Tall wooden flower sculptures painted with smiling faces dot the urban landscape along Grand Avenue. The neighborhood is often hailed for its historic buildings and artistic spaces. Each fall, people descend on the area for the Grand Avenue Festival, which highlights the creativity here. This year, it’s happening on Saturday, November 9.
Roughly bounded by Seventh and Fifteenth Avenues, the area is also home to small businesses and residential neighborhoods. Like much of the city, it’s constantly evolving.
Just this year, the owner of Yoga Democracy bought a warehouse near Grand Avenue, where he’s planning a mixed-use development. ThirdSpace lost its prime location. And the city requested proposals to redevelop the site of the state’s first American Legion post.
These changes have some wondering whether Grand Avenue risks gentrification.
Kristin Wesley has a different take. She’s the artist who makes the flower sculptures, and her studio is located at a live/work space called Oasis on Grand. “Not all change is gentrification,” she says.
Still, the issue comes up a lot, according to David Quan, an artist with a longtime presence on the local arts scene, who creates under the name Luster Kaboom. “Grand Ave. is always maybe sort of going to be gentrified,” he says of the perennial debate.
For some, the issue feels more pressing in the context of gentrification in Roosevelt Row.
In recent years, the nearby arts district has undergone dramatic change due to rampant development. “Artist communities there were pushed out to some extent, and some moved over to Grand Avenue,” says Michelle Dodds, a historic preservation officer for the city.
Several creatives say big developments are less likely to happen on Grand Avenue, citing numerous reasons.
“We’re a little farther from the center of town, and we don’t have the ASU campus or light rail,” says Daniel Prendergast, an artist with Five15 Arts. The collective relocated from Roosevelt Row to Grand Avenue after losing its space in a building that was sold to a local developer.
“We’re seeing little changes happen here and there, but we’re not at a tipping point,” Prendergast says. Nancy Hill, who owns the Hazel & Violet letterpress shop, agrees. “We aren’t seeing brokers sniffing around,” Hill says.
It turns out that Grand Avenue isn’t ideal for large-scale development. Zoning laws largely prohibit buildings taller than just a few stories, says Dodds. And most lots are smaller and less deep than those sought by big developers, according to Dan Klocke, who heads the Downtown Phoenix Partnership.
Creatives like Beatrice Moore, who owns eight properties in the area, are working to preserve the area’s quirky side and keep big developers at bay. She encourages community members to attend city, community, and neighborhood meetings where they can weigh in on related issues.
Kimber Lanning, who heads Local First Arizona, wants to see more city policies that foster a wide variety of affordable buildings in and beyond downtown. Grand Avenue gallerist Laura Dragon wants to see fewer properties turned into vacation rentals.
Michael Lanier says he was drawn to the area, where he owns a home with his partner Coby Bruckner, in part by the sense of community. They’ll be opening a plant shop near the La Melgosa building in the coming months.
That community ethos will be on full display during the Grand Avenue Festival, where street art from Wesley’s smiling flowers to Moore’s installation of hanging objects outside Bragg’s Pie Factory will signal the area’s funky side to first-time visitors.
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“People are becoming more interested in Grand Avenue, but Grand Avenue isn’t changing for them,” Wesley says. “I think it’s the inverse. The general population is beginning to appreciate more things that are avant-garde.”
For now, most Grand Avenue creatives aren’t worried that gentrification is imminent. Instead, they’re chuckling over the fact that people can’t stop raising the issue.
“It’s kind of a running joke,” Lanier says. “Grand Avenue is always five years away from being something cool.”