The Devil Went Down to Phoenix

Three years since Phoenix New Times ran our "Exploding Downtown" series, the wrecking ball is still taking aim all over downtown, threatening what little history the city has left to preserve. Will Phoenix wind up a cross between Disneyland and Mill Avenue?

This week: The latest great hope for downtown — Arizona State University — has no track record when it comes to smart urban renewal.

At 9 on a Sunday night, walking down Mill Avenue is a chore.

Mill is Main Street for the 70,000 students and staff who crowd Arizona State University most days, but tonight, as on many nights, there's almost no one on the street. A terrible moldy sewer smell wafts out of The Loft, a bar off Mill Avenue on Fifth Street, and onto the street — a result of too much grease trapped on its way to downtown Tempe's bloated sewer, city officials confirm.

The same smell hits you near Suite 301, formerly The Owl's Nest, formerly a half-dozen other things. Turnover at this building, and on this street in general, is unbelievable. Coffee Plantation, the biggest coffee house on the street, reeks, too, of neglect and grease, and next door a few vacant-eyed dudes gulp down frozen drinks at Fat Tuesday.

Daytime on Mill isn't much better.

A few people wander the street, with its careful landscaping and well-placed benches. This is the only stretch of several blocks in the entire Valley that's even remotely urban, but something is missing. Or too well-planned.

One of the most depressing things about Mill Avenue is its self-awareness — it knows it's not big-city. And efforts to mask that are embarrassing. As it turns out, even the homeless street kids selling their hemp jewelry are here by design. The city of Tempe actually has an agreement with the police department not to kick homeless people, street vendors or street performers off Mill. Not because they have a right to be there, but because in a downtown as planned and controlled by the city as Mill Avenue is, even the homeless serve a purpose — to make the street feel more "authentic."

The streetscape is pleasant; at least it's shady, thanks to the large ficus trees (though they guzzle water at a rate that's not exactly sustainable in a desert climate and bring thousands of birds to nest — and make a mess — on the street). But it's sad when the edgiest store in what is supposed to be an eclectic shopping hub is Urban Outfitters. Aside from a few tired-looking tee-shirt shops, there's nothing here that screams "college town."

Daylight makes it easier to see the empty buildings. One on the corner of Fifth Street has been completely boarded up for years. In the windows of others, "For Rent" signs hang gathering dust and even cobwebs — the corporate parents of these buildings would rather have the space sit empty than lower the rent.

Mill Avenue is all but a ghost town, a sign that for whatever reason, Arizona State University and the city of Tempe have not been able to turn the 70,000 bodies that turn up to attend class, teach class and maintain the university into capital. Yet across the Valley in downtown Phoenix, a lot of very smart people — city, state, university and business leaders — are staking a lot of hope on the idea that with an eventual infusion of just 15,000 students, ASU will be able to solve one of America's biggest urban problems: downtown Phoenix.

Privately, many admit that's ridiculous.

Publicly, even Grady Gammage, one of the best-known development lawyers in town (he has offices in both Tempe and Phoenix), isn't entirely optimistic. More like whimsical.

"I've worked in downtown Phoenix since the '60s," he says. "I'd like it to be nice before I die."

Three years ago, in a series titled "Exploding Downtown," Phoenix New Times detailed how Phoenix goes dead after dark. If anything, it's worse now, with a crackdown on First Friday partying and light-rail construction tearing through most of downtown's main arteries.

Not much of a welcome for downtown Phoenix's great hope and ASU's little science experiment — the 160 students who moved to the Phoenix "campus" in August to live in a converted hotel and trudge around construction sites to get to class. A total of about 2,700 students now take classes downtown. Though the plans for the 20-acre campus look pretty slick — a three-acre "civic space," modern-looking academic towers — the campus won't be done, and student life won't be active, until 2015.

Phoenix has always looked for the next fix. Each time the city's tried to tackle its biggest problem — lack of people in downtown proper — we've been promised big things: the basketball arena, the baseball stadium, the convention center, theaters, parks, museums, a world-class scientific research facility. And now ASU.

Those big things have come, but somehow, the people haven't followed. Or if they have, they're all in their cars as soon as the whistle blows, the game ends, the concert lets out — just like ASU co-eds leave their Tempe dorms for their cars and head for Scottsdale Fashion Square to shop.

ASU has made a lot of promises: an integrated urban campus — the kind of place that melts seamlessly into the city like New York University, buildings that both academics and downtown residents will be able to use, vibrant retail and dining, and huge economic returns for the city — including $281 million in annual wages and $34 million in annual tax revenues.

Ironically, while the university has contributed significantly to Tempe's economy as far as providing jobs, it has failed to do pretty much anything for its hometown that it's now promising for downtown Phoenix. But Phoenix has given its trust and $223 million in voter-approved bond money, not to mention a good part of its sparse cityscape, to ASU, an institution with no résumé when it comes to urban design of its own.

To be fair, ASU's key development guy, Wellington Reiter, the dean of the college of design, wasn't at the university until recently. Downtown Tempe's fate was sealed long before he arrived, and it's possible under his guidance ASU's downtown campus will do the things ASU says it will.

But it is true that ASU has not done much, recently, to add interesting retail to downtown Tempe or to integrate the city and the school. The ASU Foundation building at College Avenue and University Drive is shiny and new, with a big parking garage and street-level retail — filled by a row of fast-food chains. At the same time, cool businesses like reZurrection Gallery, Plush, and Kontrive have closed shop. Yes, new dorms are going up, promising more permanent residents, but they look like fortresses.

And one has to wonder where ASU was, as a community leader, during the Tempe City Council debacle earlier this year that could have brought either one of the most interesting "anti-mall" development companies in the country to town, or a group including some of the best artists in Arizona. The deal tanked, and now the land adjacent to Tempe's center for the performing arts on Rio Salado Parkway will sit empty for at least a year. Where was someone like Wellington Reiter?

Reiter refused to talk to New Times for this story, and he's the go-to guy on ASU Downtown, according to the university's press office, which declined to offer an alternative. Nan Ellin, a professor of urban and metropolitan studies at ASU's downtown campus, did speak briefly. She's widely regarded as a leader in the effort to make downtown viable. She says she's already seen her students react to the changes ASU's brought.

"In the beginning, students would come in very disoriented," she says. "They would just come to class and leave. Our lobby was empty. Now just in the last two weeks we're seeing students hang out in the lobby and cafe. The next step is going out and using the city."

It sounds encouraging, but for the moment, at least, downtown Phoenix and downtown Tempe have one thing in common: When it comes to entertainment, there isn't much beyond the local Hooters.

Many downtown ASU students, like Melissa Benfield, who's working on her master's in social work, drive in, do what they need to do, and drive out.

Normally, Benfield goes to class and heads straight back to Mesa where she lives. The one afternoon she had to stick around after class for a 6:30 p.m. meeting, she found herself stuck in a virtual dead zone — no place open to grab a quick dinner, nothing to look at, no one to talk to.

There are a whole lot of people working to fix this problem downtown. And there are a lot of projects in the works aside from the university: Luxury condos are popping up everywhere. There are major plans to develop an entertainment district along Jackson Street, west of Chase Field, and the city has hired a San Francisco consulting firm to help it plan nine new downtown districts and revise zoning ordinances.

Adding to the momentum, organic local energy has gathered around areas like Grand Avenue and Roosevelt Row. Businesses like MADE art boutique and Tammie Coe Bakery have emerged on Roosevelt, and while they might not be making millions, they are signs of life on a formerly empty street.

Phoenix just might be poised to become an interesting, urban downtown.

Or it might not. There's enormous potential for any city to screw up. Yes, in Phoenix, which has a dismal history of failed urban redevelopment schemes (think: Patriots Square Park — luckily, also on the chopping block, in this new wave of change), but also nationwide, civic planning is eminently easy to get wrong. When New Times published its downtown series three years ago, the paper brought Richard Florida, the rock star of urban planning, to town, to tell a packed house at the Orpheum Theatre how to fix the city. He had some good ideas about how to attract the creative class — give them coffee shops and bookstores, and they will come. (Well, not quite that simple, but close.)

Trouble is, city leaders all over the country read The Rise of the Creative Class, and have been busy taking Florida's advice, and applying it in pretty uncreative ways. City planners all think the same way. They all want "a 24/7 pedestrian-friendly urban environment" with "mixed-use, live/work space." They want clear signage — "way-finding devices," they call it — to let the downtown user know where he or she is at every moment. In such master-planned downtowns, there's no room to explore, no way to get lost. Every single experience has been engineered by a group of people in love with new-urbanism, with the same idea of what is cool and interesting.

The final product? Downtown Disney, from sea to shining sea.

Chris Salamone, Tempe's director of economic development, has seen it happen before. Salamone came to Tempe in 2004 from Chula Vista, California, where he worked on urban-renewal projects. He's optimistic about the future of Mill Avenue, and he realizes it's going to take more than a proven development model to make Tempe, or Phoenix, for that matter, great.

"The scary part of redevelopment is you go to the catalogue and order benches and pavers," he says. "We all get together and say what's best and follow the trends. The public wants the real thing. They don't want the BS."

The result is Mill Avenue, a place where even the homeless are commodities. Think about it — New York's many neighborhoods ("districts," in urbanese) were not laid out on a map before they developed. No one sat down and said, "Okay, here's where we're going to put SoHo, and over there is where we're going to put the Lower East Side."

But that's what they're doing in downtown Phoenix. Though the city's proposed districts are unnamed for now, it's clear to see where the planners are going. There's an area designated "warehouse" toward the south end of downtown, with a subdistrict labeled "downtown industrial/artist." The "University District" sits nestled at the northwest corner of Copper Square, bordering what for now is labeled "Van Buren Commercial Mixed Use" on the map.

Walk around downtown Portland or Austin — two cities Phoenix is often compared to — and it's easy to understand why these places are so appealing. They weren't built on a national model of what consumers think is "cool," and they weren't decorated from a catalogue.

But stroll through downtown San Diego, on the other hand, and you know when you pass from district to district because it says so on the trashcans. Just like in Disneyland. (Or, for that matter, downtown Scottsdale.)

This hasn't happened in downtown Phoenix — yet. If the city isn't thoughtful in its planning, if ASU doesn't work to live up to the hype about becoming a socially engaged urban university, downtown Phoenix could easily become just as populated — but just as bland — as downtown Tempe.

With his shocking white hair and beard, John Minnet is like the grandfather of urban renewal, and the 73-year-old knows a lot about development here, although he comes from far away.

Minnet came to Arizona State from Oxford in 1991 as a visiting scholar and taught a few classes in the school of architecture — one on visions for Phoenix and the other on making streets into places. He is no longer teaching at the university; he's now a consultant. He lives in Tempe's Maple-Ash neighborhood and rides his bike to Casey Moore's for a pub experience, or to Tempe City Council meetings, to hear debates over development.

His British accent tends to get thicker, almost indecipherable, when conversations get particularly heated. It's impossible to listen to Minnet talk without getting excited about the possibilities for the future of Tempe and Phoenix — and disappointed about what's happened so far.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out obvious flaws. One of the first things Minnet noticed upon moving here was how unfriendly the streets are to pedestrians.

He remembers surprising himself once by getting in his car to drive from a store on one side of the street to another just across the intersection.

"I thought, 'This is absurd,'" he says. "I had never done that in my life."

From that experience, Minnet developed a very telling thesis which he later turned into a paper: Metro Phoenix was never meant to be a real city because in real cities people jaywalk. They jaywalk because they can. Physically, the streets are smaller; these places are built around a pedestrian culture. In Phoenix and Tempe, the broad streets are designed to hold as many cars as possible. Intersections are so wide they're impossible to cross even when you've got the light. When you do dare jaywalk, be prepared for shocked looks from other pedestrians and a ticket waiting once you cross the road.

If there was ever a spot destined to be urban, anywhere in these parts, it's the less-than-a-mile stretch from University Drive to Rio Salado Parkway, along Mill Avenue.

At least on Mill it's possible to cross the street in less than a minute, thanks to a narrowing to one lane not long ago.

Over the years, Mill has been home to favorite neighborhood bars — Long Wong's was a dump (not to overstate the point made earlier, but it really was Ground Zero for stinkiness on Mill — literally), but people still lament its closing, even five years later.

To be honest, that's because there's never been much there. Mill was never the cultural hub old-timers love to get nostalgic about. Vick Linhoff, owner of Those Were the Days!, one of the few independent businesses left over from the "old" Mill Avenue, finds the idea of Tempe building a "real" downtown a little funny.

"We should be clear, this really isn't a downtown," he says. "I grew up in Minneapolis, and there's dozens of areas this size that are just neighborhood districts. Downtown Minneapolis is downtown Minneapolis. It's truly a center of commerce."

Downtown Tempe is not. But at one point it had the potential to become, at least, a really cool college town.

When Linhoff opened his doors 33 years ago, Mill was a stretch of independently owned local businesses. Today his store is the oldest independent retailer on the street, due in large part to the fact he owns his building and doesn't have to pay rent.

"There was enough life in the downtown that we thought we could capture some of that," he says. "There were antique stores. Changing Hands came a year later. There were, at one point, four or five bookstores. I'm disappointed there isn't more diversity [now]."

Gayle Shanks, owner of Changing Hands, opened her store for the same reasons. She managed to keep the shop open, and business thrived.

A few years passed before developers realized how animated the street had become and how much money there was to be made off the thousands of people who visited Mill each year. The Tempe City Council was easily sold on the idea. Rents soared, yet interest in the area dropped. It wasn't long before the older businesses on the street started to close their doors. Changing Hands opened a second location in a strip mall in south Tempe, and later closed its Mill location.

"I didn't feel comfortable anymore," says Shanks. "I didn't feel like it was my community."

Interestingly, downtown Phoenix is currently courting Shanks, trying to get her to open a second location downtown.

The chains have had much more success on Mill than the indies — but they can afford to lose money for longer periods of time than a local business. And they did lose money. Starting in 2001, Tempe's downtown went into a recession where sales-tax revenue dropped steadily for 27 months. People still might have occasionally wandered the streets, but no one was buying much. That's no joke for a district that depends on tourism and shoppers from the suburbs.

Tempe's leaders admit the shift toward large corporate projects and chain stores was a mistake. Mayor Hugh Hallman says the biggest mistake was spending 15 years turning Tempe into an entertainment/retail district and eliminating residential housing.

There simply are not enough people actually living in the area to sustain the large-scale retail Tempe banked on for so long, though no city official asked can give a hard number for what exactly "critical mass" might be. They just know they're building toward it.

One prime example of the city's failure to make things balance is the enormous, and expensive, Brickyard building. It cost millions of dollars to build, and the developer went bankrupt before it even opened. The building was sold to ASU. The university converted it into office/classroom space, but has done little with the bottom floor retail in the building — another action that calls into question the university's desire, and ability, to really create energetic retail on the ground floor of its classroom buildings — a major talking point for the downtown campus.

There are currently plans for 5,000 new residential units in downtown Tempe. ASU has just completed the first phase of its expanded residential facilities: The Hassayampa Academic Village opened its doors to 900 students this fall, and three more dorms should be complete by fall 2007. The city is following a simple formula to try to achieve the elusive critical mass: build condos, get people on the street, provide them with basic services like a grocery store, and voilà! Instant urban, active downtown.

Even worse, the city and the condo developers are so caught up in building this new, vital downtown, they fail to see how unbelievably artificial it could all become. People go to Mill, or any downtown, to experience something real, and the city needs to realize that culture is not created wholly by retail chains.

Unfortunately, this idea that condo developers are hoping to sell (starting at $400 a square foot) is still, honestly, just an idea. Light rail is still years from completion, so these new urbanites will still need their cars. And unless Hooters Buffalo wings and American Apparel tee shirts pass for culture around here, Mill still has some gaps to fill. Granted, there are some nice spots on Mill, but there are only so many vintage books one can buy and so many things on the menu at Caffe Boa. Eventually, the Mill Avenue condo dwellers will have to leave the 'hood to find something to do.

Though Tempe is attempting to position itself as forward-thinking, one of its biggest development flops ever just ended last month in a mess of politics and frustration.

A plan to develop the dirt lot next to the new center for the performing arts near Tempe Town Lake caught the attention of one of the most innovative arts/retail developers in this country — Lab Holdings, owned by Costa Mesa-based Shaheen Sadeghi. It also drew interest from a local consortium of developers led by Tempe attorney Gene Kadish.

The idea sprang from the desire to put three Valley art-production companies — Arizona Bronze, a Tempe-based foundry and sculpture garden; Segura Publishing, which produces fine art prints; and Meltdown Glass, a nationally recognized maker of glass products and sculptures — into a space that would also feature retail, galleries and studios for artists. It was a project that could have actually brought some culture to the area.

The Lab has garnered national attention since it opened its first "anti-mall" by the same name in Orange County in 1992. Since that time, it's developed another art/retail center near The Lab, called The Camp, transforming the area into what it calls SoBeCa, a 39-acre arts district. The company knows what it's doing, in spite of strong resistance from neighborhood activists, who didn't want outsiders to do the job.

The Lab's competitor, SoBa, also had similar ideas, and even included plans for a large Special Olympics training center. (So political. How could anyone vote against a project that included the Special Olympics?) Another major component of SoBa's project was a commitment from the James Terrell archives to open a gallery in its space — a project that would have been a major cultural score for Tempe.

The October night the council was scheduled to choose between the two developers was a tense one inside Tempe City Hall. Salamone and his staff had recommended The Lab's project, amid major protest from the community.

Ultimately, the council took the easy way out. It chose no one. Instead, it tabled the project, buckling under community pressure not to choose The Lab.

And so, when the performing arts center opens, it will be next to a dirt lot that will remain empty for at least a year. Both developers are so turned off by the city's behavior, and lost so much money on the project, they say they're taking their ideas elsewhere.

Tempe's loss could be Phoenix's gain. There are rumors that The Lab might be looking at Phoenix, and after the council vote, one SoBa developer hinted its project might be moving in that direction as well.

It's a logical step — maybe. If ASU's failure to actively engage Tempe is any indication of what it will do for downtown, Phoenix is going to need all the innovative minds it can get.

Development attorney Grady Gammage, who was involved on the SoBa side of the Tempe arts project, is skeptical that ASU will be what ultimately saves downtown Phoenix. If Tempe is any example, it certainly won't be the only thing, he says.

"The only businesses that thrived from students living there is a row of places to eat and drink beer," Gammage notes.

He's right. That, Mill Avenue has.

But most people agree downtown Phoenix wants something more. One of ASU's greatest chances to prove itself is with its proposed civic space downtown, an almost three-acre area bordered by Central and First avenues, which the university has $30 million in bond money to develop. The space is supposed to be a gathering place for students and professors, as well as people who live and work downtown. It's a great opportunity for the university to develop something unique for the Valley. Or not.

"I'm not sure they're ready for their civic space to be Washington Square," says Gammage.

Probably not. As of right now, plans for what the space will look like are pretty up in the air, though everyone seems to agree on certain basic ideas. It must have shade — lots of it — and some kind of water feature. In the middle of the space will sit the historic 424 building, left intact more because the city fought for it than because ASU cares about historic preservation. Already, old buildings like those housing the Jungle and Kings Cocktail have been torn down to make way for university buildings.

If an e-mail Reiter sent Richard Stanley, senior vice president and university planner, in May of this year about the civic space is any indication, the attitude toward saving and reusing old buildings is pretty arrogant: "The key images at the moment of the Civic Space as it relates to the Jungle are attached," he writes. "I think this small powerpoint shows in no uncertain terms the impossibility of leaving those structures in place. 424 was a huge concession. Enough I think."

Yet in spite of its reputation, there's no doubt that ASU's presence in downtown Phoenix will do something. It just can't be the only entity the city counts on for help.

Perhaps Gammage's hope for downtown Phoenix is most realistic. Though it lacks the optimism city employees and university flacks try to sell, he does recognize that ASU, and all the other projects slated for development, will help in some way.

"Downtown Phoenix is bad enough," Gammage concludes, "that any presence will help."

Next week: Urban gurus from Jane Jacobs to Richard Florida say it's essential to preserve old buildings, but Phoenix does little to encourage indie businesses to come downtown and open shop in a place with some history. Also: a peek at the future cityscape.

Read the whole series online.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin