Monthly Archives: December 2009

Downtown Phoenix Journal weekly recap

[Source: Si Robins, Downtown Phoenix Journal] — Ah, the holidays.  Here at DPJ, we’ve featured a number of exciting December events, as well as some interesting things popping up around Downtown Phoenix.  On First Friday, we battled the crowds and explored the opening of the Arizona Latino Arts & Cultural Center and took in a play chronicling Sheriff Joe’s afterlife.  Throughout the month we highlighted a number of development topics: the growth of the corner of 7th Avenue and McDowell, the city’s Adaptive Reuse Program, and the upstart eco-friendly builders at Upcycle Living.  DPJ also shared the important initiatives happening with Valley Forward and the Phoenix Community Alliance.  And, just in time for the holidays, we ventured to Melrose to take in some of the more unique boutiques on this funky stretch of 7th Avenue.

Phoenix area’s light rail system marks 1st year

[Source: Amanda Lee Myers, Associated Press] — When passengers began riding new light rail trains in the Phoenix area last December, many questions were on their minds.  Can light rail succeed in a city where car is king?  Will the trains survive searing desert heat in the summer?  Is it worth the $1.4 billion it cost to build?  A year later, the system is carrying 50 percent more people than expected, the trains survived the summer and kept riders cool, and many of the kinks of introducing a new mode of transportation to the nation’s fifth largest city have been worked out.

Now the big question is: Can light rail continue to maintain its ridership and service amid the recession while moving forward with plans to expand the system from 20 to 57 miles?  “It’s going to be very hard. The challenges are going to be severe,” said Rod Diridon, executive director of the San Jose, Calif.-based Mineta Transportation Institute, a nonpartisan research group that conducts transportation policy studies.

Diridon said it’s “absolutely remarkable” that Phoenix has managed to see higher ridership than expected while maintaining service this past year.  “All across the nation transit systems depend on sales and property tax dollars, and because sales tax revenues are down in some places as much as 50 percent, service has been cut back and ridership is down in most places,” Diridon said.  “The opposite is true in Phoenix.  They’ve retained ridership and maintained service.  That’s a phenomenal  success given the state of the economy.”

It’s not been an easy task for light-rail operator Metro.  The agency had to pay about $500,000 more than the expected $1.5 million to keep the trains cool all year long, fund an educational program for passengers who were inadvertently not paying for their rides, and lay off about 20 people.  [Note: To read the full article, visit Phoenix area’s light rail system marks 1st year.]

Viewpoint: Phoenix budget woes, big art, light rail made ’09 quite a year

[Source: Arizona Republic; section headers organized by yours truly] — With this being Christmas week, we figured you wouldn’t want to read a traditional editorial any more than we wanted to write one.  So today, we lighten things up a bit with awards for notable achievements in 2009.

Phoenix Overall

  • Story of the year: Phoenix did the virtually impossible this year — it cut $270 million from the general fund to balance the budget due to low sales-tax revenue.  Residents are feeling the effects with reduced hours or closures of swimming pools, libraries, and senior centers.  They also see more graffiti and potholes because staff is stretched so thin.  Now the city is talking about cutting an additional $100 million or so.  This story is getting old.
  • Best cheerleader: Mayor Phil Gordon earns this award again.  With frequent trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby for stimulus funds, and Janet Napolitano resigning as governor to lead Homeland Security, Gordon is the face of Arizona.
  • Embarrassment: Rep. Ray Barnes’ rambling reasons for voting to cut $144 million from public education.  Grab some eggnog and watch this Phoenix Republican go off.
  • Hot potato: The idea to raise the sales tax temporarily to generate revenue quickly.  Mayor Gordon suggested a community member take on his idea.  But no one wants to touch it.
  • Landmark: The city became the second in the state to offer a domestic-partner registry to gay or straight couples who share a Phoenix residence.  Among other privileges, the registry grants partners visitation rights in hospitals.
  • Pillar: City Manager Frank Fairbanks earns this award again.  He retired this year, but not before balancing the nastiest budget deficit in city history.  Thanks, Frank.

Downtown Focused/Strong Influence

  • Pushin’ on: Light rail has its fans and its foes.  But ridership is up and businesses have sprouted along the line.  The system is approaching it first anniversary.  We say light rail is on track.
  • Newcomer: Janet Echelman’s “Her Secret Is Patience” at the new Civic Space Park downtown opened to much criticism.  Meant to resemble a cactus bloom, the floating sculpture was called everything from a basketball hoop to a male contraceptive.  Not that we mind.  Some of the best artwork in the world drew heavy criticism.  We’re just glad people are noticing what downtown Phoenix has to offer.
  • Comeback: Phoenix Urban Market Grocery and Wine Bar at Central Avenue and Pierce Street is the first grocer to serve the area in 30 years.  It only carries the basics.  But milk, vegetables, bread, pasta and other staples are welcome.
  • Bragging rights: President Barack Obama made three visits to the Valley this year.  One of those was to the new Phoenix Convention Center, where Obama addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention.
  • Feather in the cap: A budding knowledge-based economy, parks and preservation efforts, and teen spaces at public libraries make Phoenix an All-America City.  Now it has the civic award to prove it.  This was Phoenix’s fifth win.  It would be a shame to lose these gains to budget cuts in the down economy.

Other Parts of Phoenix

  • Senseless act: A photo-enforcement-van driver was shot to death while deployed near Loop 101 in north Phoenix.  Thomas DeStories was indicted in connection with the shooting death of Douglas Georgianni.
  • Tallest story: Despite opposition from neighbors, the City Council approved a Mormon temple whose steeple and spire will rise 86 feet above the Deer Valley area.
  • Unsung hero: The Macehualli Day Labor Center in northeastern Phoenix provides a central location for day laborers and potential employers to negotiate business.  The center is for sale.

Fewer hotel bookings pose challenge in downtown Phoenix

Downtown Phoenix Wyndham Hotel (soon to be Marriott)

[Source: Jahna Berry, Arizona Republic] — The ongoing travel recession and, to some extent, city-built Sheraton in downtown Phoenix are putting pressure on central Phoenix hotels, some hotel owners say.  Tourists are traveling less and spending less, dampening the travel boom that hotel owners hoped would follow last year’s completion of the Phoenix Convention Center’s $600 million expansion.  Properties are responding in a variety of ways:

  • Last week, the Wyndham Phoenix Hotel asked for and received a 20-year tax discount from Phoenix that will save the hotel at 50 E. Adams St. $400,000 annually.  The deal will finish the hotel’s renovation and switch to the Marriott flag from Wyndham, which, the majority owner says, will drum up business.
  • The Lexington Hotel Central Phoenix, 1100 N. Central Ave., is open but is seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, court records show.
  • The Clarendon Hotel is starting a new promotion geared toward business travelers that will give hotel guests $20 cash for each night they stay there.

In the 14 months that it has been open, the 1,000-rooom Sheraton also has changed the market.  Phoenix built the hotel to accommodate larger conventions that were expected to meet there.  Although several groups, including the National Rifle Association, brought tens of thousands of new tourists to Phoenix, those bookings have tapered off.

Nationally, “distressed hotels are the way of the world right now because of the debt that they are carrying and because there is no business,” said Jeff Higley, a spokesman for Smith Travel Research.  “There are hotels that are struggling to meet payroll.”

The Phoenix market has been one of the hardest-hit travel markets in the nation.  From January though November, city hotel occupancy fell 12.6 percent and the average room rate tumbled 15 percent, compared with the same period in 2008.  A key barometer slid 26 percent in the city.  Revenue available per room is the amount of money generated per room excluding extras such as food and spa visits.  Only New York’s RevPar figure dropped more in that period.  It declined 28.1 percent, according to Smith Travel.  [Note: To read the full article, visit Fewer hotel bookings pose challenge in downtown Phoenix.]

Season’s Greetings!

Advocacy group stresses importance of local companies

[Source: Luci Scott, Arizona Republic] — For every $100 spent in a chain store, $13 remains in the state.  For every $100 spent in a locally owned business, $45 remains in the state.  That’s the message delivered at a Tempe Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday by Kimber Lanning, director of Local First Arizona, an advocacy group promoting local companies.  Chandler officials are well aware of the benefits of local buying; the city began a Shop Chandler campaign this year.  Lanning said the figures came out of an Austin-based Civic Economics Study in 2002.

Lanning, owner of Stinkweeds music store in central Phoenix, said Local First Arizona is starting a campaign to persuade people and companies to shift 10 percent of their spending toward locally owned businesses.  That shift would result in 1,600 new jobs and $15 million in new local wages, she said.

Although national chains employ people too, they don’t give to local charities at the same rate, Lanning said.  And local companies hire other local business people such as attorneys, CPAs, sign makers, and Web designers.  Lanning commended the utility APS for recently signing a contract for supplies with Wist Office Products of Tempe rather than using a national chain.

Lanning said the idea that local is more expensive is a myth.   In comparing prices, she discovered, for example, that a big bag of dog food was $4.30 less at the Noble Beast on Camelback Road than at a big box.  In some cases, the big boxes are cheaper, she said, but “they’ve convinced us it doesn’t pay to shop around.”  She encouraged the audience to, when they’re in the dairy section of a supermarket, to buy locally by picking up Hickmans’ eggs and Shamrock milk.

Supporting local independent businesses not only keeps more money in the area, it also promotes a sense of community and enriches the culture, she said.  “People are living here and telling how great it is where they came from,” she said.  “When you move to Phoenix, you shop in big boxes and eat at national chains, and never feel connected to Phoenix… They’re still from Des Moines even though they’ve lived here 20 years.”  Lanning said when Arizonans go to Chicago, they return talking about the great local pizza place they found; they don’t come back raving about Applebee’s. 

Buying locally and creating a sense of community would help keep young, creative people in Arizona, she said.  “Of the top 10 percent of our graduates, 98 percent leave.  The bottom 50 percent all stay.”

In terms of promoting local procurement, Arizona rates low nationally.  Arizona is one of only three states that doesn’t give preference in purchasing to local businesses, Lanning said.  The other two states are Mississippi and Michigan.  Because other states are loyal to their own, Arizona contractors can be put at a disadvantage, she said.  “Kitchell and Sundt can’t get contracts in California, Nevada and Utah, because those states favor the home team,” she said.  Giving preference to companies in Arizona would also help lure business to the state.  “They look whether they’re going to be favored,” she said.  “We’re thinking like it’s 1985 in terms of economic development,” she said. “We need to shift our thinking.”  [Note: To read the full article, visit Advocacy group stresses importance of local companies.]

ASU students design projects for vacant downtown Phoenix lots

ASU sustainability students Carissa Taylor (left), Truman Kiyaani, and Braden Kay with a planter box nearing completion. (Photo source: John Harlow)

[Source: Arizona State University] — Low-cost ideas, including the construction of planter boxes, to transform vacant lots in downtown Phoenix for temporary use until their development, [were] presented on Dec. 8 on the Arizona State University Downtown Phoenix campus.  The multimedia presentation of research models was developed by university students in an urban design practice class taught by Nan Ellin, an associate professor and director of the planning program in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  She also is an affiliate faculty member with ASU’s School of Sustainability.  “In 2000, the Phoenix metropolitan area contained 42.6 percent vacant land, significantly higher than most American cities,” said Pei Zhai, a doctoral student in sustainability.

“To address this vexing challenge, the office of the mayor requested that ASU students develop a model for the temporary use of publicly-owned vacant lots,” explained Ellin.  “In response, students developed the Desert TULIP – Temporary Urban Laboratory Infill Project – a low-cost strategy to transform vacant lots until their development,” Ellin said.

The students were asked to focus specifically on lots south of Garfield between 3rd and 6th Streets, an area designated to become part of the Phoenix Biomedical Campus.   [Note: Read the full article at ASU students design temp use project for downtown Phoenix vacant lots.]

New restaurant cluster emerging along downtown Phoenix’s Roosevelt St.

[Source: Howard Seftel, Arizona Republic] — A new cluster of restaurants looks poised to bring some energy to yet another part of downtown Phoenix.  This time the location is the stretch along Roosevelt Street between Second and Third Avenues.

There’s Bambino Bistro, formerly Vinery 214. Chef/owner Leonard Jay threw in the towel on Vinery’s small-plate concept — the neighborhood didn’t get it, he says with a sigh.  Now, armed with a new name and concept, the restaurant features sandwiches built around three kinds of homemade flatbread; from-scratch pasta; wood-fired, brick-oven pizza; burgers; mussels; and several off-beat specials… Bambino Bistro is a cute spot that could turn out to be a neighborhood sleeper.  Jay, meanwhile, is determined: “We’ve made a commitment to the community,” he says.  “No matter what it takes, we’re going to be here.”

A few feet down the block is Lola Coffee, the second branch of Daniel Wayne’s hip coffeehouse.  (The original is at 4700 N. Central Avenue, just south of Camelback Road.)  It opened Dec. 18 in the remodeled circa 1925 Gold Spot Market building.  Why here? “Downtown is finally ready,” Wayne says, pointing to the growing number of neighborhood residents.  He’s roasting his coffee beans and baking pastries on the premises.

Finally, the 10th Valley branch of Pita Jungle is coming to the same building as Lola Coffee.  It’s scheduled to open by the end of March.

By my count, the area bounded by Fourth Avenue on the west and Fourth Street on the east, and Roosevelt and Fillmore Streets on the north and south, is now home to 10 new places in the past year.  Along with Bambino Bistro, Lola Coffee and Pita Jungle, the list includes Nine 05, Local Breeze, Pasta Bar, Sens, Turf Restaurant & Pub, Moira Sushi and Phoenix Public Market Urban Grocery and Wine Bar.  And several more restaurants are on the way.  [Note: To read the full article, visit New restaurant cluster emerging along downtown Phoenix’s Roosevelt St.]

Choir teacher suspended after taking students to downtown Phoenix “Hooters”

[Source: eCanada Now] — In Phoenix, Arizona, a Paradise Valley High School choir teacher has been put on paid leave after taking her class to Hooters for lunch.  According to Judi Willis, a spokeswoman for the district school board, Mary Segall took her class to a Hooters resautrant after a performance at Arizona Center last week.  Segall said that Hooters, a restaurant known for hiring women with large breasts, was the only restaurant in the area capable of handling such a large group.

Segall, 23, took 40 students to the controversial restaurant, The Arizona Republic reported.  “We believe that there are many venues for lunch for a large group of people in the downtown Phoenix area,” Willis said.  “There could have been a choice that might have been more appropriate, given that it was a school-day event with a school employee in charge.”

The Hooters website says its restaurants aim to provide “a unique, entertaining dining experience… delivered by attractive, vivacious Hooters Girls.”

Segal traveled to Washington in January with the school’s choir and strings group to perform at one of President Barack Obama’s inaugural events, “History in the Making: A Dream and a Change Inaugural Ball.”

Downtown Phoenix fixture, Circles Discs & Tapes, closing

Circles Discs & Tapes (Photo: bridgeandtunnelclub.com)

[Source: Tim Vetscher, ABC15 News] — A Valley landmark is going out of business after nearly four decades in downtown Phoenix.  The owners of Circles Discs and Tapes, at the corner of Central Avenue and McKinley, recently announced they’re calling it quits.  “We have people come in all the time and say they’ve been coming here for 30 to 40 years,” said Circles employee Zak Sofaly.  But on Sunday night, less than a week before Christmas, Circles only had one customer from 5 to 6 p.m.  Workers say they’ve had too many nights like that lately.

So after 38 years, the owners have decided to close the doors for good.  “For a lot of people who grew up here, it definitely has a special place in their hearts,” added Sofaly, who is also a drummer in the band, Incite.  “They’re really sad to see it go.”

It seems the popularity of digital downloads proved to be Circles’ downfall. CD sales are a fraction of what they used to be thanks to services like iTunes.  “It’s sad,” said Steve Zimmerman, owner of Revolver Records, just up the street from Circles.  “They were one of the big stores for a long, long time.”

Circles employees say the addition of light rail and an overall down economy was just too much to overcome.  “Being a resident, its really sad,” said Jay Williams.  “The economy has caused a lot of problems.  I thought the light rail would bring people back but I haven’t seen that.”  Circles will remain open until sometime after January 1.  The exact closing date has yet to be determined.  [Note: To read the full article, visit Downtown Phoenix fixture, Circles Discs & Tapes, closing.]