Downtown Phoenix 2.0?

[Source: Jon Talton, Rogue Columnist] — It’s surprising that some appear so sanguine about the likely foreclosure of most units at the 44 Monroe condo tower.  This, along with a similar fate for the Summit at Copper Square and 44’s developer Grace Communities failing to rehab the historic Valley National Bank building because of the Mortgages Ltd. fiasco, represents a devastating setback for luring private investment into downtown Phoenix.  Maybe people are too shell shocked to take it all in.  Maybe they’re willing to settle for things being better than they were 20 years ago, which is undeniably true.  Neither option is wise for those who wish the central city well.

Make no mistake: the Phoenix depression is metro-wide.  I saw rotting framing and miles of distressed subdivisions out in the exurbs.  Tempe foolishly threw away its opportunity to build a mid-rise boutique downtown of national quality — now it has an empty condo high-rise and Mill Avenue is swooning again.  But my conviction remains that there is no healthy major city without a strong urban downtown, and center city problems left unchecked have a habit of spreading.  (And don’t be taken in by the propaganda: Phoenix did have a vibrant downtown — it was killed by civic malpractice).

In Phoenix, the past few years have seen some notable triumphs: the beginnings of a downtown ASU campus, light rail, a convention center worthy of such a tourist-dependent city, a new convention hotel, and a blossoming of independently owned restaurants.  The biosciences campus has been planted (although it has been allowed to stall and, I fear, its future is uncertain).  Yet major private investment has not followed; 44 Monroe and the Summit represented the strongest chance for that within the existing local business model of “real estate first.”  The many towers proposed for the entire Central Corridor are now blighted empty lots.  CityScape?  I’ll believe it when I see it.  What I see is a homely suburban design, not the soaring “game changer” sold to the public on the front page of the newspaper.

The great recession, the great reset: Where will they leave downtown Phoenix and the Central Corridor?  It’s tough all over, now that a commercial real-estate crisis will follow the explosion of the residential and mortgage bubble.  Nationally, suburbs and exurbs are being hit harder than downtowns.  Suburban poverty is spreading.  The massive destruction of wealth and overhang of leverage make restarting the sprawl machine of old impossible.  Smart places, such as Denver, are trying to retrofit the suburbs for a higher energy future. Some suburbs themselves are working to provide walkable, mixed-use and even urbanish neighborhoods.

The headwinds in Phoenix are different.  Most people have blinkered suburban values — they can’t imagine a different life.  City Hall’s decisions to clear-cut hundreds of buildings and drive out businesses that catered to the working poor have left Phoenix without the bones that other cities have used to revive their cores.  The old headquarters companies were bought or dismembered and their successors often keep only token presences in downtown (imagine, for example, if Wells Fargo had built its operations center downtown instead of in Chandler).  And the limited economy leaves few non-real estate businesses anyway.  I could go on, but what can be done now, in the reset?  [Note: To read Jon’s recommendations, click on Downtown Phoenix 2.0?]

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Posted on February 14, 2010, in City Hall, Downtown Vitality, Finances, Livability, Visioning and Planning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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