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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.

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?]

Viewpoint: “Phoenix 101: Lost opportunities”

[Source: Jon Talton, Rogue Columnist] — My chief goal in writing the Phoenix 101 post about the old city was to dispel the notion that “there’s no history here,” spoken by the transplants as they file into the tract houses of their so-called master planned communities.  More, to fight the canard that “Phoenix has no soul.”  Well, maybe now in most places, but it wasn’t always so.  Yet the post was so popular, it seems logical to follow up with a brief history on choices made and opportunities missed.

It’s important to make a distinction.  People have sometimes dismissed my observations with words such as “well, everyplace changes” and “my hometown isn’t the same any more, either.”  At the risk of being pedantic, that’s not my point.  First, while every place changes, it doesn’t necessarily change mostly for the worse.  Cities such as Seattle, Portland, Denver, Charlotte, San Diego and even Oklahoma City have undergone massive changes. Yet they have managed to preserve and revive their center cities, their civic spaces and enhance livability (and they have plenty of suburbs, so Phoenix isn’t special there).  I miss the old railroad yards in downtown Denver –- but what an amazing city it is now.  It’s gotten better.  Second, Phoenix is not just any city — so who cares if it’s no worse than Fresno or Youngstown?  It sold its magic for dross.  And its choices have set the stage for crisis, whether sudden or lingering.

Much was out of the control of Phoenicians and their leaders.  Phoenix grew large after the City Beautiful Movement, so it lacked many great civic spaces; it was a modest farm town during the 1920s, so it had relatively few art deco towers.  Worst of all, it came of age with the automobile, Levittown-style suburbia, and the savage city planning and dehumanizing design ethos of Robert Moses and Le Corbusier.  Still, Phoenix made choices.  It lost opportunities.  Here are a few.  [Note: To read the full blog entry, click here.]

Talton offers alternative view on downtown Phoenix Civic Space

[Source: John Talton, Rogue Columnist] — Former Arizona Republic columnist Jon Talton still thinks and writes about his old hometown, Phoenix.  Upon returning to his current home from a recent visit and book signing tour in Arizona, Jon wrote the following blog post about the new downtown Phoenix Civic Space (in contrast to this other local blogger’s view):

“…Which brings me to the Floating Diaphragm.  That’s what local wags have dubbed the “public art” project that is the signature of the new park on Central Avenue downtown between ASU and the Y.  At night, it’s stunning.  A floating purple dream.  But, as with the Sandra Day O’Connor Federal Courthouse, this is something designed by someone with no knowledge of local conditions.  After the first big monsoon, look for the diaphragm in your neighborhood — Gilbert would be appropriate, with its sex phobia and sex scandals. 

The park — we’ll see.  Phoenix is not good at civic spaces.  It’s unclear if it will have enough shade and grass to be inviting year-round.  And nobody can stop the creeping gravelization of the once-oasis central city.  City Hall sets a terrible example.  The old Willo House has been spiffed up as Hob Nobs.  But it’s surrounded by gravel and a couple of fake palm trees — who wouldn’t want to be around that 140-dgree heat surface on a summer day? And there are more of them — the natives and long-timers agree the falls and springs have shrunk to a week or two, and winter is getting shorter (and it lacks the frosts that once kept the mosquito population in check).  The central city needs lots of shade trees and grass, to offset the heat island effect.  It is a much better water investment than new golf courses or more sprawl.  Nobody’s listening.  Almost: The Park Central Starbucks has made its outdoor space even more lush, shady, and comfy. 

Back to the diaphragm.  It’s definitely better than the “public art” you whiz by at Sky Harbor because it focuses a civic space, the kind of walkable, gathering places great cities have and Phoenix mostly lacks.  Some art at the light-rail stations is quite well done.  But, there’s a deadening sameness.  My friend, the Famous Architect, likes to rib me, “Not everything old is good.”  True enough. But not everything new is good, either.  I’d love to see some classical statues and artwork downtown to, say, commemorate the heroic pioneer farmers, the heroic, displaced indigenous peoples, the heroic Mexican-Americans, the heroic African-Americans from this once very Southern town and the heroic Chinese-Americans.  Just two or three would offer some contrast and variety, and, I suspect, unsophisticated oaf that I am, elevate and inspire more souls who communed with them.  It would also give the lie, in visual form, to the newcomer lie that “there’s no history here.” 

Another wish I won’t get.  [Note: To read the full blog posting, click here.]

Viewpoint: Central Phoenix, the good, bad, and ugly

[Source: Jon Talton, Rogue Columnist blog] — Because I know the fragile self-esteem of Phoenicians is at stake, let me begin my observations about the state of the center city with the good stuff.  I smelled the orange blossoms — even stepping out into one of ugliest urban spaces anywhere, the pedestrian loading zone at Sky Harbor.  Many of the Midwestern transplants dislike the scent, which makes me dislike some of them even more.  But this small, fleeting thing reminds me of my often magical city that is gone forever.

Some of the projects begun under former Mayor Skip Rimsza and spearheaded by people like former Deputy City Manager Sheryl Sculley, retired Deputy City Manager Jack Tevlin and Ed Zuercher, now a deputy city manager, have turned out quite well.  As I wrote before, the starter light-rail line is great.  Now lots of places are clamoring for LRT; the trick will be to avoid using light rail when commuter rail would be more efficient.  A metro area the size of Phoenix needs both.  The Convention Center is such a startlingly attractive set of buildings that you wonder if the design was approved by mistake, given Phoenix’s ability to erect such ugliness.  The ASU downtown campus, Mayor Gordon’s signature accomplishment, is more of a reality, and thus will be more difficult for the Legislature to destroy.  The lovely oasis of Arizona Center remains, shady and cool.

Read on if you want to know “the rest of the story,” as the late Paul Harvey would say.

Much of the center city looks as if it has been cleaned up after repeated carpet bombing by the Allies in World War II.  There’s just nothing there.  It’s staggering to see the cleared land along Van Buren, Washington and Jefferson in what was to be Mayor Gordon’s “Opportunity Corridor.”  Other vacant lots proliferate around the Central Corridor.  City Hall seems to have learned nothing from its clear cutting of the neighborhoods between 7th Avenue and the state capitol during the 1980s.

This is problematic for many reasons.  First is what’s lost.  One would never know that Phoenix in 1950 was as densely populated as Seattle is today.  Buildings, many average but many with architectural value, crowded along every street.  For example, the district between 7th Avenue and the capitol had many Victorian houses and apartments from the territorial and 1920s era.  Van Buren and east McDowell, to give just two examples, sported commercial strips with the buildings right up to the sidewalk.  Downtown and the warehouse district were dense with interesting, durable, and in some cases priceless buildings.  Now all gone.  [Note: To read the full blog entry, click here.]

Mystery novels anchored in Phoenix

[Source: Bonnie Henry, Arizona Daily Star] — He works in a city with seemingly perpetual gray skies and writes a column on the economy — an even gloomier subject these days.  But Jon Talton, former columnist with the Arizona Republic and now with the Seattle Times, is keeping history-professor-turned-detective David Mapstone and his snoopings firmly planted in the sunny Southwest.  “He will always live in Phoenix,” says Talton, author of seven novels, including the Mapstone mysteries, “Concrete Desert,” “Dry Heat,” and “Cactus Heart.”

Talton will be one of more than 300 authors appearing in March at the Tucson Festival of Books. A Phoenix native whose family goes back four generations, Talton grew up in the city center, and weaves its history and characteristics into his scenes.  “I tried to do homage to Raymond Chandler, where the city was very much a character,” says Talton, whose Mapstone works in the sheriff’s office, using his historian skills to solve old cases.  And no, Sheriff Joe Arpaio does not pop up, even in a cameo appearance.  “My sheriff is a Mexican-American and he observes the civil liberties,” says Talton, who has covered business and finance for more than 25 years at newspapers stretching from North Carolina to Denver and now Seattle.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Talton returns and comments on downtown Phoenix goings-on

Former Arizona Republic columnist Jon Talton returned to Phoenix a week or so ago to talk about his new book, The Pain Nurse.  Upon his return to his home in Seattle and his computer keyboard, he reflected on his visit and the state of downtown Phoenix.  Read it hereWhoa Nellie!

A familiar problem still haunts downtown Phoenix, says Talton

[Source: Jon Talton’s “Rogue Columnist” blog] — I saw a curious headline recently in the Arizona Republic: “Event Center could add life to downtown.”  Curious, because downtown is brimming with “event centers,” from the convention center to hotel ballrooms to (I guess) what’s left of the star-crossed and badly located Bentley Projects.  The story was actually sad and illustrative.

If I read it correctly (and one never knows, now that editors have become graphics clerks), the owners of relatively historic buildings at Madison and Fifth Avenue lost the business leasing their space.  Now, they “are working to make the Fifth Avenue and Madison Event Center one of downtown Phoenix’s premier spots.”  (Editors used to prevent reporters from using embarrassing hyperbole; also, is the address in the story correct?).  The “center” can be used for “weddings, bar mitzvahs, business corporate outings…”  Surely, the next McCormick Place.

At least the owners aren’t tearing the buildings down, an act of city-encouraged vandalism that has devastated downtown Phoenix.  But here’s a small but telling example of what holds back the center city: lack of private investment.  I hate to sun on ASU’s parade of finishing one dorm tower — heavy lifting in an education-hating state, to be sure.  But until a simple older set of buildings such as these on Madison are used by businesses doing daily commerce, downtown will remain an underachiever.  [Note: To read the full blog entry, click here.]

Talton returns to Phoenix, Sept. 23!

I'm baaaack!  (On September 23rd that is)From September 13 through October 12, communities across the Valley are reading Dashiell Hammett’s thrilling mystery novel, The Maltese Falcon.  The Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records Department celebrates the art of mystery-writing by presenting author and columnist Jon Talton.  Jon returns to Phoenix to discuss his Arizona-based David Mapstone mysteries, his upcoming novels, and Arizona issues.

Jon is a fourth-generation Arizonan who worked for the Arizona Republic from 2000 to 2007 as a columnist.  He now lives in Seattle, where he is a columnist for the Seattle Times and runs the blog Rogue Columnist.  Jon will be available for questions and to sign books.  Books will be available for purchase.  Refreshments will be served.  The event is free and open to the public (your RSVP is requested).

  • Date: Tuesday, September 23, 2008
  • Time: Noon to 1 p.m.
  • Place: Carnegie Center, Main Floor, 1101 W. Washington, Phoenix
  • RSVP: Click here to register.

Oh, what’s Jon Talton writing about Phoenix these days?

Well, the big question that former Arizona Republic columnist, Jon Talton, asks is, “why does the Wall Street Journal cover certain Phoenix issues in more depth than our local press?”  Two recent examples (both real estate related): the Mortgages Ltd. affair and Le-Nature tenant-in-common investment (now the “big white elephant,” literally and figuratively, at 615 N. 48th St.).