YOU CALL THIS A REVITALIZED DOWNTOWN?
If it shines, it's as a symbol; in every other way, Square One is worn down at the heels. It squats in the center of downtown, an entire block of shuttered buildings, all of them scarred with posters tacked up long ago by AIDS activists and the fans of L. Ron Hubbard. Wrapped around the southwest corner at Central and Adams is a Keith Haring mural, a vast map of black geometric shapes filled in with colors as bright as were once the city fathers' hopes that Square One would spring to life, and downtown with it. More seedily urban than any of the sparkling projects now surrounding it--the monolithic America West Arena, the thriving Arizona Center, the corpselike Mercado--it could have been in place when the city was born and appears ready to endure to the end.
But that's an illusion. With what some onlookers believe was stealth, the Phoenix City Council voted unanimously in July to tear Square One down, at a demolition cost of almost $1 million.
"At the very least, the city should have come forward and said, 'These buildings are really a wreck. To do renovations would be such-and-such in terms of dollars. We have tried hard, but we don't have any viable deals,'" says Michael Dollin, an urban designer who has consulted extensively on downtown projects, who was one of only three citizens to protest Square One's demolition in front of the city council. "That would have been fine. But they didn't do that! They said, 'Let's do this real quietly.'
"I can understand their saying it is a blighted block, but I do think it's a shame that we are tearing up our urban fabric at a time we cannot afford to rebuild it."
Which brings us to the next part: In Square One's place will go a parking lot. This is despite the city's own 25-year plan for a dense downtown that prohibits more surface parking and despite the protestations of at least two local developers who wanted to explore further the possibility of filling the block with tenants. It's the latest, and some fear final, twist in a decade-long downtown development saga that has raised hopes, wrecked the career of players such as developer Julian Blum and brought to the attention of city government such "wanna-bes" as Walter Switzer, who eventually ran for the city council, and David Therrien, an artist and fledgling developer who is building an avant-garde art center at the Ice House in the warehouse district. Not incidentally, Square One also has cost the city $10 million without a return.
The parking-lot decision comes at a time when the city's economy is crippled, not only by the recession but from the loss of sales-tax revenues, so that this year's municipal budget is smaller than last year's. Such shrinkage has never occurred before, a fact that throws a $10 million mistake into sharp relief. But the decision represents more than waste: It sounds an alarm that our downtown, which press accounts have been gushing is revitalized, is far from out of danger. And it has much to say about the values of a changed city council that places little faith in urban planning, the process that should allow a city to become more livable as it grows.
Most unsettling, the urban-planning implications of the Square One decision are Valleywide: Already, the city council has so de-emphasized urban planning that it has driven away its planning director, Ron Short, according to Short himself. Short resigned early in the summer and told New Times afterward, "My greatest concern is that long-range planning will not be done because of a lack of staff." Although reviews of Short's own performance are mixed--he is called "ineffective" by some insiders and credited with a great concern for planning by others--even his critics admit that there's not much understanding of the importance of planning among the members of the current city council. It has all happened without much publicity, perhaps because "urban planning" is the sort of phrase that makes both reporters' and readers' eyes glaze over. What is urban planning, anyway? And why does it matter that it's in the toilet during a year when police and firefighters are struggling to keep their jobs? Is it anything more than Nineties-speak, more than a frill?
It is. In an era when cities develop according to how far we can drive, urban planning can prevent sprawl from becoming uninhabitable. By defining land use and calculating growth, urban planning can keep neighborhoods conducive to family life. By embracing the environment, it can protect a city's natural resources and thus its beauty. By advancing design-review standards, it can safeguard aesthetics.
It comes down to this: Urban planning can make the difference between marking time in a city and enjoying your life there. Well-planned cities, like Washington, D.C., and Seattle, know how to spend their money (How will you design a water system for north Phoenix without knowing how many people will likely be living there in ten years?). Such cities also take in more money, since it often is well-planned cities that people move or travel to.
When Square One comes down, it will bespeak more damage than the loss of a piece of Phoenix history.
@body:The story of Square One began in 1982. In those days, there was no downtown to speak of, unless you counted the drunks as a destination. People were afraid to walk there at night. (Hell, they were afraid during the day.) The city council, led by Mayor Margaret Hance, was eager to jump-start the place, so when approached by local developers Ted Kort and Julian Blum with a plan to transform what was then known as Block 21 into a retail mall, the council endorsed the proposal. In place of the Woolworth's, the wig shop, the tavern for derelicts and the X-rated moviehouse, Kort and Blum envisioned 100 shops and restaurants, a farmer's market and a plaza. They brought in well-known developers Baltimore's Cordish and Embry as a partner.
From the beginning, the road to fulfillment was a rocky one because of Walter Switzer. Switzer's downtown clothing store had long been an anchor in Block 21, and he was the sole merchant who refused to leave. At public meetings where the mall proposal was discussed, he declared that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," and he referred to the city's redevelopment director as "asinine." He hired a prominent law firm to fight the city's condemnation of Block 21, and he quietly purchased the land beneath the Square One buildings on which Blum had acquired the leases.
Switzer was prepared for the fight of his life. His attorney, Jay Dushoff, says it was a sentimental thing, that Switzer was emotionally attached to the site where his father had started the family business in 1917. Switzer eventually submitted a plan to the city council to develop Square One himself, but Dushoff says this play was consistent with sentiment and not motivated by greed. "Since his goal was to stay there, that was just a way to accomplish that goal--to become the master developer," says Dushoff.
Not everyone agrees that Switzer's heart ruled him, but whatever his motives, he delayed the project for more than five years with his resistance and distractions. Finally the city agreed to let his store remain and to develop Square One around it. Before long, however, Cordish and Embry pulled out of the project altogether, Julian Blum says because they "had had it with Switzer and had had it with the city." Trammell Crow took over as developer, and Kort and Blum maintained a small interest.
Switzer hadn't finished with Julian Blum; he sued Blum for the money the city had settled on the developer to buy out his leases, and won, forcing Blum into bankruptcy and out of his career in real estate. Today Blum is the director of a shelter for the homeless on east Van Buren. "I virtually lost everything I had," he says. "Square One traumatized me completely." (See related story.) In the meantime, the Rouse Company, prominent developers known for Quincy Market near Boston's Faneuil Hall and San Diego's Horton Plaza, had conceived and built the Arizona Center, which opened for business in 1990 only a few blocks north of Square One. In late 1991, Trammell Crow pulled out of Square One, saying it had lost its lender, who believed a second retail project downtown wouldn't survive.
Many close observers of downtown agree, including Margaret McKeough, the city's business programs administrator in the Department of Economic Development. "We definitely do not see it anymore as a retail site," she says, adding that the parking-lot plan is an interim use; the ultimate goal is to build a high-rise office building when the real estate market recovers. Whether this will be in 5, 10 or 20 years, McKeough admits she cannot predict, although she does not appear to find it contradictory to use the word "interim" to describe a period of time that may span generations.
It was McKeough and Denny Maus, the city's community and economic development director, who ultimately took the plan for a parking lot to the city council. McKeough's office window once overlooked Square One and she has functioned as the property manager for the deteriorating buildings since she came to Phoenix in 1986. "It was a consistent drain on our resources," she says, recollecting a chemical fire and the death of a transient who was electrocuted while scaling the abandoned buildings.
The worst problem, however, was the complaints: The other downtown property owners thought that Square One had become a visual slum and had to go. From the Hyatt Regency's Compass Room and the rooms on the top floors of the Omni Hotel, tourists were gazing down into a green muck that had settled onto the Square One roofs, and the ramshackle storefronts detracted from an atmosphere of downtown safety. "When the City of Phoenix for the second time was faced with the reality that the city has not been able to do retail on this site, the objective became to clean up the site," says McKeough. "But it was by no means the first idea that any of us had--to turn it into a parking lot."
She says this defensively, in the way that she responds to every question that's posed to her about Square One. She has wrestled with this project for too many years--has found funding, negotiated with developers, and lately become the repository for complaints from onlookers who are horrified with the parking-lot plan. And she wants you to know that she and Maus didn't resign themselves to this fate until they'd exhausted other options.
There were no tenants and no financing available, she says, and studies showed it would be too expensive to renovate these buildings from the 1940s and 1950s in any case. She considered trying to extend the Trammell Crow deal to give the developers more time to come up with funding, but in the end, the city budget was a crisis, the downtown retail market was dominated by the Arizona Center, and the market for office space was stalled. A parking lot became the only solution.
"I am emotional about this, I know," says McKeough. "My feelings have been hurt by people who work with me in the city every day thinking I just want to throw a parking lot up there, and it was not that way at all."
Not everyone is buying it. Critics like urban designer Michael Dollin and David Therrien, a first-time developer " who is building a center for leading-edge art in the old Ice House at Fourth Avenue and Jackson Street, are troubled by the scant information made available to the public at July's fateful city council meeting. No figures relating to rehabilitation costs or records of studies performed to assess the downtown retail market were provided on the vague, page-and-a-half report prepared by city staff that, even before the vote was taken, seemed to regard a parking lot as a fait accompli. (McKeough says that an extensive environmental study was performed on the buildings that showed the cost for asbestos abatement alone would be a prohibitive $300,000 to $400,000, and she makes this report available to the press. Further studies of rehabilitation costs were not performed. Another study, one assessing the downtown retail market, was apparently performed by the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, an association of downtown property owners who supported the parking-lot proposal and whose wishes carry enormous clout with the city council. DPP's director, Margaret Mullin, says she doesn't have this study's figures.)
"They used asbestos as a scare tactic, but there was no structural report on specifics about what buildings were unsafe," complains Therrien. "I think they were trying to make it happen fast, during the summer, when we wouldn't have a chance to work up a head of steam."
Therrien is interested in downtown events not only because of the future of the Ice House but because he continues to buy up downtown land for later development--development that he plans to do on a shoestring and with lots of creativity and sweat equity, in contrast to the slick, new, expensive sort of development that the Arizona Center personifies. He estimates that he owns enough land at this point to build "three Square Ones," including the old Santa Fe freight terminal that adjoins the Ice House property to the west. One of his most recent acquisitions, a building at Jackson and Ninth Avenue, was inhabited by transients who'd filled it with piles of thrift-store clothing they'd used for toilet paper and hundreds of aerosol spray cans that had been the source of highs. Therrien spent months gathering and discarding the disgusting garbage because he wanted to save an old building.
He believes there are others like him who'd have put their muscles where their mouths are in order to save the piece of Phoenix heritage that is Square One, and that a city needs the sort of funky project that could have resulted. In particular, he believes that in an economic downturn city staffers must use their imaginations rather than waiting for the big developers with deep pockets who are now nearly nonexistent.
"At the Ice House, I will do all six buildings on two acres for less than $2 million, what a usual developer would ask as a fee alone. And the architect is getting stock options," he reveals. "If you don't have the financing, you just have to figure out a different way."
All of which sticks in Margaret McKeough's craw. "I consider myself a creative person," she says of her ability to find unconventional funding sources and her understanding that raw-edged "alternative" development is vital to a city environment. She points to the Jackson Street studios at Second Street, a row of excellent and airy spaces for artists that was financed with a combination of the artists' relocation funds and city subsidies when artists were forced out of other spaces downtown, and which McKeough first located and then helped make possible by designing the funding package. "Jackson Street was definitely sweat equity and doing it on a shoestring in a way that had not been done before," she says.
And who is David Therrien anyway to be criticizing her ability to get things done? "David Therrien needs to finish a project and gain some credibility," she says, echoing a concern that's sounded often by observers with an eye on Therrien, who for years owned and operated CRASHarts with his wife, performance artist Helen Hestenes, just south of downtown. He bought the Ice House two years ago and so far he and Hestenes have only managed to mount occasional exhibitions; there has been no major renovation. He and Hestenes say he has been busy "stabilizing" the property--which is to say, buying more land for parking and working with asbestos abatement--but onlookers wonder whether he has spread himself so thin, borrowing from friends and family to buy one parcel of land after another, that he'll be unable to follow through on the original project that could establish him as the leader for the artsy, alternative development downtown.
"I get so frustrated with him because I think the Ice House is such a good idea, and what happens when those sorts of projects fail is it affects everybody in art," says Margaret Mullin, director of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership of property owners. "If he completes the Ice House and makes it a success, all of us will be trying to help him complete projects, but he hasn't proven that he has that business acumen."
Which Hestenes and Therrien say is nonsense: The only thing holding up their project is the $120,000 in historic preservation money that the city promised them more than 18 months ago and still hasn't delivered. "To me, the city's credibility is what is shot here," says Hestenes. "David is working and making it happen regardless of the city's lack of support."
Therrien's credentials as a critic may not be established, but he is not the only local developer who believes city staff prematurely dismissed more interesting possibilities for Square One, perhaps out of fatigue. Ted Kort, one of Block 21's original developers, went to McKeough and Maus when the Trammell Crow deal fell through, wanting to see if a project was somehow salvageable. "We wanted to know, could we try and put something together whereby you would save some buildings, tear down others, landscape and rent out the buildings at a minimum expense?" says Kort. "We would have started with all the players downtown and said, 'Do you want to be a part of this? Can we come up with enough money to clean it up?'"
But he got the impression that McKeough and Maus weren't willing to explore things further. "They were just pretty much set on taking everything down," he says. "They said, 'We will probably make a parking lot out of it.'"
McKeough counters that a willingness to explore was not the point; the problem was that Kort had brought her an incomplete plan. "Where was the financing?" she asks, her voice rising. And she warns that anyone who believes her department has been cavalier about discarding Square One as a retail site doesn't understand the dynamics of economic development. "I will tell you that we do this for a living. It is tough to judge the retail market these days, but we have a feel for what happens down here," she says. "If it is perceived that we were quick to not consider, it is only because of our knowledge."
There is a great deal more of this point-counterpoint between the critics of the Square One decision and the bureaucrats who researched it, and no easy way to sort through it. The wrangling establishes only this: Leveling Square One into a parking lot was a decision of magnitude, based on disputable assumptions, that should at least have been challenged by someone with the authority to do it.
And yet those in authority--the mayor and the members of the city council--merely rolled over meekly and approved the city staff's plan. The parking-lot proposal passed unanimously, and so hurriedly that Dollin, Therrien and Hestenes had to stand and insist on airing their opposition after the vote had already occurred.
It was a case of government gotten backward. It has lately been a difficult fact to discern, but the function of the Phoenix City Council is to set policy, which is another term for leadership. Once policies are set, it is the task of the city staff to implement them.
When it goes the other way--when staff sets policy, as apparently happened with Square One--the result will be one that does not create management problems for the bureaucrats who must act as caretakers. Smooth maintenance, not the creation of controversy or exciting environments, is the mandate of city employees. Bureaucrats leave inspiration and moral vigor to the politicians.
Why did the process get muddled with the Square One vote? And if the city council isn't doing it these days--if there isn't an insistent, even rigid leader like Terry Goddard out in front--who's looking after the fate of downtown?
@body:Because change is noticed slowly, the impression of a city council that is downtown's champion may still endure among Phoenicians. This is because, until he resigned to run for governor in 1990, former mayor Terry Goddard was that rare leader who was willing to stand in the path of pot shots for something he wanted--and he wanted a thriving city center. He was supported in his quest by councilmembers Calvin Goode, whose district includes downtown, and Mary Rose Wilcox and Linda Nadolski, who came to city government from backgrounds of neighborhood activism that acquainted them with the nuts and bolts--and importance--of urban planning. For six years, they sowed the seeds for the harvest of downtown projects that is now being heralded as revitalization. And they went further: To some extent, they transformed Phoenix from a city that had always been hostile to planning, in the way that this frontier town routinely opposes anything that's seen as a limitation on freedom, into a place that recognized the importance of preserving the integrity of neighborhoods and whatever desert beauty had survived unregulated growth.
They did it by adopting the city's first General Plan. The General Plan specified nine "urban villages" or city cores and declared downtown Phoenix to be the "supercore" that would benefit the entire city. It has gained national recognition as the first General Plan based on "urban villages."
The importance of a "supercore" has proven to be more than a slightly prophetic vision: As shopping malls such as Park Central and Thomas Mall have failed while those in the suburbs have thrived, as car dealerships have become concentrated outside Phoenix city limits, the city's sales-tax revenues have plummeted. Last year, revenues were down by 2 percent while rising 2 to 4 percent in neighboring cities. Only downtown Phoenix showed an increase in revenues, between 3 and 4 percent, because of the successful Arizona Center.
When Goddard and his crew went to work for downtown, they were both zealous and rolling in the money of the Eighties. They accomplished quite a bit in a short period--enough that Phoenicians have come to regard as a given the continued growth of downtown. This offhanded attitude is dangerous. Today, the city is struggling mightily for funds, and Goddard, Nadolski and Wilcox have all left the council. They have been replaced, according to the very kindest observers, by newcomers without an understanding of the importance of planning.
Others are less charitable. "Surely you jest," says Nadolski when asked whether there is concern for planning among the present city council. "There simply is none. The General Plan isn't followed by the council."
It is certainly true in terms of the Square One decision, which goes against the 25-year plan for downtown adopted by the council in 1991, that specifies there will be no more surface parking, a prime creator of dead space, in the downtown area. Almost invariably, city staff and councilmembers justify this about-face by claiming that the parking lot is only an "interim use--which they then admit, if pressed, may last indefinitely.
"It seems like their bottom priority is planning, and somewhere way far beyond that is long-range planning," says Kay Jeffries, long a neighborhood activist who keeps a close eye on the council. "Things that would provide future continuity are looked at as almost a hindrance at this point. It is the 'p' word."
But why? "I don't think anybody on the council thinks the 25-year plan is their plan, because they weren't there when it was made," says Jeffries. And because there is no money, "I think they are running scared, looking for short-term solutions."
The solutions being chosen, according to numerous observers, are whatever will not get in the way of business, an approach that Jeffries refers to as "the round-heel school of development." (The entire human-rights-ordinance debate was that it was too hard on business," says Nadolski, pointing out that the anxiety to pacify business cuts clear through some of the council's most publicized decisions.) It's an orientation that argues against adhering to rules and regulations that will enhance the lives of city dwellers but that will restrict developers and other business people. It also argues for creating lots of clean, blank space--parking lots, for instance--instead of struggling to save and protect old buildings that developers who must incorporate them into their projects will only regard as nuisances.
"They are being penny-wise and pound-foolish, in that what makes people want to live here, shop here, put their homes here, is quality of life--everything they are eliminating!" says Jeffries. "Being able to come up with short-term solutions is not leadership."
It is conclusions that dovetail with these that this summer led to the resignation of former planning director Ron Short, according to Short. Short, who came here from Tampa five years ago to lead the planning department, is a man who, like a bird fluffing its feathers, seems to balloon in size when recounting his accomplishments. He points glowingly to the freeway mitigation program that in particular has made the Squaw Peak Parkway a pleasure to drive (It is absolutely unique in the nation, cutting edge!" he crows), to the plans for an artwalk downtown (That is going to be very exciting!), to very specific urban-village plans that stand, for instance, to transform the Camelback corridor from 16th to 24th Street into a haven for pedestrians (When I come back ten years from now, I will be able to see the things I have done!), to the city's adoption of design review standards (Phoenix had never done that before!). Not everyone is as unrestrainedly enthusiastic about Short's tenure: He is soundly criticized for not educating the public about the importance of urban planning and for not confronting the councilmembers with the consequences of their antiplanning decisions. But one cannot talk with him for long without believing at least that he wishes to represent innovation in planning as his enduring passion.
And that he has felt hugely hamstrung in this pursuit by the city council. He says that, when the council rated its budget priorities recently, he knew it was time to move on. "What convinced me was that updating the General Plan got a very low rating--133rd out of 135 items," he says. "The only things we beat out were the EEO and the laser beam!" Since the General Plan is the tool for long-range planning, the planning department's budget has been cut until planning for the future is impossible. "I think being able to look forward and relate short-term decision making to long-range planning is critical to the survival of the community. I think you have to put strong resources into planning and maintain those resources and continue with those plans in good times and bad times," he says. "I have got a plan in my heart and I am going to continue to do plans."
Mayor Paul Johnson, who says he regrets Short's departure, also points out that all department heads underwent budget cuts (and disgruntlement) this year. Even this rationale, and the reality of our decimated economy, do not explain away a priority for long-range planning that places it third from the bottom, however. It is difficult to imagine what could explain it, besides ignorance.
If the city council is downplaying planning in general, the Square One decision suggests that, in particular, it isn't paying enough attention to downtown. Although the councilmembers almost invariably pay lip service to the heart of the city--I think downtown is exceptionally important and is starting to come back to life!" declares Mayor Johnson--their real attention is usually focused elsewhere. According to some observers, this is an unfortunate outgrowth of district representation. "A lot of people on the council could care less about downtown, including the mayor," says urban designer Michael Dollin. "They have downtowns in their own districts."
But every bit of the council's neglect can't be thus accounted for. For one thing, these councilmembers who think business is everything cannot escape the fact that, as the only area within city limits with healthy sales-tax revenues and a great potential for more, downtown is good for business. And for another thing, there are signs that even councilmembers with a genuine interest in downtown have abdicated their responsibility for watchdogging it.
Take Craig Tribken. The former chair of the Encanto Village Planning Committee, he is well-known for his support of the General Plan. He is pointed at by insiders as the councilmember destined to lead the next downtown charge. Ask him about his vision for Phoenix and he begins referring to downtown as a "fundamental psychic anchor," and he frets about "the important issue of residential flight out of the central city. The most important issue bar none." And yet he voted to turn Square One into a parking lot almost unthinkingly.
He is asked, "Why did you vote for a measure that violates the 25-year plan?"
He hesitates, clearly embarrassed. "Does it really? I was not aware of that," he says. "I wish someone had pointed that out." He adds, "I was glad that David Therrien came down to the meeting and challenged the staff's presumptions about the parking-lot proposal--as though unable to challenge anything himself.
Why was he so careless with his vote? Perhaps because he and other councilmembers take their cue for downtown policy to a startling degree from the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, the association of property owners that has formed an improvement district. Tribken admits this influence outright, as do some of his associates, and Margaret Mullin, the DPP director, cannot recall a single issue in the one-and-a-half years since the association was formed when a city-council vote has countered her association's will.
It's not a bad thing in one way--who's more likely to watch carefully over downtown interests than the investors whose dollars are there? But it does mean that business interests and not a concern for downtown aesthetics or the city center's impact on Phoenix is the basis for downtown decisions. It does mean that nobody is looking at the big picture. It also means that especially moneyed downtown business owners carry disproportionate clout with the council.
Some observers point out that the situation amounts on one level to a limitless potential for abuse: that power mongers who are also DPP members, such as the Phoenix Suns' general manager, Jerry Colangelo, could use the DPP to manipulate the city council into decisions that benefit them directly. These observers speculate that Colangelo or anyone else wanting to develop Square One will save considerable demolition costs if the city spends its own $1 million to clear the site of bothersome buildings instead of requiring that million from interested developers.
Colangelo himself is very evasive about his personal interest in the Square One site: He doesn't confirm or deny it.
He does call the block "a great piece of property" and a "rallying point" for those interested in downtown's future. He does rave with genuine feeling about the pleasures of maintaining an office in his new America West Arena, where he claims he leaves his door flung wide open to the grunts of belching buses and other urban background music. He does volunteer his "vision" for a "master plan" that would include the Square One site, the parking lot east of Patriots Square, the acreage that's now the bus terminal and the parking lot south of Symphony Hall, saying that he'd like to see all this land become a retail mall that would be a focus for downtown and that would play off the foot traffic heading toward and away from his beautiful arena. "I am interested in seeing it happen, and whether or not we could participate remains to be seen," he says.
He does say that a primary purpose of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership is to "pressure the city council."
He does not, in short, say one word that would reassure onlookers that his interest in Square One will not result, if it hasn't already, in undue influence brought to bear, in ways that will line his own pockets, on councilmembers who have dropped the reins anyway when it comes to downtown.
He does pose one very disturbing answer to the question, Who's in charge here?
@body:"Downtown--It's Alive!" a recent Phoenix Magazine cover declares, and Margaret McKeough would like you to believe that the Square One parking lot won't change that. "Every inch of this site is not going to be a surface parking lot; it's going to be a landscaped area in downtown Phoenix," she says. And the Switzer's building will stay, of course, as well as the old Hanny's, which has been designated historically significant. "We are trying to do more with it, we really are."
And maybe they will. Maybe the parking lot isn't even a permanent mistake or a fatal one. So much that's going on around it is good.
What the parking lot is--what some trees and ground cover can't obscure--is a warning: Downtown's rebirth is a fragile balance that can still be upset.
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