The Devil Went Down to Phoenix

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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.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin