Give the Godfather the Boot

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.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty