The Mercado

If the clubfooted Terry Goddard administration is to blame for bungled dreams like Patriots Square (and it is), it also deserves a stirring tribute for the Mercado. This marvelous and near- kitschy jumble of shops, restaurants and offices going up across the street from Heritage Square promises to be the first project to illustrate that a revitalized downtown is at its best when it's a kick in the pants. This is to say that where many upscale shopping centers value spaciousness and elegance, the Mercado will be smallish and quirky. Where many retail enclaves are oases of snobbish unreality, the Mercado will be part of the community's daily activities--brides tossing bouquets from the balcony of the new Hispanic cultural center, and up to 150 children a day streaming onto the playground at the Sunrise Preschool.

Most of all, where many shopping centers are so white-bread generic in appearance and concept they could be transferred intact from Phoenix to Palo Alto without causing a scenic ripple, the Mercado will spring from a true Phoenix consciousness. Co-developed by the Symington Co. and Chicanos por la Causa, the shopping center will be thick, not with Hispanic shtick for tourists, but with rich manifestations of the daily life of the Valley's Hispanic community. Walk into the candy store, and you'll find a Hispanic businessman and an interior dominated by pinatas and the colorful candies that fill them. Try the bookstore (called Libros, Libros, Libros), and you'll find one end of it stacked high with the classics of literature--in Spanish.

If you like fun with your authenticity, the Mercado sounds like the place.
And a prime indicator says the combination may work: Still a full season away from its fall opening, retail space is already 60 to 70 percent leased. Insiders say it's an uncommonly high number for a project made up of specialty stores that doesn't have a Bullock's or Goldwaters for an anchor--impressively high when you consider that the Mercado lies in the heart of a downtown hardly anyone believes in.

Randy Todd, the executive vice president of Symington who is acting as construction manager for the project, says that many of the Mercado kudos belong to the city. The city owns the land on which it rests, and the concept for a uniquely Southwestern/Hispanic development originally came from City Hall. And it is because of the city's persistence that the Mercado received the first federal Urban Development Action Grant ever funded in Phoenix, Todd says.

As the years have flowed by and funding negotiations have been difficult, the city has continued to be an active partner in problem-solving. For instance, it was Bob Logan, the former assistant to the mayor, who came up with a way to bring working artisans into the Mercado by providing rents the likes of potters and leatherworkers can afford. By offering tax abatements that will allow money to flow back into the project rather than into city coffers, rents on small spaces will be reduced to $6 or $7 per square foot. (The normal retail rents are being estimated by Todd at $13, which is still in the low range when compared to about $20 at Park Central.)

So who are all these renters willing to risk it on downtown?
For one thankful thing, they are restaurateurs whose wares will be welcome in a downtown with too few lunchtime options for workers.

Sesame Inn is planning a large second restaurant. Carol Steele will create "The Mercado Within the Mercado"--a marketplace that will include a deli, a bakery and other food vendors. The Acapulco Bay Beach Club will do its thing. Tommy Martinez of the Burrito Company will open a full- service restaurant with a cocktail lounge featuring tapas, those trendy hors d'oeuvres from Spain. (There will also be a second Burrito Company in the Mercado's Food Court, an open-air arrangement with seating for 200 and an abundance of vendors.) Carolina's will bring its cheese crisps downtown.

Todd says that the other tenants will run heavily to first-time entrepreneurs and small family businesses, many of them Hispanic: Elegante Jewelers from South Phoenix, a hair salon, a sundries store, the Frontier Boot Corral. Todd says Symington Co. is pursuing a drugstore and sporting goods store in the belief that the residents brave enough to live downtown should not be without basic conveniences.

Perhaps the most progressive idea in the works is a "well-care" center, a daycare facility for working parents whose kids are sick. Although negotiations haven't closed, Todd hopes to see it go in above the Sunrise Preschool, and says that it will be able to care for eight to twelve children a day.

And none of this raving even mentions the whimsy that seems to be the governing concept in the Mercado's design. It is an eccentric Mexican village whose irregular walls are striped with violets and tans and electric salmon, and whose climate will be regulated by sun-protective banners and drapes to shield walkways. Some of the planned details bespeak a sense of humor that has not been exhibited before by the Phoenix development community (and God knows that a developer venturing into downtown needs the laugh). Lizards carved from stone will seem to scale the buildings. Statues of flute-playing frogs will be tucked away within a wall's recesses, and will probably go unnoticed until a recording of low-playing flute music causes passers-by--like downtown, itself, eventually--to slowly turn around.

We know that, in the end, shopping centers do not live or die by the collective imaginations of their planners; their survival is guaranteed only by the sweet sounds of their cash registers. We know it's impossible to predict whether Phoenicians will finally support a downtown project in the numbers it will take to make the Mercado a success.

But we also know that it's not ever going to happen without a few mind- bending reasons for it to happen. Perhaps the Mercado will be the first reason.

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Deborah Laake

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