Operation Mickey Mouse

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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.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty