CityScape: If Phoenix's Latest Urban Development Fails to Get Off the Ground, Is It Our Fault?

CityScape smells like hamburger meat.

The scent of comfort food probably wasn't part of RED Development's plan when it hired Callison Architecture to sketch out Phoenix's latest downtown urban infill development. (Although I secretly like the idea of a meeting in which the guys from RED tell Callison, "And make it smell like a cheeseburger!") The aroma of meat and onions is coming from Five Guys Burgers and Fries, one of several of CityScape's Phase One anchor tenants.

Fans of CityScape — and I'm not entirely sure I'm not one of them —will take their comfort not from the smell of grilling burgers, but from its sameness. We all instantly recognize this monolithic project, built on the land formerly occupied by Patriots Square Park and acquired through a redevelopment agreement with the City of Phoenix, as our city's latest attempt at emulating another city altogether — one where people actually walk from one place to another; where people linger downtown after work because there's a grocery store and a pharmacy and a cluster of restaurants next to its colossal office tower. Or because they live down there, in a sunny loft above a bustling row of boutiques.

This time, Phoenix's newest go at keeping suburbanites and tourists downtown after a ballgame or convention hopes to find its success by folding "urban" into "suburban," with anchors typically found in outlying parts of town, like a CVS pharmacy and a bowling alley. (The triumvirate of suburban amenities was meant to include a grocery store, but apparently none of the supermarket chains was willing to risk a store in an under-populated downtown; CityScape's market is the high-end Oakville Grocery Company — a boutique-y grocer that's a far cry from Safeway.)

The thinking seems to be that people will be more willing to interact with a downtown core if it looks more like home. It's an interesting — and also sort of desperate — approach to getting people to linger downtown after work. And it's one that (surprise!) doesn't do much to acknowledge or incorporate the urban landscape of our existing downtown, a fact that has a lot of dyed-in-the-wool downtowners like Beatrice Moore really pissed off. CityScape's southern-most exposure, she says, tells you everything you need to know about the development.

"The south wall is a big, ugly, blank wall, blocking out everything beyond it," says Moore, who's had a hand in revitalizing downtown herself, by buying up old buildings and turning them into shops and diners and workspaces for artists. "This is just another insular, self-contained project that wants to keep its business inside. It doesn't integrate downtown. It turns its back on it."

It's hard to argue with Moore, who's also mad about early promises from developers of a replacement for the publicly owned Patriots Park, which was part of a parcel-trade in the CityScape deal. The development's "park" is more of a wide, outdoor arcade surrounded by offices, and a big chunk of it is above street level. On the other hand, downtown parks are typically ghost towns, so the loss here is negligible. And, according to Jeff Moloznik, one of RED's CityScape developers, there have been some real efforts made to re-create the palette of neighboring buildings. "A lot of what we used was native materials and colors from the existing nearby architecture," he told me when I called to poke around about CityScape. "This is the sort of small, clean, thoughtful gesture we hope that locals and tourists will see and appreciate."

What this local sees and appreciates about CityScape isn't especially small or clean. I see how very Phoenix this huge project is. It's the latest in a long line of revitalization projects created by out-of-state designers (in this case, guys from Seattle) who've never had to navigate a half-year of triple-digit temperatures; who haven't accustomed themselves to driving everywhere because there's so much space between points A and B and because it's too damn hot to walk that distance. And if I like CityScape, it's because it reflects so literally the notion of that bird rising from the ashes — as usual, ashes created by something recently built and then scrapped in favor of a new and bigger version of other, similar, recently failed projects.

That's our Phoenix: a hopeful romantic who keeps trying to get his lover to change, to be more like the dreamy ideal he'd always wanted to marry. CityScape is merely Phoenix's latest girlfriend, and she looks an awful lot like the last three, all of whom broke up with us because we refused to see her for who she really is.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela