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Terry and the Pirates

As soon as it became clear a couple of months ago that Mayor Terry Goddard was abandoning the Municipal Center project, I phoned Ed Wundram. Wundram is the professional adviser who in 1985 oversaw our much-touted international design competition for a monumental building complex to house city government on the...
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As soon as it became clear a couple of months ago that Mayor Terry Goddard was abandoning the Municipal Center project, I phoned Ed Wundram.

Wundram is the professional adviser who in 1985 oversaw our much-touted international design competition for a monumental building complex to house city government on the west end of downtown. It was out of this competition that prominent architect Barton Myers' scheme of ornate buildings emerged and was then held high in the arms of Terry Goddard, who wanted praise for luring an architect of Myers' stature to the desert. In those days, whenever Goddard spoke of the Municipal Center, he was like a flushed new father showing off his first baby.

More than three years later, after $3.5 million of city money has been shoveled out for Myers' fees and other project costs, Goddard has turned his back on his brain child as passively as though he has simply forgotten to pick it up at the baby sitter's. A half step at a time, he has turned his attention to the new City Center concept, a mixed-use project that's being considered for the heart of downtown. Saying that his vision for signature city government buildings has turned out to be too expensive, Goddard now plans for the city to become a tenant in the City Center, which will be privately developed.

So I asked Wundram, "What will the world of architecture and design think of Phoenix now? Will we be laughed at because we held a huge design competition and then neglected to build the winning project?"

"I don't think it will have a negative impact," Wundram said. "It would if you were some design-conscious city, but no one says Phoenix is the high temple of architecture."

In other words, it's hard to sink any lower than laughingstock.
Wundram added that it's not unusual for cities to hold competitions and then back out of winning projects as soon as the real costs have been calculated. What is unusual--what he has never heard of before--is for a city to take more than three years to decide its dream is unaffordable and to chalk up exorbitant design costs all along the way.

Ah, but enough has been said in these pages in recent weeks about Mayor Terry Goddard's talent for blighting the city's future by exercising leadership so vague that it creates wholly original scenes of disaster. I don't want to harp further on the man's failings.

What I want to do is point out the possibilities being proposed for the new City Center, so that Goddard will know someone is watching.

Even if, wishing to save itself a little agony, the world doesn't keep its eye on Phoenix design trends, the mayor should understand that the decisions being made about downtown do matter to some of the locals. And if the brave new plans in the works blow up in our faces, as did the beautification of Central Avenue, or appear in the end to have been intended for a subterranean species, like Patriots Square, we will know who to blame.

The developers' proposals for the new City Center are in, and they are heavy. And there are so many of them that they crowd the long table where they lie. These proposals are as diverse as the nature of the world, but they have one thing in common: Nobody wants to build on the land several blocks west of Central where the Myers project was to stand. They want what is referred to among developers as the "next-best corner" of downtown--a four-block plot from Madison to Washington and CentralMDRV to Second Street. (Some of the proposals enlarge on this plan, but these four blocks are the core.)

The developers' preference was predictable, but it is also the final evidence that Goddard knew the Myers project was dead long before he admitted it. When the request for proposals went out from the city about three months ago, Goddard was still earnestly mouthing off that it was premature to declare the Municipal Center was already just a memory. The developers would be offered a choice of sites, and the original one would be included, he said. Who knew what the developers might want to do? he asked.

Well, everyone knew, but Goddard didn't want to say out loud what they knew--that the developers would choose the site closest to downtown's new hubbub, since foot traffic will feed the success of their retail operations. That developers couldn't care less about the governmental mall concept--long planned as an avenue of grand buildings housing all the community's bureaucrats and stretching to the capitol from downtown--that the Myers project was meant to anchor.

Oh, how Goddard shrank from the responsibility of sounding the death knell of the Municipal Center. He wanted the news to sidle up behind us like a shadow. He left it up to the developers, the real leaders of Phoenix, to tell us a decision had been made. Well, now they have.

And their reasons for the new site actually make a lot of sense, for themselves and probably for Phoenix, too. The developers are planning a project that will combine 1 million square feet of office space for the city with retail space, more office space, and, in some cases, residential units as well. They want their little community close to the planned Solar Oasis project at the Civic Center, the Herberger Theatre, the Arizona Center, the Mercado. They want all of these projects to enlarge upon one another. Most especially, they want to be next door to the proposed Phoenix Suns arena and convention hotel that would provide lots of parking for the City Center.

If the City Center becomes a beehive of activity, it could be a boon to downtown. Maybe that possibility was worth the sacrifice of the governmental mall. Maybe. Beyond the site, the proposals diverge.

For one thing, only some of the developers have taken seriously Goddard's emphasis on design. At the time the requests for proposals (RFP's) went out, Goddard said he didn't want to settle for less than a landmark design by an architect of Barton Myers' stature. Buildings to set Phoenix apart in the eyes of the world had been the entire point of the original design competition, and it was a point the mayor wasn't willing to relinquish as he changed direction.

He was never called upon to explain exactly why he didn't just require the competing developers to adapt Myers' winning designs to the new site. (Of course, this whole switcheroo occurred so quickly and quietly that he wasn't asked to explain much of anything.) Myers made it clear from the beginning that his millions of dollars' worth of work was adjustable, but Goddard didn't seem to hear him.

The mayor did soothe a few nerves by asking developers to consider working with Myers and speechifying that the city won't fork over a cent toward design costs for the City Center. But those were either naive words or pure PR: Observers agree that whatever the chosen developer spends on design will be figured into the rental rates the city coughs up for its million square feet of space in the project. Unless Myers' designs are used, the taxpayers will pay for architecture twice. And in the process, they may get noteworthy buildings and they may not. The range in stature of the architects being proposed is very wide.

Among the major proposals, a few have harkened well to the mayor's instructions. For instance, Century Development Corp. and Chanen Development Co., working as partners, have snagged the New York architectural firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox for its designs. Like Barton Myers Associates, this is one of the finest firms in the nation. It has twice received the American Institute of ArchitectsMDRV National Honor Award and is one of only two American firms to have been given a one-firm show by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

(This proposal seems pretty swell for a couple of other reasons as well. It includes a letter from Ed Beauvais, CEO of America West, wherein he expresses interest in moving the airline's corporate headquarters from Tempe to downtown Phoenix into new buildings to be developed by Century and Chanen. Although the letter is far from a guarantee of tenancy, the prospect of a major business swarming into the environs they wish to resuscitate has got to look appealing to the city fathers.

For another thing, Century and Chanen propose expanding the City Center concept delightfully. They want to involve LucasFilm Ltd.'s Skywalker Development in a move to transform warehouses located near the railroad tracks on downtown's south end into a "Historic Warehouse District" of shops, entertainment, restaurants and artists' studios and houses. LucasFilm and Century are presently building Luminaire Houston, a Texas fantasyland of waterways, neon and shops, whose primary architectural element is light. Chanen spokesman Bruce McMickle says the "Warehouse District" would be similar in spirit. Observers caution, however, that the citizenry shouldn't count on any of the carrots being dangled in these earliest proposals.)

Olympia and York, one of the largest development firms in the world, has taken Goddard's admonition even more to heart: It has teamed up with Myers himself, proposing to adjust his original designs to the new site.

But some proposals show less commitment to the creation of a Phoenix showplace. Trammell Crow, which owns some of the land for the new site, has teamed up with Richard Keating of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the architect who designed the Renaissance Square office building at Central and Washington. Keating is considered competent and more, but not premier. (Do we really want any more unremarkable spires of granite?)

And Rouse Co., developer of South Street Seaport in New York as well as our Arizona Center, says only that it would be willing to work with Myers "or an architect of similar stature." It leaves its intentions awfully vague.

The reason the disparity is disturbing is that the city's selection of a developer will probably not hinge on design. Observers agree that the final choice will be made on the basis of financial incentives offered to the city. (Goddard has said that he wants good long-term lease rates and some equity participation for the city. The proposals reflect varying degrees of willingness to fulfill his desires.) It is nearly always true that money talks loudest when major projects are manifested, no matter who is behind them.

On the lure of bucks, not beauty, the nod may go to a developer whose idea of a great project has little to do with great design.

It doesn't have to happen, but it may happen. It will not be surprising if it happens in a city where blandness has become the tradition due to apathy and outright bungling.

The decision will be made in the next weeks, as city staff narrows to three or four the developers still in the running for the City Center. For once in his life, Terry Goddard should keep his eye on the ball. Goddard left it up to the developers, the real leaders of Phoenix, to tell us a decision had been made. Well, now they have.

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