But that's an illusion. With what some onlookers believe was stealth, the Phoenix City Council voted unanimously in July to tear Square One down, at a demolition cost of almost $1 million.
"At the very least, the city should have come forward and said, 'These buildings are really a wreck. To do renovations would be such-and-such in terms of dollars. We have tried hard, but we don't have any viable deals,'" says Michael Dollin, an urban designer who has consulted extensively on downtown projects, who was one of only three citizens to protest Square One's demolition in front of the city council. "That would have been fine. But they didn't do that! They said, 'Let's do this real quietly.'
"I can understand their saying it is a blighted block, but I do think it's a shame that we are tearing up our urban fabric at a time we cannot afford to rebuild it."
Which brings us to the next part: In Square One's place will go a parking lot. This is despite the city's own 25-year plan for a dense downtown that prohibits more surface parking and despite the protestations of at least two local developers who wanted to explore further the possibility of filling the block with tenants. It's the latest, and some fear final, twist in a decade-long downtown development saga that has raised hopes, wrecked the career of players such as developer Julian Blum and brought to the attention of city government such "wanna-bes" as Walter Switzer, who eventually ran for the city council, and David Therrien, an artist and fledgling developer who is building an avant-garde art center at the Ice House in the warehouse district. Not incidentally, Square One also has cost the city $10 million without a return.
The parking-lot decision comes at a time when the city's economy is crippled, not only by the recession but from the loss of sales-tax revenues, so that this year's municipal budget is smaller than last year's. Such shrinkage has never occurred before, a fact that throws a $10 million mistake into sharp relief. But the decision represents more than waste: It sounds an alarm that our downtown, which press accounts have been gushing is revitalized, is far from out of danger. And it has much to say about the values of a changed city council that places little faith in urban planning, the process that should allow a city to become more livable as it grows.
Most unsettling, the urban-planning implications of the Square One decision are Valleywide: Already, the city council has so de-emphasized urban planning that it has driven away its planning director, Ron Short, according to Short himself. Short resigned early in the summer and told New Times afterward, "My greatest concern is that long-range planning will not be done because of a lack of staff." Although reviews of Short's own performance are mixed--he is called "ineffective" by some insiders and credited with a great concern for planning by others--even his critics admit that there's not much understanding of the importance of planning among the members of the current city council. It has all happened without much publicity, perhaps because "urban planning" is the sort of phrase that makes both reporters' and readers' eyes glaze over. What is urban planning, anyway? And why does it matter that it's in the toilet during a year when police and firefighters are struggling to keep their jobs? Is it anything more than Nineties-speak, more than a frill?
It is. In an era when cities develop according to how far we can drive, urban planning can prevent sprawl from becoming uninhabitable. By defining land use and calculating growth, urban planning can keep neighborhoods conducive to family life. By embracing the environment, it can protect a city's natural resources and thus its beauty. By advancing design-review standards, it can safeguard aesthetics.
It comes down to this: Urban planning can make the difference between marking time in a city and enjoying your life there. Well-planned cities, like Washington, D.C., and Seattle, know how to spend their money (How will you design a water system for north Phoenix without knowing how many people will likely be living there in ten years?). Such cities also take in more money, since it often is well-planned cities that people move or travel to.