This isn't your normal Phoenix development story. Everyone is used to the way things are normally done: A bully developer bulldozes over a hapless neighborhood that can't get an ear at City Hall.
This time the story is reversed. This time, the neighborhood and the developer are both cheerleading a project to clean up one of the worst blocks in downtown Phoenix. So are the Phoenix Planning Commission, downtown business people, and two state commissions trying to spruce up the "no man's land" between City Hall and the State Capitol.
They've been at it for two years, through several development schemes, to work out all the kinks--some of them considerable.
But the project is currently a no-go because the district's councilmember, Mary Rose Wilcox, has single-handedly derailed it.
And everyone is still trying to figure out why.
"MY HUSBAND AND I have watched this neighborhood go from a decent family-oriented neighborhood to nothing but drugs and prostitutes. . . . This project is like a ray of hope in the darkness," Karen Molina pleaded to Wilcox at a recent council meeting. Molina should know. She lives across the street from the proposed project that would redevelop the ten acres between Polk and Van Buren Streets, 12th and 15th Avenues. Like her neighbors, she can rattle off all the area's current amenities: burned-out and abandoned houses taken over by crack addicts, prostitutes and the mentally ill; County Attorney Richard Romley's controversial Club 902; the city's major homeless shelter; the razed remains of the El Rancho Motel; and a thirty-year-old apartment complex that's falling apart. Molina can tell you all about the crime in the neighborhood without once looking at the police statistics--11 of the city's 111 murders in 1988; a one-in-six chance of being a crime victim, compared to one in fifteen elsewhere in Phoenix. Most horribly, the neighborhood well remembers the 1986 slaying of six-year-old Angelo Jacquez, who was molested and strangled in an abandoned building by a transient from the nearby homeless shelter.
Even city planning maps highlight this area as an urban trouble spot. There are so many decayed buildings that rehabilitation is economically feasible for only a handful. But except for a black spot on a city map--effectively "redlining" the area and warding off investments or improvements--this is a neighborhood used to being ignored. Residents had tried for months to get the city to raze the building where Angelo was murdered, but their pleas were ignored. The only time the city has bothered to help, residents say bitterly, was during last year's Grand Prix, when international television coverage panned the area as the expensive race cars roared through. The city sanitation and other departments organized a major cleanup. Mattresses and trash were picked up. Transients were hauled off the streets. Police patrolled regularly up and down the area for the first time in years.
"There was nobody and no trash. It took the Grand Prix for them to give a damn," remembers Bonnie Towles, a 44-year-old, ex-Peace Corps volunteer who's lived in the neighborhood for eight years and has restored eight separate properties.
Towles is herself a crime statistic. In the last three years, she's been robbed, physically assaulted and had her properties burglarized and burned down. "I was angry all the time," Towles said. "I didn't sleep at night. My dogs barked constantly. There was so much traffic between the outdoor shelter, the El Rancho and the 902 bar it was frightening. It was a 24-hour drug supermarket. Young punk males walking the street--drugged out. Some days, I had to walk over them on my porch to get in my door."
So it surprised no one that developer Charlie Civers got such a warm reception from people like Karen Molina and Bonnie Towles when he proposed building a new complex that would wipe clean a three-block section of blight. In its place, he wants to build an office complex for state employees and retail shops, including a much-needed grocery store and a dry-cleaning shop. (Like others in the area who have tried to get loans from local banks, Civers found nobody was interested in financing a project here. He finally got $35 million from an Asian investment company.)
Although everyone wanted the area redeveloped, Civers at first sounded like any other developer: He wanted far too much density, too much height. His original project--a twelve-story office building and huge aboveground parking structure--would have dwarfed anything around it. But unlike other developers, Civers showed himself willing to compromise. Again and again, he went back to the drawing board. He cut down the size of his project seven separate times. By the time his project went to the city council zoning hearing on April 18, Civers had reduced his plans by two thirds.