Daily Archives: September 7, 2008

Light rail: What metro Phoenix can learn from Denver

[Source: Casey Newton, Arizona Republic] — On a sunny summer day in downtown Denver, tourists stroll down a shady boulevard bustling with shops and restaurants.  Along the mile-long district known as the 16th Street Mall, which is closed to cars, free shuttles carry visitors from the vibrant central business district to Coors Field, the Pepsi Center, and beyond.  A few blocks from the Colorado Convention Center, in the center of the mall, the shuttles stop at 16th Street and California.  There, passengers transfer to Denver’s regional light-rail system: 35 miles of track that link the stadiums to the skyscrapers, the shops to the suburbs.

The system opened its first 5 miles of track in 1994.  Like Phoenix, Denver in those days was a large Western city where many people were skeptical of light rail. Getting the system approved and built took nearly 20 years.  But once it opened, public response was overwhelming.  Planners had to scramble to keep up with the demand.  On a recent visit to Denver, in interviews with riders, pedestrians, business owners, and transportation officials, the story of Denver’s first year of light rail offered a gentle warning of what Phoenix can expect when its rail service opens Dec. 27.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Can landscaping make Phoenix “walkable?”

[Source: Richard Nilsen, Arizona Republic] — The skyline may be interesting, but it is not where we live.  “We should not care about the skyline but the streetscape,” says Nancy Levinson, head of the Phoenix Urban Research Lab at Arizona State University.  “The skyline of Manhattan is something you appreciate in New Jersey.  In the thick of Manhattan, you’re excited about the streetscape. The skyline is something you see from a specific angle.  Many great cities don’t have a great skyline.”

And it is that street-level view that is lagging most in Phoenix.  “All good cities share a common quality,” Phoenix architect Eddie Jones says.  “They are walkable.”

Phoenix doesn’t make the grade.  “Downtown Phoenix is not a pleasant environment,” says Dean Brennan, a planner with the Urban Form Project, a city initiative to guide development. “People don’t come to downtown Phoenix to walk around — not like they do in downtown Tempe.  In Phoenix, we talk about shade.  That seems obvious.  But when a building is designed, you’d think shade would be a critical element of that design, but it’s not.  Shade isn’t provided.  Maybe some trees or a canopy, but it’s an afterthought.”

The question is: If the temperature is 105 degrees even in the shade, will landscaping be enough to turn Phoenix into a “walkable” city?  [Note: To read this article and online comments, click here.]

Skyline struggles to give Phoenix sense of identity

[Source: Richard Nilsen, Arizona Republic] — A city’s skyline is its ID photo.  Think the Transamerica Pyramid and the Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco, the George Washington Bridge, and the Empire State Building for Manhattan.  And Dallas, well, Dallas has its freeway flyovers.  But what is Phoenix’s mug shot?  

“The first view of most visitors to Phoenix is the downtown towers silhouetted against Camelback, Mummy, or South mountains as their airplanes bank for a landing,” says Max Underwood, an Arizona State University architecture professor. The mountains are certainly part of it, but what about those buildings?  Do they give Phoenix a sense of self?

Phoenix is now the fifth-largest city in the nation, and it keeps getting bigger.  But smaller cities have a more distinct architectural profile: San Francisco, Portland, Ore., Denver.  “Our high-rises are not interesting enough, varied enough, tall enough or numerous enough to create a skyline worth talking about,” says Grady Gammage Jr., a Valley lawyer and urban-planning critic.

It isn’t just a question of individual buildings of architectural distinction — Phoenix has several of those. It’s about an overall sense of architecture as a source of civic pride and urban identity.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

St. Mary’s Basilica in downtown Phoenix restores historic stained-glass windows

St. Mary’s Basilica in downtown Phoenix is known for its beautiful, historic stained-glass windows. KAET’s Horizon looks at the inspiration to restore them to their original brilliance.

Phoenix’s transformation into big city has benefits, burdens

[Source: Yuri Artibise, Grady Gammage Jr., and Nancy Welch, Morrison Institute] — Columnist Gregory Rodriguez wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times: “No city is more burdened by its myth than LA.  That’s because ours, crafted by regional boosters even before the birth of LA as a modern American city, is the ultimate myth: Los Angeles as paradise.  It makes the gulf between the ideal and the real deeper here than anywhere else.”

Other than its eponymous pyrotechnic bird, Phoenix has not been a city of deep myth.  Only a few movies have been set here.  The closest thing to a signature song is about a guy driving away from LA, musing on what his lost love will be doing “by the time I get to Phoenix.”  Yet, Phoenix and Los Angeles have an apparent shared heritage: huge water projects, real-estate developers, parking lots, palm trees, and faux Spanish architecture.

Our city seems so obviously the younger sister of a Hollywood starlet that comparison and emulation are inevitable.  The Phoenix/LA conceit is deep-seated, chronic, and nearly always offered as something to avoid.  Consider just part of a collection from a 1996 Phoenix Gazette column by Bill Hart:

  • “Do you want this to be another Detroit or New York or, worse yet, another Los Angeles?” – Former Gov. Howard Pyle, 1987
  • “We don’t want to be another Los Angeles.  Nobody wants that.” – Jim Marsh, former director, Arizona Department of Commerce, 1991
  • In a recent poll, 90% of Arizonans said it would be bad if Phoenix became more like Los Angeles. – The Arizona Republic, 1991
  • “Phoenix still can avoid becoming another Los Angeles by building a balanced transportation system.” – David Baron, director, Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, 1993
  • There are things that can be done to stop the Valley’s slide toward becoming another Los Angeles. – The Republic, 1994

Phoenix, a city often accused of having no identity, certainly has long known what it doesn’t want to be.  What is it we are so afraid of?  All big cities have mixed images, but the uber-negative view of Los Angeles is grounded in three attributes: smog, congestion, and sprawl.  These problems and the comparisons between Phoenix and LA are worth a closer examination.  [Note: to read the full op-ed piece, click here.]