The Devil Went Down to Phoenix

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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.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin