At the recent Downtown Voices Coalition conference, support of the arts was defined as “providing the environment to sustain and grow the downtown arts community.” The geographic focus was central Phoenix, specifically downtown. However, because no one felt that the arts should be limited to just this area, planning concepts were directed at growth outside this area as well, noting that the key challenges and opportunities are often the same for both. However, for the purposes of this report, we will speak in terms of the downtown arts community.
Downtown Phoenix has a wide spectrum of arts activities, from the larger non-profits like the Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix Art Museum, and the Phoenix Center for the Arts to the medium sized projects like Valley Youth Theater, the Black Theater Troupe, Museo Chicano, the Icehouse and the Great Arizona Puppet Theater to the multitude of small-scale, grass roots projects like Modified Arts, Thought Crime, Paulina Miller Gallery, The Trunk Space, Alwun House, and the Paper Heart Gallery. Within the context of these multiple spaces you have the official arts-related non-profit institution, the independent arts-related business, and the artists whose works are an integral part of the success of both. Many of these smaller entities are helping to create the dynamic, street level, pedestrian infill we so desperately need downtown.
Goal 5 of the City of Phoenix Planning Department’s draft Area Plan for Evans Churchill states: “Artists often live and work in undesirable locations if space is affordable. Artists are typically tenants. As artists aggregate in urban areas, they attract pedestrian traffic, and this results in a gradual gentrification of a previously blighted urban area. The increased activity eventually attracts restaurants, retail and additional residential development. As rents increase, artists are gradually forced to relocate. Downtown Phoenix is unique in that many artists have purchased property and have the opportunity to play a meaningful role in the development of their neighborhoods.” However, since many artists downtown are still renters in areas that are prime for redevelopment, downtown is at risk of losing them as their fragile neighborhoods are disrupted. We need to identify creative solutions for keeping artists downtown.
The Wolf Organization conducted a Cultural Needs Assessment for the City of Phoenix in 1988, and in their 1989 report the consultants stated, “The creation of an active artists’ studio district is an important need …and its creation will assist in efforts to revitalize the downtown area. Artists’ studios and the businesses which generally flourish around artists …contribute to the feeling of vitality so crucial to downtown development.” They further noted, “But in order for the effort to be successful, there must be a commitment on the part of the City to provide the necessary incentives to building owners to make the rental of space to artists more attractive.” Unfortunately, shortly after this report was completed, 17 artists were displaced as a direct result of the America West Arena, which established a dangerous precedent that continues to this day. Over the past 15 years, many Landmark and vintage warehouses and commercial spaces in the downtown core have been demolished to make way for the Arena, the Arizona Center, Bank One Ballpark, the expanded jail facilities, the Dodge Theater, the Collier Center, the County Morgue, other County facilities and a myriad of ancillary parking uses. The really tragic part of this story is that most of these projects could have been located elsewhere, on existing empty lots or outside the downtown core altogether. How do jails, parking lots or morgues add vitality to the downtown core?
The success of downtown planning is dependent on the diversity of voices included in the planning process. This diversity must be an integral and on-going part of the planning processes downtown. These voices also need to be respected and heeded, since they bring a knowledgeable difference of opinion to the table. Both the City and its residents have much to gain from an open, ongoing and transparent dialogue. By working toward common goals and by meeting as equals, the mistrust of past planning experiences can be dispelled while creating a healthier, more productive connection between the public and City officials and staff.