Phoenix Rising?

In a city like Phoenix, it's almost too easy to be cynical about the future. If you listen to the talk out there, downtown Phoenix is on the verge of a comeback — though really, it's never been anything great. So maybe the message is more that Phoenix is on the verge of finally becoming something, anything. Or becoming a city that feels big not just because of census numbers and sprawl, but because of culture.

When the hopeful — the city officials, ASU planners and small business owners — talk, you want to believe them. It's tough. We've been sold the same song and dance before. Phoenix is always "on the verge." That was the case three years ago, when Phil Gordon was our new mayor. And it's the case today.

But maybe now it's true.

Michael Hallmark, an architect who's working on a redevelopment project on Jackson Street just southwest of Chase Field, thinks the ingredients are there in downtown Phoenix. Someone just needs to tie things together.

"There are three bug lights downtown — the convention center, Chase Field, and U.S. Airways Center," he says, referring to the way moths flock to a bright light. "The problem is, as soon as you turn off the lights, there are no more bugs."

That might be about to change. There are more projects developing simultaneously in downtown Phoenix than ever. Artists and independent business owners are focused on areas like Roosevelt Row. Lofts are going up. Entertainment districts are discussed. But while plans are drawn and debated, we're still left with blank walls and streets that virtually shut down after 5 p.m., with few exceptions. Especially worrisome is that the city has put a lot of energy into the development of ASU's downtown campus. The university has made big promises, but, as New Times pointed out last week ("The Devil Went Down to Phoenix," November 23), has almost no track record when it comes to urban renewal.

City officials say they've learned their lesson when it comes to redevelopment in Phoenix. Jason Harris, acting deputy director of the downtown redevelopment office, says while ASU is an important part of downtown's redevelopment, Phoenix knows better, now, than to put all its economic hopes into one plan.

"You can only achieve so much redevelopment through large destination locations," he admits. "Now we're in a time of lessons learned where we can bring downtown the fine grain. We lack people and vitality. Office workers only bring so much vitality."

Hoping to avoid past mistakes, Phoenix hired Dyett & Bhatia, a San Francisco-based urban consulting group, to create the Phoenix Urban Form Project, a rezoning project that officials claim will make it easier to build downtown by carving up the city into districts.

The project could be a big success — it will certainly help the city get organized in its planning — as long as the people in charge make sure to retain the good things Phoenix has to offer. If they don't, the result could be akin to a downtown that feels like a theme park.

Dale Jensen, co-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Phoenix Suns, has been quietly buying up property on Jackson Street, with the obvious hope of bringing some postseason play to the area around the sports facilities. In collaboration with architect Michael Hallmark, who designed Chase Field and a number of other sports facilities across the country (including the renovation to New York's Madison Square Garden in the '90s), Jensen has big plans to revitalize the area and turn it into a major entertainment district around Chase Field and U.S. Airways Center.

At the same time, local entrepreneurs, who have been working and opening businesses downtown (without any city handouts), are finally starting to get the attention they deserve. Roosevelt Row now has an official community development corporation working to raise awareness about the neighborhood, and ASU's downtown student life department has at least put in an effort to let downtown students know about the local businesses in the area using a map created by Roosevelt Row.

Business isn't booming — yet — but the businesses that have cropped up around Roosevelt Street and the galleries that now populate Grand Avenue have become known, even outside the city.

Unfortunately, they could also be endangered by future development. The artists and local business owners downtown right now have been able to do their thing for years with relatively low rent and little interference. Now there's a concern that big development and deep-pocketed corporate financers could push out the little guy, as they did on Mill Avenue in Tempe.

Rob Edwards, director of economic development at the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, is a brutal realist.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin