Blog Archives

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?]

Phoenix residents encouraged to take a night out on Night Rail, July 31

[Source: Rail Life] — Metro stepped up and extended the hours for light rail, so now it’s our turn to show them it was a great decision!  Introducing Night Rail, July 31.  If you are a fan of the extended light rail hours, a friend of business owners along the line, or just a fan of having fun, join us for Night Rail.  Several groups will be getting together along the line throughout the evening and then meeting at the Roosevelt Station at midnight to show support for the extended hours.  After midnight, we will head to a couple of nearby places before calling it a night.

You can join our friends at “Light Rail Friday Night” who will be meeting at Rula Bula on Mill from 6-9 p.m.  After that, people will meet (10 p.m.) at Monti’s and at Maizie’s, which is just south of the light rail station at Central and Camelback.

Since the new hours are being tested on a trial basis, it is very important for people to be aware of the change and to take advantage of the hours so they don’t go away.  You know, the “Use it or lose it” mentality.  I mentioned in the Use it or Lose it post, “My thought, so far, is to talk with Local First Arizona, Downtown Phoenix Journal, CenPho TV, Mill Avenue District, Kyle Moyer Agency, Downtown Voices Coalition, Radiate Phoenix, local bloggers, and others.”  Turns out, people have stepped up, big time, to help raise awareness and to get people out next weekend, July 31 for “Night Rail.”

Business owners let us know how you want to be involved!  If you have ideas, or if you are a blogger writing about Night Rail, please let me know that as well.  I’ll update this post as I hear of more happenings.  You might also want to follow RailLife, CenPhoTV, No Festival Required, Light Rail Beer, and LocalFirstAZ on Twitter for updates and ideas. Another option is to follow the #NightRail feed for details…  Or, click here for a twtvite.

A growing appetite for downtown Phoenix dining

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Sens, Downtown Phoenix (photo source: Cam Riley)

[Source: Howard Seftel and Megan Finnerty, Arizona Republic] — Looking past the current economic downturn, optimistic restaurateurs believe downtown Phoenix is poised to compete in the next few years with Scottsdale as a dining destination.  The momentum has been jump-started by a group of independent chefs and entrepreneurs who believe in the area’s potential.  They, in turn, have inspired a fresh wave of high-profile names with big plans to rush in and stake a downtown claim.

New arrivals say downtown Phoenix has reached a tipping point, energized in part by light rail and the Arizona State University campus.  But some warn that the Valley has seen this sort of hopeful restaurant hype fail to live up to its promise before, pointing to troubles on Mill Avenue in Tempe and developments such as downtown Phoenix’s Arizona Center and the Mercado that never flourished.  Others think downtown’s residential core is still not strong enough to support a restaurant community.

Meanwhile, CityScape is accelerating the downtown dining buzz.  Fifteen restaurants are planned for the sprawling residential, commercial and retail complex set to open in 2010.  Developers are targeting local chefs in hopes of complementing the fledgling dining scene, not squashing it.  Although downtown had seen scattered individual successes in the past, like the wood-fired pizza at Pizzeria Bianco and classy comfort food of Matt’s Big Breakfast, their popularity didn’t create a movement.  Winning national acclaim meant they became just as much tourist destinations as local joints.  Now, however, chefs and restaurant owners are relocating from other parts of the Valley or opening additional locations.

Metro light rail, ASU’s downtown campus, the Downtown Phoenix Public Market and new residents are creating buzz for the area, they say.  “It’s the spot to be,” said Linda Nguyen, whose bustling, 4-month-old Moira Sushi Bar & Kitchen offers Japanese fare.  She considered Tempe and Scottsdale before opening in a space on East McKinley Street.  [Note: Read the full article at A growing appetite for downtown Phoenix dining]

As longtime tenants leave, Tempe’s iconic downtown works to reinvent itself

[Source: J. Craig Anderson, Arizona Republic] — The Mill Avenue commercial district in downtown Tempe has a history of leading the way for other local downtown areas when it comes to embracing the next business or real-estate trend.  The downside to having such high visibility is that people are more likely to notice when you stumble and fall.  A decade after the high-tech office boom and bust, in which downtown Tempe was a major player, Mill Avenue is facing new economic challenges in the form of stalled development projects and the departure of major retailers, including Borders Books & Music, eclectic home furnishings and art seller Z Gallerie, and Coffee Plantation coffee house.

Much of the negative attention has been focused on Centerpoint, a large office-and-retail complex on the downtown Tempe promenade’s southern end.  But business owners, real-estate brokers, and economic-development officials in the area, north and west of the main campus of Arizona State University, say that recent reports of the district’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.  Though they acknowledged problems such as high rent and the departure of beloved merchants, area leaders said customer traffic was as strong or stronger on Mill Avenue than anywhere else in the Valley.

New projects have risen from the ashes of the old ones, they said, such as a multistage music-and-theater venue called the Mill Avenue District Community Arts Project — MADCAP for short — at the former Harkins Centerpoint multiplex, and a mini-office complex for startups that offers small, inexpensive suites that share centralized meeting and research space.

Harkins moved its theater about 2 miles east, to Vestar Development Co.’s Tempe Marketplace, which opened in 2007.  While it was a major loss, Nancy Hormann, executive director of Downtown Tempe Community Inc., said an upside exists.  “Fun things are happening, almost like silver linings that never would have happened if the bottom hadn’t dropped out of the real-estate market,” said Hormann, whose group represents area merchants.  She said that Harkins was the only Mill Avenue merchant to relocate to “that place.”

Perhaps the most noticeable and talked-about signs of the recession on Mill are the unfinished Centerpoint condominium towers, casting long shadows across the outdoor mall’s concrete and stone walkways.  [Note: To read the full article and online comments, click here.]

Viewpoint: Beyond chains and cheese (restaurant madness and what it means for downtown Phoenix)

Popularity of Matt's Big Breakfast fostered other local restaurant startups.

[Source: Life in Downtown Phoenix blog] — While the arts community was the first generation of pioneers to successfully lift downtown Phoenix out of its doldrums, the second wave of downtown resurgence came from the independent restaurants that gambled on the area.  By 2005, places like Matt’s Big Breakfast, Cibo, and Fate proved that independent restaurants with quality food could really have success downtown.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and 2009 is really proving that as the number of restaurants opening their doors all around the aforementioned downtown pioneers is staggering.  Already this year the Turf (formerly Turf Accountant), Pasta Bar, El Portal, and Sapna’s Cafe have opened.  By the end of the month Moira will bring sushi back to downtown for the first time in years, and sometime soon Luke’s of Chicago will start a branch on Seventh Street in a renovated historic building while a Mediterranean restaurant is set to appear on Roosevelt Street just east of Third Avenue.  Almost every one of those restaurants is within a half-mile radius of the original Matt’s/Fate duo that got things rolling.  Amidst all this Palette apparently closed — which is shocking for anyone like me who was part of the sometimes-90 minute wait on the weekends for brunch — but the rumor is that someone else wanted the location and that Pallette will resurface somewhere else in the area.

Assuming these businesses can survive the current economic conditions, they’ll be poised to really help downtown surge when the housing market finally turns around.  Downtown Phoenix probably already stood alone with Tempe’s Mill Avenue and Old Town Scottsdale as options for those who live in the Phoenix area and prefer walkable urban environments.  But aided in no small part by this restaurant boom, downtown has separated itself from the chains of Mill and the cheese of Scottsdale as probably the premiere locale for urbanists.  While downtown Phoenix is of course only beginning to catch up with even its western competitors in places like Denver and Portland, it has clearly established some positive momentum.  [Note: To read more of downtown_resident’s views, click here.]

Documentary examines Mill Ave’s decline in Tempe, Feb. 4

Mill Ave Inc.” is a documentary that essentially started when Nicholas Holthaus (known by most as Nico) started taking video footage of bands and venues in the mid-late 90s, when it became apparent that a lot of venues along the legendary Mill Avenue would be closing its doors due to… a lot of things.  Take your pick: corporate muscling, community apathy, myopic planning, copycatting, smoking bans, increased conservative prevalence, ASU’s techno-corporate expansion… It seems there was not one singular cause for the disintegration of Mill’s culture and liveliness that people everywhere had come to enjoy.  Or was there?

Mill Ave Inc.” combines archival footage of the indie, punk, and folk scene at clubs on Mill with interviews that include Stinkweeds owner Kimber Lanning, Tempe folk singer Walt Richardson, Sun Club owner and musician Hans Olson, Gin Blossoms’ Robin Wilson and members of Flathead, Dead Hot Workshop, and Gloritone.  Together with scene-sters, politicians and the club owners, they tell the real story of how a great local entertainment hub became “Mill Avenue Inc.”  [Note: To read the New Times movie review, click here.]

  • Date: Wednesday, February 4, 2009
  • Time: 8 p.m. (doors at 7:45)
  • Place: Modified Arts, 407 E. Roosevelt St., Phoenix
  • Admission: $6 cash only

Can landscaping make Phoenix “walkable?”

[Source: Richard Nilsen, Arizona Republic] — The skyline may be interesting, but it is not where we live.  “We should not care about the skyline but the streetscape,” says Nancy Levinson, head of the Phoenix Urban Research Lab at Arizona State University.  “The skyline of Manhattan is something you appreciate in New Jersey.  In the thick of Manhattan, you’re excited about the streetscape. The skyline is something you see from a specific angle.  Many great cities don’t have a great skyline.”

And it is that street-level view that is lagging most in Phoenix.  “All good cities share a common quality,” Phoenix architect Eddie Jones says.  “They are walkable.”

Phoenix doesn’t make the grade.  “Downtown Phoenix is not a pleasant environment,” says Dean Brennan, a planner with the Urban Form Project, a city initiative to guide development. “People don’t come to downtown Phoenix to walk around — not like they do in downtown Tempe.  In Phoenix, we talk about shade.  That seems obvious.  But when a building is designed, you’d think shade would be a critical element of that design, but it’s not.  Shade isn’t provided.  Maybe some trees or a canopy, but it’s an afterthought.”

The question is: If the temperature is 105 degrees even in the shade, will landscaping be enough to turn Phoenix into a “walkable” city?  [Note: To read this article and online comments, click here.]

Preservation has its rewards, headaches for metro Phoenix developers

[Source: Jan Buchholz, Phoenix Business Journal] — Historic preservation isn’t advised for the penny-pincher or the faint of heart.  It’s a particularly difficult practice in the rugged terrain of real estate development.  Yet for some, it is the most satisfying work they do.   “(Historic preservation projects) are a lot of fun and are very rewarding,” said Stu Siefer, a Tempe architect, who is one of the Valley’s foremost experts on historic preservation.  “They can be very challenging.  And I have seen a lot of nightmares when unforeseen costs have come into play.”

Fortunately, Siefer is both a developer and architect who can plan and analyze projects with a more precise perspective.  Plus, he knows the territory well, having been involved in the Valley scene for decades.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]