Operation Mickey Mouse

U.S. 101 just north of downtown Los Angeles clears finally. But the respite from 70 minutes of grinding traffic from Los Angeles International Airport to North Hollywood on an early Saturday evening doesn't last long.

Another jam appears just off the freeway along Buddy Holly Drive as hundreds of cars line up to pay $8 a pop to gain entry into CityWalk, the huge shopping-and-entertainment complex inside the Universal Studios compound.

Billed by its designer, Jerde Partnership, as the "redefined urban village," CityWalk generates huge sales for its corporate retailers. No matter that it's a tightly secured environment that resembles an actual central city about as much as does Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A. in nearby Anaheim.

Its creator calls it a vibrant, auto-free city filled with people of all nationalities and from all walks of life, and this is true. The place is definitely packed -- primarily with tourists who have come to L.A. to gawk at the movie world. Or, more rightly, the façade of it that CityWalk and the Universal Tour provide.

The only self-respecting Angelenos who would be caught walking along CityWalk's self-proclaimed "Coolest Street in America" are those who bring their children here -- usually only once -- or those who are forced to walk through on their way to see favorite performers at the Universal Amphitheatre.

Among the horde of chain restaurants are branches of a few venerable L.A. eateries, including Gladstone's for Fish, but real denizens of the city would rather go to the actual establishments than frequent the faux versions along this plastic landscape.

They would also rather go to somewhere that stays open later. Jerde's version of the new urban world closes at 9 p.m. during the week. With a midnight closing on Fridays and Saturdays, this prefab metropolis becomes deader than downtown Phoenix (on every night except during the once-a-month First Friday art walks). Its temporary citizens are forced to hit that freeway again on their way to a bar in another part of L.A., or on their way to bed.

None of this is to say that CityWalk isn't successful for what it is -- a glorified shopping mall in the tradition of a Walt Disney Company theme park.

In fact, Jerde has long been closely associated with Disney. In the 1980s, the firm designed a vast 6,000-acre city called Satellite New Town that was to accompany the EuroDisney project outside of Paris. While what Jerde described as a "utopian" city was never built, the concepts developed during its design were later used for CityWalk.

Jerde is also a beneficiary of the hyper-tourism unleashed by Disney World in Orlando, Florida. It designed Festival Bay, a massive shopping center that just opened between SeaWorld and Florida's Universal City, about 12 miles from the Disney theme park. Disney promotes the Jerde-developed mega-mall in its literature and on its Web sites as an ideal second destination for those who visit "the happiest place on Earth."

Speaking of tourist magnets, Jerde Partnership is a huge player in Las Vegas. The company designed the Bellagio, Treasure Island and Palms resorts while revamping downtown Vegas with a six-block-long canopy of lights called the Fremont Street Experience.

Jerde is practically overrunning Japan, opening half a dozen mixed-use shopping projects in the last two years. And it's hammering out designs aimed at adding some economic zip to downtrodden cities in England and Poland.

One of its cornerstone projects is Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego, a fortresslike shopping mall built in the mid-1980s. Spread over six blocks, Horton has helped spur downtown San Diego's economic revival in the tourist-driven Gas Lamp District.

It is fitting that the Jerde Partnership would be headquartered in L.A., the mini-mall capital of the world. Founded by Jon Jerde in the city's Venice neighborhood, the firm has become wildly successful at what it calls "placemaking."

This involves designing shopping malls, hotels, resorts -- whatever. Jerde isn't interested in making an architectural statement with its buildings; it bills itself as in the business of giving patrons a memorable experience.

The company advertises on its Web site: "Experience makes people want to come to a place, and more importantly, want to come back."

At CityWalk, patrons experience the antiseptic illusion of urbanity. The homespun musicians playing on the coolest street aren't busking for dollars, but are carefully selected by management to appeal to Middle America. The store claiming to sell Native American products is stocked with cheap imitations from Mexico, China and Taiwan.

CityWalk is the mega-mall version of a Universal Studios movie set where 25,000 people a day come to shop and shop and shop.

Forget about authenticity; Jerde's CityWalk ignites a spending frenzy that is three times the national average at regional shopping malls -- a whopping $800 per square foot of retail space annually.

This is nearly twice the sales volume of Phoenix's most ritzy shopping plaza, the Biltmore Fashion Park, which brings in about $450 per square foot.

It is something that certainly has gotten the attention of business leaders in downtown Phoenix -- notably entertainment kingpin Jerry Colangelo. It is a reflection that Jerde's big projects generate hefty and sustainable retail sales.

And all this presumes that what Colangelo and the other movers and shakers want for this city's downtown is a massive shopping mall.

Jerry Colangelo already controls operations at the 5,000-seat Dodge Theatre, the 18,400-seat America West Arena and the 49,000-seat Bank One Ballpark. Despite more than $500 million in public and private investment in the facilities, they have failed to stimulate the urban revival that Colangelo and other promoters promised.

Colangelo, managing partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Phoenix Suns, is now saying again that downtown Phoenix is on the threshold of becoming a major urban center.

And there is reason to believe he is right: A $100 million biotechnology complex is under construction, a light-rail project is planned, a $600 million expansion of the Civic Plaza was approved recently, a $300 million, city-owned, 1,000-room downtown hotel is proposed, and -- most important -- Arizona State University has announced that it will build a downtown campus for 12,000 students.

The question is, what shape should this new downtown take?

Interestingly, while Phoenix's arts community and an enlightened cadre of small-business people and academics have been arguing for a diverse downtown that would attract local residents and not just tourists, Colangelo and a handful of downtown power brokers have secretly turned to Jerde Partnership to develop ideas on how central Phoenix should evolve.

Last spring, private business interests here -- led by Colangelo -- paid Jerde several hundred thousand dollars to prepare an initial study on how hundreds of acres of downtown might be developed to include thousands of new housing units and vast areas of retail and commercial projects.

The sports-and-entertainment mogul is now spearheading an effort to raise another million-dollars-plus to employ an urban designer (Jerde is obviously in the front seat) to move forward on a master plan for such a development.

Colangelo and the others -- including members of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership and Phoenix Community Alliances -- are tightlipped about exactly what's going on. While insiders say the secrecy is about staving off the kind of real estate speculation that has paralyzed development in parts of the downtown core for decades, Colangelo's critics say it is about giving the power brokers time to corner the market before presenting a master plan to a compliant Phoenix City Council.

City officials, meanwhile, are expressing ignorance about what the project would entail. Even Mayor-elect Phil Gordon only received a superficial briefing earlier this month.

Colangelo tells New Times that anybody who wants to find out more about the strategy for the mega-development can kick in money for the master plan. Otherwise, they can wait and see what gets cooked up by Colangelo and the other tycoons.

"There is going to be all kinds of input, but we need more money to take it to the next step," Colangelo says.

The mayor-elect says Colangelo has assured him that if the master plan is finally developed, many facets of the downtown community will be involved in implementing it.

"I'm excited in the sense they said, Let's come up with a plan that's inclusive,'" Gordon says.

But others wonder how any master plan backed by Colangelo and drafted by the likes of Jerde could call for anything more than a prefab monstrosity like CityWalk.

Some critics also question Colangelo's motives. They say he may be trying to bolster sagging revenue at his sports venues by locating a soulless yet cash-producing mega-project nearby.

This claim may not be all that far-fetched, since both Colangelo's sports franchises are struggling. The Diamondbacks are awash in debt and slashing salaries, which was highlighted recently by trade rumors involving pitching ace Curt Schilling. And the Suns, which used to sell out America West Arena in the Charles Barkley days, are now unable to keep seats filled.

It's true that, if history is any indication, a Jerde shopping project would inject downtown with more tourist cash. Though Phoenix is not the same kind of tourist mecca as Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas or Orlando, it does do a very respectable tourist and convention business, particularly in the winter months.

What it wouldn't do, say many urban experts, is turn downtown into a vibrant urban core for its own citizens. It would be about as far from being a cool urban landscape as a big-city downtown could get.

Arizona State University architecture professor and urban designer Nan Elin says downtown Phoenix could benefit from a carefully designed master plan that would trigger housing and retail and commercial development. But she has serious concerns that Jerde is the company to be entrusted with such an important task.

A master plan, she says, "could be a good thing if it is done right. But if it is done like a theme park -- a big Horton Plaza or a CityWalk -- then it would be a disaster."

Elin says Jerde doesn't do "real urban design with neighborhoods where people live and people go to school."

"This is a city," she says of downtown Phoenix. "This is different."

Greg Esser, co-owner of the downtown eye lounge gallery, agrees. He says a successful downtown must be much more than a tourist-driven shopping mall.

"There are a lot of people," he insists, "who want a spontaneously generated, diverse economy and culture."

Few are willing to criticize Jerry Colangelo publicly.

So it isn't surprising that some downtown insiders getting summoned to meetings to discuss raising the more than $1 million to pay for Colangelo's master plan for downtown Phoenix are privately criticizing the big developer's latest foray into city-making.

"Normally, these kind of plans are done with the city," says one prominent business leader who has property that could be affected by the kind of mega-development Colangelo is considering.

"You normally don't have a group of two or three land owners trying to plan everybody else's businesses," he says, asking not to be named to avoid landing on Colangelo's wrong side. "It's sort of unheard of. A lot of people are offended."

Whether he's offending business people or not, Colangelo's working hard to come up with funds for the master plan for downtown Phoenix. Earlier this month, he held a meeting with key downtown players at which property south of Bank One Ballpark and America West Arena in the historic warehouse district was deemed the prime location for a big downtown development.

Land on both sides of Second Street south of the arena is particularly attractive to Colangelo's interests, sources say. It's an area that is already attracting major investment; a luxury condominium project is slated to open in the area early next year.

Typically, it's been difficult to assemble large swaths of downtown property for redevelopment because so many property owners are involved. But the area south of the arena is different. Nearly three blocks between Jackson and Lincoln streets is owned by one entity -- the federal government. Several other blocks already have been assembled by investors. All of this could be easily combined for a Jerde-style shopping-and-entertainment venue that covers half a dozen blocks or more.

The fact that the area is bisected by railroad tracks and considered unsafe makes it a prime target for Jerde, which has prospered by turning slums into large-scale retail venues.

Yet the proposed master plan area is said to encompass more than just the warehouse district. Sources say it could range from Interstate 10 to the north to Lincoln Drive to the south and be bounded by Seventh Street to the east and 12th Avenue to the west.

Though Colangelo refuses to get into the specifics of the proposed project, he confirms that Jerde Partnership has been involved and that he is attempting to raise funds for a next planning phase. A Jerde representative declined to comment.

Colangelo says he has no personal financial interest in property that could be included in a master plan. He insists that his motives are altruistic.

"I'm an urban guy," he says. "I love cities. That's why I love Chicago. That's why I love New York. I enjoy being a part of them. I know all the stuff, the good and the bad."

Colangelo says that without a master plan for downtown, the area would evolve haphazardly.

"There would be hit and miss," he says. "A little deal here, a little deal there. There would be no rhyme or reason."

Colangelo wants to see downtown prosper sooner rather than later, and he obviously thinks Jerde can make that happen.

Colangelo wants the master plan to call for rapid construction of housing and retail establishments surrounding the large cultural and entertainment facilities already present. Among them, naturally, are his babies, the Dodge, Bank One and the arena.

Think of an instant community like Anthem, about 35 miles north of Phoenix, condensed and dropped into downtown.

Phoenix's new downtown, Colangelo argues, should have "pockets" that allow for cultural and ethnic diversity. He says low-income as well as high-end housing must anchor any new development plan. And among the retail and commercial establishments should be "icon" department stores.

Colangelo says he's not out to line his and his partners' pockets at the expense of what is right for Phoenix. He insists that his aim is only to create a prosperous downtown.

"I care about the town, the community, the city, and I don't have a vested interest financially in any development that is going to take place in this downtown," he says. "I just want to see it all happen."

He leaves out that the downtown he envisions would hugely benefit his entertainment interests.

Colangelo needs all the help he can get in attracting more patrons to America West and to the BOB. Despite a recent $28 million face-lift of the arena -- in which an upscale restaurant, a Starbucks and a team shop were added -- attendance is still lagging at Suns games. A two-story nightclub adjacent to the ballpark has also suffered. Controlled by the Diamondbacks and leased to private operators, the bar (currently called McFadden's) has been a financial black hole with two previous operators going under.

Colangelo clearly wants to leave the impression that any master plan for downtown would not be his. He insists that he has merely provided the leadership necessary to get things under way.

"I don't know what's going to happen with this plan," he says. "It's not my plan. It's a plan that people are looking at that seems to make sense. There is going to be all kinds of input, but we need more money to take it to the next step."

Eventually, Colangelo vows, there will be no more secrecy surrounding what he and his colleagues want to do. "There will be input from all kinds of people," he says. "I'm all for that. I'm inclusive. This is not an exclusive thing."

If Colangelo seems defensive, that's because he is. He's clearly growing weary of the burgeoning criticism (spearheaded by the street-level arts community and its supporters) of his activities.

"I've taken a lot of responsibility for a long time. I give of my time and my resources because I care. And quite honestly, I'll continue to do that until I just get tired of being used as a target for whatever reason. I don't need it."

Right now, he says, "I'm prepared to continue to go forward. I'm going to try to see some plan through. I don't care who gets credit for it. I don't care who participates in it."

Colangelo believes that if he doesn't take the lead in developing a practical blueprint for the future of downtown, no one else will.

"One thing I have been able to do rather successfully is bring people together . . . rally the troops to try to get something done. If anything, there's been a void of people who can get anything done."

Among those supporting Colangelo's downtown master-plan project is Ken Kendrick, a major investor in the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Phoenix Suns.

A behind-the-scenes investor in the arena, ballpark and Dodge Theatre, Kendrick helped pay Jerde Partnership last spring.

Kendrick says the three entertainment venues controlled by Colangelo are vastly important to downtown, but that they are not enough to trigger the wave of residential investment necessary to spark a successful central city.

Something else is needed, and this is why he thinks hiring Jerde Partnership last spring was an important "tentative first step" toward breathing life into downtown.

"A lot of people see there is a great need for some kind of major league effort at urban redevelopment in the city of Phoenix," Kendrick says. "There is a dearth of housing, a dearth of arts and other kinds of things that make for a vibrant [downtown].

"I'm disappointed about what isn't in downtown," he says.

Like Colangelo, Kendrick has a direct interest in seeing downtown blossom in a way that will benefit him financially.

Along with Mel Shultz, Dale Jensen and Mike Chipman, Kendrick rescued the Arizona Diamondbacks from imminent financial collapse in 2001 with a promise to invest $160 million over 10 years in the team in exchange for a 49 percent stake.

The investment came soon after the Diamondbacks won the World Series but were trounced in the much more treacherous world of Major League Baseball finances.

It is a little-discussed fact that Colangelo, Phoenix's most powerful downtown businessman, was at the helm when the Diamondbacks plunged into more than $300 million in debt and near bankruptcy.

Sources say that despite the investment of $16 million a year in the team by Kendrick and the others, the Diamondbacks have continued to have trouble covering operating costs and meeting the team's payroll.

Colangelo's financial struggles with the Diamondbacks -- in conjunction with his promises that the public's $243 million investment in Bank One Ballpark would trigger a downtown renaissance that has yet to materialize -- raise doubts among many about whether he's the man to mastermind any downtown master plan.

"When you look at the hard numbers of what sort of vibrancy he's created downtown, I think he has missed the mark," observes Kimber Lanning, owner of Modified Arts, a downtown art gallery, and Stinkweeds, a music store in Tempe.

"It happened in such recent history that you would think our city leaders would remember clearly that we just spent all this money on stadiums and we were promised a vibrant downtown and we don't have it," she says.

Colangelo's altruistic statements aside, some sources think the Diamondbacks' precarious financial condition has something to do with Colangelo's notions about what would be good for downtown. That is, are his financial needs prompting him to push for a quick-fix Jerde development that is devoid of soul but would be a certain moneymaker?

Colangelo's Diamondbacks are clearly a financial albatross.

Forbes magazine estimates that the Diamondbacks are currently worth about $269 million. While that value is greater than the current amount of money invested in the team, $227 million, it is less than the $355 million that will be invested once the infusion by Kendrick's group is completed.

The team is also deeply in debt -- with more than $145 million owed for cost overruns related to stadium construction and other expenses. The organization owes players another $175 million in deferred salaries.

Despite winning the 2001 World Series, the team announced that it lost $136 million between 1999 and 2002.

Big debt and steady losses don't add up to a bright future.

Kendrick, for one, doesn't expect to see a profit on his investment in the Diamondbacks in his lifetime.

"I have twins, 7-year-olds," he says. "And I hope they will see some of that money. I expect I never will."

Colangelo's buy-now, pay-later philosophy has forced the team to start slashing its payroll -- from $94 million this past season to a projected $55 million in the 2005 season (which is the main reason Schilling is on the block).

A big question looming for the Diamondbacks is whether fans will continue to support a team of young, relatively low-paid players who may produce average teams for years to come.

The team drew 2.78 million fans last year, down from 3.2 million in 2002. Kendrick says attendance is projected to slip to about 2.6 million in the 2004 season.

At the beginning, Kendrick says Colangelo's philosophy was: win quickly and build up a fan loyalty that will remain during lean years.

"If we have a winning tradition and transition out of an older team into a younger team, people will be more likely to hang with us," Kendrick says. "We hope that will happen."

There are also storm clouds over Colangelo's America West Arena empire. Not only is the facility losing the National Hockey League's Phoenix Coyotes later this winter, its remaining major attraction is facing difficult times.

The Suns are struggling with lagging attendance and the prospect of flooring average teams fighting to make the playoffs for years to come. The team lost $5 million last year and is expected to lose $20 million this year.

In addition, it appears the Colangelo-controlled group that operates the city-owned arena is facing financial difficulties.

The Phoenix Arena Development Limited Partnership reneged on a deal with City Hall two years ago to remodel the interior of the arena. The city put $10 million into the project, and Colangelo's group was supposed to cover the balance of the $13.5 million in renovations to concourses, seating areas and rest rooms.

After the improvements were completed, the arena partnership failed to come up with its share of the money, forcing the city to reluctantly advance Colangelo's group a $3.5 million loan.

The city's investment in the arena revamps was based, in part, on a more ambitious promise for upgrades that Colangelo's partnership never kept.

The arena group had vowed to build a 75,000-square-foot sports, entertainment and dining venue on the plaza east of the arena in addition to the upgrades inside the venue. The plaza project, which was to be anchored by a Jillians sports and entertainment venue, was supposed to generate more than $350,000 a year for the city.

With the Diamondbacks and the Suns facing financial problems, it's not surprising that Colangelo and his partners are looking for ways to bring more bucks into downtown. Last June, the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, co-founded by Colangelo, announced it wanted a "destination retail-and-entertainment center" brought into the area.

Which is exactly what Jerde Partnership has done for cities around the world. But, many would ask, a destination center for whom -- tourists and seasonal sports fans? What about turning downtown into a living, breathing city center, a place where locals want to live and work?

A former student of visionary Arizona architect Paolo Soleri, Jon Jerde is the most influential shopping center designer in the world.

His projects span the globe and have had a profound economic effect on the areas where they are located. The L.A.-based firm contends that more than 500 million visitors enter Jerde projects annually.

The developments, which total more than 35 million square feet, include not only Horton Plaza in San Diego, CityWalk in L.A. and the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, but also the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota; the Gateway in Salt Lake City; Canal City Hakata in Fukuoka, Japan; and Buersplein in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

They are just a handful of the grand-scale projects that are acclaimed by many architects and critics as the essence of shopping mall design but rebuked by others as plastic monstrosities lacking real character.

In a lengthy February 2002 Los Angeles Times Magazine profile on Jon Jerde by Ed Leibowitz, Jerde's friend Robert Timme, dean of the University of Southern California architecture school, says he is convinced that Jerde will be recognized as one of the significant architects of our day.

"Great public spaces have always been where the markets are," Timme says. "Maybe for a time we'd lost the excitement of the market or bazaar, and Jon's brought that back into the language of architecture."

Leibowitz, who shadowed Jerde for more than a year, writes of the designer: "The critical assault on Jerde amounts to this: His architecture is a parody of a city, with all the grit and complexity wiped away. The architect, in thrall to the commercial developer, has built counterfeit space for private profit. He is ushering in that terrible future in which global capitalism dictates our civic life as relentlessly as it does our economic life. And his buildings are plain ugly; the corny surface flash of their façades masks the cheap stucco and dull interiors beneath."

In The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion, former New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable condemns Horton Plaza.

"The ultimate absurdity is achieved," she writes, "an edited and appropriated version of exactly those distinguishing organic features of a city that . . . reduce [it] to a merchandising theme."

Jerde's Gateway project in Salt Lake City has been hailed as an economic savior and condemned for its garish design. The 30-acre, $375 million project is expected to be just the beginning of development on another 650 acres west of Salt Lake's downtown.

The Gateway was constructed in an old rail yard. The project is a mix of 350 apartment units and about 650,000 square feet of retail and entertainment venues. A children's museum, planetarium and IMAX theater are under construction along with 150 condominiums.

Local architects have been critical of some of the bold features and colors, comparing some areas of the project to stage sets.

"It's a fake little . . . I don't even know what to call it," Robert L. Bliss, a retired architect and former dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Utah, was quoted as saying in the Sacramento Bee.

"Architecturally, it's Disneyland. It pretends to be historic, and it certainly is not."

The Bee wrote about Gateway because Sacramento will soon get its own Jerde project. Last month, that city agreed to move forward with a 240-acre development in its abandoned rail yard that will include several thousand new homes and millions of square feet of retail and commercial space.

It's hard to dismiss such critics as jealous highbrows taking pot shots at a renowned architect when you visit some of Jerde's masterworks.

CityWalk's faux Hollywood setting with colorful banners and '50s-style streetscapes relies heavily on a barrage of amplified music to keep patrons gyrating through streets lined with corporate outlets (yet another Hard Rock Cafe, for instance), a massive cinema complex and -- in all but one or two cases -- predictable food-court fare.

The loud music combined with conflicting jingles at some of the outlets make for shear racket. The audio horror reverberates through every nook and cranny of the circuitous complex. Patrons become so maniacally confused inside the labyrinth that the most satisfying part of the CityWalk "experience" can be locating your car in the massive parking garages at the end of the night.

Horton Plaza is a decidedly more sedate experience. Situated in the middle of downtown San Diego, Horton was opened in 1985 as a pioneer project in San Diego's seedy downtown.

City leaders forced retail developer Ernest Hahn to build the downtown complex in exchange for permission to continue putting up shopping centers in the city's rapidly expanding fringes.

The idea was that Horton Plaza would suck wary visitors into San Diego's decrepit downtown and provide them a safe and (the developers promised) "exciting" shopping experience.

Spread over six blocks, Horton is inaccessible to pedestrians along most of its perimeter. Its daunting exterior is designed to keep the homeless and drifters who are part of the real downtown scene from gaining ready access to the sanitized and heavily policed mall.

Once inside, Horton appears less plastic than other Jerde developments. There are narrow, mazelike walkways that give the illusion of density. The food court, which overlooks a plaza jammed with shoppers, seems more like a street-side cafe than the communal dining hall typical of suburban shopping malls.

The project was built for $170 million and now features a Nordstrom, a Macy's and a Mervyn's, along with scores of the chain stores common at shopping centers across the country.

City officials expected it would take Horton Plaza five years to spark a noticeable change in downtown San Diego, but the project attracted 25 million people in its first year and immediately served as a catalyst for downtown regeneration, Jerde Partnership claims on its Web site.

Jerde may not be exaggerating. City leaders credit Horton with helping trigger a $2.4 billion wave of downtown investment that includes massive expansion of the city's waterfront convention center and ongoing construction of a new baseball stadium for the San Diego Padres.

In every direction leading from Horton Plaza, either new residential high-rises are going up or developers are converting old warehouses and flophouse hotels into lofts. Prices are high -- $1,190 a month for 700-square-foot apartments and more than $2 million for penthouses with views of the bay.

Horton Plaza benefits immensely from a steady influx of tourists who sweep through the area to shop and dine in the adjacent Gas Lamp District, which is jammed with cafes, coffee shops and tourist traps. The supply of tourists is constantly restocked by cruise ships that dock a few blocks away.

While Horton probably isn't the first destination of most of its visitors since refurbishment of the Gas Lamp District, it's every bit as much a retailer's wet dream as CityWalk. Eighteen years after it opened, it boasts San Diego's highest sales per square foot. Assessed property values at the project have increased by $451 million during this period, or 2,721 percent.

It's not difficult to envision Colangelo -- who stokes his entertainment venues with food and booze vendors -- salivating over the prospect of putting a CityWalk or a Horton Plaza in downtown Phoenix.

The problem is, such a development isn't what is needed downtown, Colangelo's critics say. It might be good for the mogul's interests, but the last thing the core city needs is a tourist trap like Horton and the Gas Lamp District. These are the kind of places that lure largely tourists, not locals. And big shopping malls exist in spades in the city's suburbs.

In addition, these critics ask, isn't it time that Colangelo and his backers came out of the shadows? City Hall is the entity that should be ramrodding downtown redevelopment, not a big-business man. They note wryly that Colangelo and his friends aren't even providing incoming Mayor Gordon with insider knowledge about their would-be master plan.

And why should they? If Phil Gordon were to demand something from Jerry Colangelo, he would be the first mayor to do so since Phoenix's version of P.T. Barnum started wheeling and dealing in the Valley more than 30 years ago.

There is palpable fear among artists and business people outside the Downtown Phoenix Partnership that once again City Hall will stand by shyly and let Colangelo put yet another mega-development into a downtown already overwhelmed with monolithic concrete structures.

"It's always top-down, single vision versus a grassroots, organic structure," complains Greg Esser, the eye lounge co-owner.

Esser predicts that Colangelo's going into business with Jerde Partnership would mean another failure downtown. Esser is among an increasing number of small-business owners who insist that the only way to make downtown a magnet for Phoenix-area residents, and not just to tourists, would be to stop relying on mega-projects as a panacea and spread the wealth of economic incentives to small entrepreneurs.

What Colangelo is doing, he says, "is another symptom of the silver-bullet syndrome that one strategic development is going to be the cure for the economic and cultural development of the city."

Academics also raise concerns about the city's potentially relying on a general plan developed by a company such as Jerde.

"A community should not put all its eggs in one basket," says Ron McCoy, director of ASU's School of Architecture.

"A Jerde project as part of a revival of the urban core would be good," he says. "But to see a Jerde project as the whole scope of a revitalized core would not be so successful."

McCoy says downtown would be better off to base future development on nurturing small businesses that have potential to expand rather than continuing to support huge entertainment venues that rely on importing tourists or suburbanites for special events.

Reliance on big projects "sucks the air out of the small-scale entrepreneur," McCoy says. Communities succeed, he says, when there is room for both "small ventures and the big things."

Downtown developer and gallery owner Wayne Rainey condemns the very notion of a downtown master plan.

"I've never really believed in master plans," he says. "I just think they are too hard to pull off."

In addition, Rainey, who two years ago supported construction of a Cardinals stadium downtown, says he now believes the area must "stay away from huge mega-projects."

"I think it is more important for the city to plant the seeds and let the little projects develop," he says.

Nan Elin, the ASU urban designer, counters that the city could benefit from a carefully designed master plan that would trigger housing, retail and commercial development.

But based on its history, she says, Jerde Partnership is hardly capable of creating a true urban plan. Jerde's developments rely heavily on "importing themes from other places and other times" -- a practice she calls "form-follows-fiction" architecture.

"It's the drag-and-drop theory of urban design," she complains.

Downtown gallery owner Kimber Lanning resents the secrecy surrounding Colangelo's efforts to come up with a master plan and is one of those complaining mightily that the city is -- as usual -- letting a handful of self-interested business leaders dictate downtown's future.

Lanning snarls that what Colangelo is talking about is yet another quick-fix project, when such developments have failed to deliver a prosperous central city.

"Once again, the city is thinking in terms of tourist-type things," she says. "What about the people who want to live downtown? [Colangelo and his backers] are trying to out-mall the malls."

Lanning is convinced that downtown's future lies in supporting small businesses and artists. It is essential, she says, to invest in the street culture that will provide a unique alternative to the suburban shopping malls ringing the Phoenix area.

"With downtown, creating a funky area that is unique is the only chance we've got," she says. "I mean, the only chance we've got to build a vibrant downtown."

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-229-8445.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty