibrant urban center. Now there's a cry that public investment dollars must be spread, that big-box development must give way to a multitude of entrepreneurial small businesses.

In our conversation, Colangelo made it clear that what he wants for downtown Phoenix is a shopping center. But not just any run-of-the-mill shopping center.

Colangelo's shooting for something far more grandiose than a Kierland Commons clone. After all, this is a guy who delivered a World Series championship to Phoenix in record time.

Think big. Jerry does.

"What I like is something like the Water Tower Place in Chicago, on Michigan Avenue," he said.

Water Tower Place is a gang-bang of more than 133 retail stores, featuring such Wall Street standbys as Banana Republic, Eddie Bauer, The Limited, Victoria's Secret and the Sharper Image. Its anchors are Lord & Taylor and Marshall Field.

The eight-story shopping center is embedded into a 74-story skyscraper that houses pricey condos, offices and a Ritz-Carlton hotel.

This cozy arrangement assures a safe and sterile shopping experience for the affluent urban dweller.

"It's all contained, and it's all there," Colangelo said.

This is a major point: Such a retail concept in downtown Phoenix would allow Colangelo and his backers to keep as much money as possible inside the buildings they control. Just like always, he's probably expecting the city to play along by building massive parking garages to wall off patrons from nearby art galleries, bars and restaurants.

Even if the parking structure barriers to the rest of downtown didn't exist, most of the five million spectators who assemble every year inside Jerry's babies -- America West Arena, Bank One Ballpark and the Dodge Theatre -- have shot their party wad on $8 beers and other pricey concessions.  

While a "Desert Tower Center" in downtown Phoenix could bring affluent customers and a few high-dollar residents into the city's center, it also would rip the heart out of the organic web of small enterprises that are beginning to emerge naturally downtown by driving up taxes and property values.

Many of the folks who have made downtown their focus for decades will suddenly find they can't afford to live, work or play on their own turf. And with them will go any hope that downtown Phoenix can reclaim its soul. That it can offer the so-called creative class anything worth grasping onto.

Colangelo knows this is a rare opportunity to orchestrate the transformation of downtown. Like presidents nearing the end of their terms, Jerry's considering his legacy.

And why shouldn't he be allowed to get away with thinking like this? No one else has stepped up in the last 20 years to seriously challenge him as downtown's kingpin, which is amazing.

Phoenix is ripe for the taking.

Where else is there 132 acres of vacant land in the center of a major city anywhere in the country?

Combine available land with projections that Phoenix's regional population will double in the next 20 years, and it's obvious that tens of thousands of people will be moving into the downtown area.

Mix in a few billion dollars to be invested over the next several years in an expanded civic plaza, a cutting-edge biotechnology research center, a city-owned 1,000-room hotel, half a dozen light-rail stations, a downtown Arizona State University campus with more than 12,000 students, and it's a powerful cocktail.

The question now becomes, who needs Jerry's secret plan?

Why do we even think for a minute that he should be deciding what this influx of people should be doing downtown? The downtown population increase that these planned improvements will bring is only a foundation for what Phoenix could expect in its central city if it were allowed to develop as Denver's, Houston's and Seattle's have.

Why not give ASU -- with its forward-thinking president and its distinguished collection of world-class urban planners, architects, economists and social scientists -- a leading role in the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop a downtown plan?

With ASU leading the way, the city could bring in a wide range of downtown advocates, instead of relying on Colangelo and his self-serving business cronies.

Rather than straddling the fence by encouraging Jerry to continue his stealth urban-planning campaign, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon should tell Colangelo to pack up his blueprint and concentrate instead on finding a suitable leadoff hitter for the D-Backs and, heaven forbid, a dominant center for the Suns.

After all, what urban design credentials does Colangelo have hanging from his office wall?

As alluded to already, Jerry's devotion to downtown is only wallet-deep. At the same time Colangelo is secretly sculpting the fate of downtown, he is also plotting to build a massive community in the beautiful, unspoiled desert 50 miles west of downtown.

I'm saying, what kind of commitment does Colangelo have to downtown when he's fanning the flames of sprawl that have helped drain the vitality from the inner city for the last 50 years?

Asked last fall to provide details on his downtown master plan, Colangelo made it clear that access to such information would only come at a price. (New Times had discovered that he and his secret partners had contracted with Jerde Development, known for designing mega-mall monstrosities, to come up with a downtown design plan.)

"Tell your boss I need 25 grand. You want to be a part of this process? Huh?" he taunted.

"Well, I need money. You want to have a say-so in this whole thing? Participate. That's being as straightforward as I can be. You want to be a critic, give me some cash, then you can be on the inside. It would be wonderful for me to have you there, for a price, and then you can find out there is no hidden agenda."

In other words, to find out what Jerry Colangelo has in mind for downtown Phoenix -- which would be subsidized with taxpayer money, if history is any guide -- the press and the public must pay to play.

Wonder if Jerry's D-Backs business partner, the Arizona Republic, kowtowed to his demand for funds for its seat at the table? Republic publisher Sue Clark-Johnson also sits with Colangelo on the Downtown Phoenix Partnership he founded.

If there is no hidden agenda, Jerry Colangelo should be happy to provide the public with the name of everyone who contributed toward the $700,000 already raised to pay Jerde and other consultants.  

But it really doesn't matter who's in cahoots with Jerry. Whoever they are, they shouldn't be allowed to dictate what downtown will look like in the future. Phil Gordon should become the first mayor to tell Jerry Colangelo, "Thanks for all you've done for the city, but we'll take over from here."

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

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