The Devil Went Down to Phoenix

Three years since Phoenix New Times ran our "Exploding Downtown" series, the wrecking ball is still taking aim all over downtown, threatening what little history the city has left to preserve. Will Phoenix wind up a cross between Disneyland and Mill Avenue?

This week: The latest great hope for downtown — Arizona State University — has no track record when it comes to smart urban renewal.

At 9 on a Sunday night, walking down Mill Avenue is a chore.

Mill is Main Street for the 70,000 students and staff who crowd Arizona State University most days, but tonight, as on many nights, there's almost no one on the street. A terrible moldy sewer smell wafts out of The Loft, a bar off Mill Avenue on Fifth Street, and onto the street — a result of too much grease trapped on its way to downtown Tempe's bloated sewer, city officials confirm.

The same smell hits you near Suite 301, formerly The Owl's Nest, formerly a half-dozen other things. Turnover at this building, and on this street in general, is unbelievable. Coffee Plantation, the biggest coffee house on the street, reeks, too, of neglect and grease, and next door a few vacant-eyed dudes gulp down frozen drinks at Fat Tuesday.

Daytime on Mill isn't much better.

A few people wander the street, with its careful landscaping and well-placed benches. This is the only stretch of several blocks in the entire Valley that's even remotely urban, but something is missing. Or too well-planned.

One of the most depressing things about Mill Avenue is its self-awareness — it knows it's not big-city. And efforts to mask that are embarrassing. As it turns out, even the homeless street kids selling their hemp jewelry are here by design. The city of Tempe actually has an agreement with the police department not to kick homeless people, street vendors or street performers off Mill. Not because they have a right to be there, but because in a downtown as planned and controlled by the city as Mill Avenue is, even the homeless serve a purpose — to make the street feel more "authentic."

The streetscape is pleasant; at least it's shady, thanks to the large ficus trees (though they guzzle water at a rate that's not exactly sustainable in a desert climate and bring thousands of birds to nest — and make a mess — on the street). But it's sad when the edgiest store in what is supposed to be an eclectic shopping hub is Urban Outfitters. Aside from a few tired-looking tee-shirt shops, there's nothing here that screams "college town."

Daylight makes it easier to see the empty buildings. One on the corner of Fifth Street has been completely boarded up for years. In the windows of others, "For Rent" signs hang gathering dust and even cobwebs — the corporate parents of these buildings would rather have the space sit empty than lower the rent.

Mill Avenue is all but a ghost town, a sign that for whatever reason, Arizona State University and the city of Tempe have not been able to turn the 70,000 bodies that turn up to attend class, teach class and maintain the university into capital. Yet across the Valley in downtown Phoenix, a lot of very smart people — city, state, university and business leaders — are staking a lot of hope on the idea that with an eventual infusion of just 15,000 students, ASU will be able to solve one of America's biggest urban problems: downtown Phoenix.

Privately, many admit that's ridiculous.

Publicly, even Grady Gammage, one of the best-known development lawyers in town (he has offices in both Tempe and Phoenix), isn't entirely optimistic. More like whimsical.

"I've worked in downtown Phoenix since the '60s," he says. "I'd like it to be nice before I die."

Three years ago, in a series titled "Exploding Downtown," Phoenix New Times detailed how Phoenix goes dead after dark. If anything, it's worse now, with a crackdown on First Friday partying and light-rail construction tearing through most of downtown's main arteries.

Not much of a welcome for downtown Phoenix's great hope and ASU's little science experiment — the 160 students who moved to the Phoenix "campus" in August to live in a converted hotel and trudge around construction sites to get to class. A total of about 2,700 students now take classes downtown. Though the plans for the 20-acre campus look pretty slick — a three-acre "civic space," modern-looking academic towers — the campus won't be done, and student life won't be active, until 2015.

Phoenix has always looked for the next fix. Each time the city's tried to tackle its biggest problem — lack of people in downtown proper — we've been promised big things: the basketball arena, the baseball stadium, the convention center, theaters, parks, museums, a world-class scientific research facility. And now ASU.