Jon Talton Responds to DVC’s Downtown Phoenix Assessment

The following is a post by Jon Talton, a former Arizona Republic business columnist, who now writes as “Rogue Columnist.” Jon wrote the following post using Downtown Voices Coalition’s Saturday op-ed as a springboard for discussion.

[Source: Rogue Columnist]

Downtown, again

Susan Copeland, chair of the Downtown Voices Coalition, recently wrote an op-ed in the Arizona Republic, entitled, “A realistic downtown assessment.” It was mostly a clear-eyed look at the reality of downtown Phoenix’s challenges: Expecting too much from sports teams, failure to integrate ASU into the city fabric, too many surface parking lots and chimerical hopes from an “entertainment district.” Copeland rightly adds that CityScape is “suburban mall stylistically dating to the 20th century,” although I have a hard time mourning the brutalist “park” of Patriot’s Square. She adds:

With all the damage done, there are still hopeful signs, if only our city officials and civic leaders follow their own community vetted and charetted ideals. The Urban Form Project; Arts, Culture, and Small Business District Overlay; and Adaptive Reuse Program are smarter moves for aspiring urban infill than another stab at a faux urban Entertainment District. When the city actually listens to its citizens rather than check-marking the input box, great things happen, like the improved ASU Nursing School exterior or the forthcoming Washington Street Centennial Project.

Well, fine. And good on her for searching for realism. But regular readers will have to forgive me if I cover some familiar ground as well as discuss the deep problems and real opportunities facing downtown Phoenix. I’m still not sure people fully get it.

Phoenix leaders made a series of catastrophic mistakes in the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s that left downtown nearly dead. Among them: Bulldozing of the Deuce to make room for homely Civic Plaza with no provision for where the homeless would go; failure to preserve the kinds of historic buildings that provide the bones of a great city, or even the one- and two-story buildings that could have housed small businesses in a downtown revival; pursuing a policy of massive tear-downs in downtown and the capitol mall, and allowing quality of life petty crime that, along with City Hall’s neglect, drove out the small retailers and their customers. Retail for the working poor was also forced out in a misguided effort to turn downtown into an office “park” with stadiums. In addition, the produce district was allowed to fade as agriculture became less important and passenger train service ended, and no strategy was pursued to give this fascinating area a second life. Most Phoenicians today can’t even imagine that as late as the 1960s, downtown Phoenix was the state’s busiest shopping district and all those vacant lots — or bland parking garages and boxy skyscrapers — once held many precious buildings and dense business activity.

To be sure, bad luck and prevailing trends played a huge role. These were the eras of malls and cheap gasoline, the suburban dream and the notion that downtowns were things of the past. The art of civic design had been lost, so lovely territorial buildings were demolished to make room for Patriot’s Square, and in front of Symphony Hall was an ugly frying pan of a “public space.” Phoenix was cursed with more land than brains, so sprawl constantly drew businesses and residents outward. Park Central and the skyscrapers of Uptown were only the beginning. The old merchant princes that had held downtown together died off. Not enough major companies remained. Outside of Palmcroft, no affluent neighborhoods were close to the core; the Papago Freeway nearly killed off the middle-class neighborhoods directly north of downtown and the comeback took many years. Over time, much popular loyalty to downtown faded.

All this left downtown deader than that of any major city I have studied or lived in. As it turns out, downtowns are very important and enjoyed a renaissance in many places. Yet for Phoenix, coming back from such a hole is very difficult. (Even Charlotte, with its banks and other headquarters driving a major downtown revival, has failed to really rekindle retail, having allowed its department stores to decamp to a mall, its local small businesses to die, and some of its best historic buildings to be ripped down). Thus, skyscrapers were slowly added, Arizona Center was built (but facing in, like a suburban mall), the Civic Plaza expanded. But the patient was at best stabilized. Tear-downs continued. The major headquarters were either bought by outsiders or, in the case of APS, radically downsized. The consequences were staggering; for example, imagine if Wells Fargo had built its operations center downtown rather than in exurban Chandler? The stadiums were fine, but the people who vilified Jerry Colangelo (now a West Side developer — happy?) missed the point. So many stewards with the means to invest in downtown were gone that Colangelo was the last man standing. There was no Colangelo of banking. No Colangelo building a software district in the old produce warehouses. No Colangelo to endow a new Symphony Hall. None to keep and lure new small businesses. None developing new office buildings and filling them with tenants. In other words, all the stadiums are in downtown Denver, but that didn’t stop that city’s revival in other areas. But Denver was never in Phoenix’s hole (it came close, with modernist planners wanting to tear down Union Station and the historic buildings of SoDo). And it had stewards and business leaders with capital and vision.

The 2000s seemed promising. Under Mayor Skip Rimsza, and followed through by Phil Gordon, the city built a fine convention center, light rail, ASU downtown, the Sheraton and lured T-Gen and the UofA medical school. The Herberger Theater Center, Chase Field and USAirways Arena are all valuable assets (the football stadium should, and could, have been built downtown). “Meds and eds” could have been a real game changer had it been pursued with vigor, creating a major medical-research-biotech hub downtown. It wasn’t, and other mistakes also held back downtown. City Hall dragged its feet on mixed-use, adaptive reuse and other downtown-friendly policies. The Downtown Phoenix Partnership wasted money and time on the insipid “Copper Square” “rebranding campaign.” Downtown got caught up in the bubble, and the narrow capital financing it in metro Phoenix. Thus, the promising 44 Monroe looks headed for apartments. The lovely art deco Valley National Bank headquarters never made it to boutique hotel. Downtown, and the center city, continue to lack enough private investment, high-paid jobs and residents with money and an urban sensibility to crawl back past the tipping point. It lacks a real economic-development organization. A hostile Legislature — and perhaps in the future hostile City Council — present a daunting challenge; one example is the lack of tax-increment financing, critical to downtown San Diego’s comeback, or support for the downtown university/biosciences campuses. Land banking continues to make the core look uninviting, to say the least. Center city champions, so combat fatigued from years of banging their heads against City Hall, sometimes pick the wrong battles, are often too far from each other to build a critical mass, and in any case lack the capital to really launch a comeback.

So what to do with a challenge? It’s unlike any other major city in America. Does Phoenix need a downtown? Can it ever attract an urban sensibility of its own? Can it see the central core as critical for sustainability? What, realistically, can be done? I’ll take all this up next time, and I’m sure our commenters will start early. To note: This is the 10th anniversary of Portland’s restaurant, not downtown but close. It shows what the passion and persistence of two local owners, Dylan and Michelle Bethge, can do. This has been replicated elsewhere, just not enough. And: Will Bruder has left Scottsdale to move back to the Central Corridor.

Update

Jon has written a follow-up column. You can find it here.

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About Yuri Artibise

I am a community driven policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist.

Posted on February 3, 2011, in Downtown Vitality, Downtown Voices Coalition and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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