The Devil Went Down to Phoenix

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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.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin