In a city like Phoenix, it's almost too easy to be cynical about the future. If you listen to the talk out there, downtown Phoenix is on the verge of a comeback though really, it's never been anything great. So maybe the message is more that Phoenix is on the verge of finally becoming something, anything. Or becoming a city that feels big not just because of census numbers and sprawl, but because of culture.
When the hopeful the city officials, ASU planners and small business owners talk, you want to believe them. It's tough. We've been sold the same song and dance before. Phoenix is always "on the verge." That was the case three years ago, when Phil Gordon was our new mayor. And it's the case today.
But maybe now it's true.
Michael Hallmark, an architect who's working on a redevelopment project on Jackson Street just southwest of Chase Field, thinks the ingredients are there in downtown Phoenix. Someone just needs to tie things together.
"There are three bug lights downtown the convention center, Chase Field, and U.S. Airways Center," he says, referring to the way moths flock to a bright light. "The problem is, as soon as you turn off the lights, there are no more bugs."
That might be about to change. There are more projects developing simultaneously in downtown Phoenix than ever. Artists and independent business owners are focused on areas like Roosevelt Row. Lofts are going up. Entertainment districts are discussed. But while plans are drawn and debated, we're still left with blank walls and streets that virtually shut down after 5 p.m., with few exceptions. Especially worrisome is that the city has put a lot of energy into the development of ASU's downtown campus. The university has made big promises, but, as New Times pointed out last week ("The Devil Went Down to Phoenix," November 23), has almost no track record when it comes to urban renewal.
City officials say they've learned their lesson when it comes to redevelopment in Phoenix. Jason Harris, acting deputy director of the downtown redevelopment office, says while ASU is an important part of downtown's redevelopment, Phoenix knows better, now, than to put all its economic hopes into one plan.
"You can only achieve so much redevelopment through large destination locations," he admits. "Now we're in a time of lessons learned where we can bring downtown the fine grain. We lack people and vitality. Office workers only bring so much vitality."
Hoping to avoid past mistakes, Phoenix hired Dyett & Bhatia, a San Francisco-based urban consulting group, to create the Phoenix Urban Form Project, a rezoning project that officials claim will make it easier to build downtown by carving up the city into districts.
The project could be a big success it will certainly help the city get organized in its planning as long as the people in charge make sure to retain the good things Phoenix has to offer. If they don't, the result could be akin to a downtown that feels like a theme park.
Dale Jensen, co-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Phoenix Suns, has been quietly buying up property on Jackson Street, with the obvious hope of bringing some postseason play to the area around the sports facilities. In collaboration with architect Michael Hallmark, who designed Chase Field and a number of other sports facilities across the country (including the renovation to New York's Madison Square Garden in the '90s), Jensen has big plans to revitalize the area and turn it into a major entertainment district around Chase Field and U.S. Airways Center.
At the same time, local entrepreneurs, who have been working and opening businesses downtown (without any city handouts), are finally starting to get the attention they deserve. Roosevelt Row now has an official community development corporation working to raise awareness about the neighborhood, and ASU's downtown student life department has at least put in an effort to let downtown students know about the local businesses in the area using a map created by Roosevelt Row.
Business isn't booming yet but the businesses that have cropped up around Roosevelt Street and the galleries that now populate Grand Avenue have become known, even outside the city.
Unfortunately, they could also be endangered by future development. The artists and local business owners downtown right now have been able to do their thing for years with relatively low rent and little interference. Now there's a concern that big development and deep-pocketed corporate financers could push out the little guy, as they did on Mill Avenue in Tempe.
Rob Edwards, director of economic development at the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, is a brutal realist.
"It's really up to the landlords to give their independents the chance to prove themselves," he says. "Starbucks always gets in. They're aggressive. How do you argue with that? You hate to see one on every corner, but they're good at what they do. Starbucks is a pioneer. They'll go where others won't and change a neighborhood. People who might not have wanted to buy there will say, 'Oh, well, at least there's a Starbucks.'"
Edwards' best advice to locals: "If you don't own your building, figure out a way to buy it."
It doesn't take a genius to figure out what that really means is, "If you don't own your building, be prepared to move out."
For better or worse, that just might be life in the big city, folks. And maybe, for the first time, downtown Phoenix is headed toward big-citydom. The good news is that finally, the city's leaders have a plan. In 2004, the city council created what it calls the "strategic vision and blueprint for the future," which lays out specific goals for the city. A lot of it's in pretty cliché new urbanist lingo, but at least it's written down.
One key part of pulling off the city's scheme is fixing a lot of rules that just don't work. The city's first step was the hiring of Dyett & Bhatia to create the Urban Form Project. Dean Brennan, the lead planner for the project, is one of the good guys at the city. Someone who realizes urban renewal is complicated, but doesn't let the long process make him cynical.
The goal of the project is to make the 1,500 acres between Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street to the east and west, and McDowell and Buckeye roads to the north and south, easier to redevelop. The way Phoenix is currently zoned, parcel by parcel, has created an area of land extremely tough to build on because of generic regulations that designate certain areas as only residential or only commercial. Under the new plan, Phoenix will be split into districts each zoned in a way that will, hopefully, encourage what is already growing and being developed there.
There will also be a master plan for traffic circulation. In the future, many of downtown's streets will be narrowed, making them more pedestrian-friendly, but irritating drivers. It's a little-known (to the public) urban planners' trick to make streets less car-friendly and include on-street parking where the cars create a barrier between pedestrians and the street. In a city that loves to drive as much as Phoenix, it's important to plan where these streets will go, since, face it, everyone living and working downtown is still going to drive.
There is some hope that when light rail is done, people in Phoenix will start to utilize public transportation, but the transition might take time. In the meantime, it will be extremely important for the city to focus on how to turn certain streets into pedestrian-friendly corridors.
Brennan and the consulting firm are also focused on figuring out how much "open space" that's planner talk for "parks" the city needs, as well as planning a way to integrate public art into the city, where currently even hanging posters is prohibited and considered graffiti.
Sounds great, if not a little contrived, but on the plus side, locals are involved and giving their input through almost every step of the process. And Brennan doesn't share Edwards' thoughts on independent businesses. Actually, quite the opposite.
"We'll have national chains downtown, but more importantly are the mom-and-pop operations," he says. "Mom and pop create a unique character."
One local development group is working to build off the Urban Form Project, but in a more focused way. For 10 blocks along Jackson Street, bordered by Jefferson Street to the north, Central Avenue to the west, Fourth Street to the east, and the railroad tracks to the south, Dale Jensen and Michael Hallmark plan to develop their entertainment district.
It's a little strange to think about a single developer creating an entire street after all, it sounds a little like a mall. But Hallmark insists that the group wants to preserve as many of the historic buildings on the street as it can, as well as encouraging local business.
"Success will hinge on authenticity. Is it Disneyfied? We're not interested in that," he says. "We will hire a variety of architects. The worst thing would be for me to design all the buildings."
At least he doesn't talk like a typical development guy. It will be interesting to see what ultimately happens with the district, which is still in its early planning phases, with the group hoping to reach a development agreement with the city by early 2007. He doesn't even believe in critical mass, pointing out it's more the authenticity of a place or a business that will make it a success than the number of people living in proximity.
"Go to Postino," he says of the popular wine bar at 40th Street and Campbell Avenue in the Arcadia neighborhood. "There's no critical mass there, but you can't find a parking spot."
The same could be said for a place like Pizzeria Bianco, the now-famous restaurant just off Seventh Street north of Washington, where people start lining up for tables before the pizzeria opens even when there isn't a baseball game or a concert going on nearby.
If the answer lies in individual business owners and entrepreneurs, will the experiment work? Maybe. For one thing, Jensen's group is extremely focused on sustainable building standards, hoping to build each new structure on the street to the highest environmental standard. For another, the group is providing easements on each building to ensure that in 10 years no one can tear them down to make way for something else a pretty progressive idea in a city that loves to rip itself apart and start over every few years.
"We didn't come at this as traditional developers," says Hallmark. "We are in this because it's the right thing to do and it's simply not going to happen otherwise."
Maybe Hallmark is right. A new breed of developer might be what's needed in Phoenix. According to the city's Jason Harris, there are currently no plans to subsidize local businesses or even to give incentives to people to develop their dirt lots (which polka-dot the entire downtown redevelopment district a result of the fact that there's a lot of money to be made in land trading) the way Portland and Austin do. The topic has been broached at the city level, but that's the thing about cities they take a long time to make decisions.
While Phoenix is mulling things over, some local entrepreneurs are doing everything they can to build businesses downtown. Roosevelt Row has been fairly successful. On a street that was once close to empty save for the flophouses and drug dealers, restaurants, shops and housing all locally owned and operated have cropped up in the past five years.
At Artisan Village, a mixed-use condo-retail building at Seventh Street and Roosevelt, there are 10 live/work units where tenants are required to open a business in the storefronts. It hasn't been easy for all of them. Retail Laboratory closed up shop and moved to the Biltmore Fashion Park. There is a requirement for owners of the storefronts to keep retail spaces open; currently eight of the 10 storefronts are open with the exception of Retail Laboratory and one other empty space.
Kelly McDonald, owner of Mojo Music, says business has been slow. He didn't make even $5,000 during an eight-week period this summer. But it didn't surprise him. He knows it comes with the territory of opening a shop downtown, and luckily business is picking up again.
"The store turned a year old November 9," he says of his "child." "It's now crawling after spending its first year eating, pooping, whining and keeping me up at night."
Carla Wade, who owns Carly's Bistro at Second Street and Roosevelt just down the road from Artisan, has also seen business picking up.
"We've seen a lot of growth since we first opened [in May 2005]," she says. "More and more people are coming to the area on non-event evenings. Probably most of the businesses . . . have been in business about the same length of time, and that might have something to do with it."
This area's success, achieved without city support, suggests that maybe all Phoenix needs to do is allow businesses to grow and provide basic services to places where commerce has already started to flourish.
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Greg Esser, president of the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation, says he isn't asking the city to do much. He's just trying to get Phoenix to provide basic services to help the street. If the city could do simple things plant trees for shade, fix cracks in the sidewalk, put up streetlights in some of these neighborhoods and redevelopment areas, it's likely more people would start using the streets simply because they'd be more appealing, he says. In other words, the key to Phoenix's success lies not just in urban plans, condos or ASU-size projects, but also in fixing the small stuff.
True, no one wants to walk past a blank wall or a dirt lot for block upon block.
"If they [the city of Phoenix] concentrate on parking, public transportation and pedestrian-friendly design, this entire area could be a hub for activity," says Esser. "We're only four blocks from Chase Field, but you'd never think of it. People here will actually get in their car and drive down there. Right now it's vacant land. It's unsettling and uncomfortable to walk two blocks of empty territory."
It's all about filling in the blanks large and small.