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THE GREAT BLIGHT HOPE

Andy Conlin can't decide whether he's happy or wary about the antiwar demonstration that turned up at Arizona Center shortly after its November opening.

"I was flattered," says the Rouse Company's Phoenix point man at first, "because it showed that people were recognizing this as the community's focal point." But then visions of nervous shoppers and fuming boutique owners dance across his imagination, and suddenly he's not sure he should have said that. "Not that we want to encourage demonstrations," he adds.

What about other spontaneous happenings? Suppose a street preacher were to surface in Arizona Center's garden? Conlin's hands fidget, his brow creases. "A street preacher. I don't know . . . ."

His waffling isn't surprising. Phoenix is trying to fabricate a real downtown where nothing but high-rise file cabinets stood before, and there's no magic formula to guarantee success--just ask the Symington Company, whose year-old Mercado today attracts fewer browsers than Chernobyl.

Conlin's employer is $200 million deep into downtown Phoenix, and despite the early gush of visitors, Arizona Center could face leaner times once its novelty erodes.

Its success, as well as that of all downtown Phoenix, just might hinge on what Conlin decides to do when that first street preacher shows up.

A FEW WORDS from the Old Testament of urban design:
Downtown Phoenix was doomed far earlier than most of us realize, and for reasons that at first had nothing to do with design. In 1893 the first electric trolley clattered north from Washington Street, and Phoenicians never looked back.

"In the history of cities, there was a tremendous sense of relief when people could get away from the walking environment," says John Meunier, dean of Arizona State University's College of Architecture and Environmental Design. "People had lived downtown and walked and shopped and played in a high-density environment only because they had no choice. Once the trolley cars could take them away to their leafy suburbs, they went gladly indeed, because the high-density city was a bloody dangerous place to live. You talk about the plague of crack now--in the nineteenth-century city, there was smallpox, typhoid and cholera."

It wasn't until the Fifties that those safe, quiet, leafy suburbs--in other words, urban sprawl--fully strangled downtown Phoenix. That was the decade in which the city's area grew by 1,096 percent (from 17.1 to 187.4 square miles). And as people began not coming downtown, the architects, curiously, gave them more and more reasons not to come downtown.

The real problem with all those high-rises of the Fifties through the Eighties is not that they cut banal profiles in the skyline, but that they have nothing to say at street level.

The blank wall, or the plain concrete arcade, or the window that offers nothing but a view of stockbrokers huddled over a computer screen, are city-killers all. They suck life out of the street and bore pedestrians silly. The architects and their clients were interested only in expressing power by thrusting huge concrete-and-glass shafts into the sky. Thus they abandoned a fundamental principle of urban design: The first eight or ten feet of the building are always the most important.

For a downtown to work as a pedestrian environment, there must be an enormous number of sensory goings-on at street level--everything from engaging architectural details and public sculpture to live music and sidewalk cafes. Unless architects and planners create spaces for these things to happen, the city is sterile.

THE ROUSE PEOPLE decided to move on Phoenix in 1987, which, to anyone not connected with it, seemed to have the whiff of a long shot. Phoenix by then had the most cadaverous urban core of any major American city. There was no geographic attraction downtown, such as a waterfront, that had helped prime Rouse's downtown rejuvenation projects in cities such as Baltimore. There was no stunning historic building, like Washington, D.C.'s 1907 Beaux-Arts Union Station, that could be hollowed out and turned into a mall.

What Rouse did see, Conlin says, was an emerging freeway system that could reintroduce suburbanites to downtown, and a convention center a block away that already drew more than a million people a year--people who had nowhere to party after a day of boring meetings.

"We all know," Conlin says, "that the real business of a convention is not transacted in a high-ceilinged meeting room, sitting on folding chairs, drinking diet Coke and listening to a lecture by Tom Peters. The real business is done later, in restaurants and bars. We saw that as an opportunity."

Conlin estimates that Arizona Center drew 250,000 people the first four days it was open. Hooters, Lombardi's, and Sam's Cafe, all chain restaurants, have told him their first few weeks in Phoenix have generated more business than any of their previous openings. Conlin says he isn't surprised; Phoenix was just waiting for something like this to happen.

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Lawrence W. Cheek