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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.

Phoenix Interrupted: Downtown’s full of gleaming progress surrounded by vacant lots – now what?

Chateaux on Central

Failing midtown Phoenix project (Photo: Sharon, Phoenix Daily Photo)

[Source: Sarah Fenske, Phoenix New Times] — There’s a development on the edge of downtown Phoenix that captivated me even before I moved into the neighborhood: the Chateaux on Central.  My interest wasn’t a matter of good design — everyone from Will Bruder on down is on the record mocking the place, and rightly so.  (With its fanciful turrets, shiny copper roofs, and that ghastly faux-French “eaux,” the project’s overall effect is Disney Does Brownstones in the Desert.) No, the Chateaux on Central were somehow personally evocative.  They made me homesick. [Note: Read the full article at Phoenix Interrupted: Downtown’s full of gleaming progress surrounded by vacant lots – now what?]

Noted Arizona architect Gonzales dies at 84

A native Arizonan, Bennie Gonzales gained a national reputation for his Southwestern style architecture (photo source: Stories of Arizona, KAET)

[Source: Kate Nolan, Arizona Republic] — Bennie M. Gonzales, an award-winning Arizona architect who designed most of Scottsdale’s downtown municipal buildings and invented a new style of widely copied Southwestern architecture, has died at age 84 in Nogales.  Gonzales created Scottsdale’s main library, city hall, and the buildings of the city’s art complex at the opposite end of Civic Center Plaza.  In addition to hundreds of homes, public buildings, and multi-family residences in Arizona and around the world, he designed a $1.5 billion residence for a Saudi Arabia king…  “He (Gonzales) was an overlooked giant among architects of our generation in this Valley,” said internationally recognized Phoenix architect Will Bruder, who designed the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix.

Gonzales’ peak was in the 1960s and ’70s with the Scottsdale city projects, which spawned numerous imitations.  A signature of Gonzales’ work is its lack of 90-degree angles.  He favored much wider angles that opened up space, said Scottsdale architect and former council member David Ortega, who began his career with Gonzales.  “He also really respected the context of where we were working,” Ortega said, citing the hospital Gonzales designed for the Navajo Nation in Chinle.

“Bennie was steadfast that the design fit with the culture.  He used a Navajo blanket motif and a westward hogan entrance,” Ortega said.  The cultural elements and the broad angles produced a decidedly Southwestern style of architecture.  “We knew we were in Arizona,” Ortega said.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Architects pitch makeover for Arizona Capitol complex

[Source: Associated Press] — Parts of the Arizona Capitol complex and surrounding parts of Phoenix would get a makeover in the years leading up to the state’s centennial in 2012, with bigger changes envisioned in the eight years after that.  There’s no cost estimate yet but the architects working as volunteers told the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission that private and public funding probably would be needed, along with cooperation from the city, area landowners, and the state government itself.  “We hope this is a nonpartisan, totally universal thing that is right up there with apple pie and grandma,” Phoenix architect Will Bruder said Friday.

Projects proposed for completion before the February 2012 centennial include:

  • promoting part of Washington Street as “Centennial Boulevard”
  • erecting new shade ramadas and steps to upgrade the usability of the Old Capitol
  • livening up the Executive Tower’s exterior
  • adding new rail service between the Capitol and other parts of downtown
  • designating Washington Street as the city’s main parade route (as Central Avenue’s use for light rail eclipsed that role)

Longer-range ideas call for:

  • designing new and remodeling existing state buildings
  • creating extensive commercial and residential development between downtown Phoenix and the State Capitol

Tom Smith, a former legislator who serves as chairman of the mall commission, pressed the architects for commitments that they would stick with the project.  Previous proposals to rework the Capitol complex have largely not been implemented, Smith noted.

Key components of the various projects will include promoting renewable energy, increasing the livability of the Capitol area, and celebrating all parts of the state, not just Phoenix, said Bruder and landscape architect Michael Dollin.  The Capitol area needs to be changed from a “collection of buildings” to a unified area centered on Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, which could serve as a central gathering spot for outdoor events and gatherings, Dollin said.  “It’s really the state’s premier park in an urban setting,” Dollin said.  “We feel it should be the premier living room in the state.”

Wandering around Phoenix’s Capitol Mall

In November 2006, a team of ASU College of Design architects and urban planners presented the Capitol Mall Centennial Plan to the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission.  The plan makes key infrastructure and landscape recommendations directed toward the goal of revitalizing the Capitol Mall District as Arizona prepares to celebrate its centennial in 2012.  The Legislative Governmental Mall Commission formed a subcommittee to review the proposals put forth in the master plan and develop ways for the plan to go forward.  Now, noted Arizona architect Will Bruder has pulled together a team to examine the area as prime for “green,” sustainable development.

This slideshow gives you a peek at the historic and vintage buildings and sites in the Capitol Mall area.  In the very recent past, despite significant community outcry, one significant local landmark, Madison Square Garden, was demolished.

Local architect makes case for revamping Capitol Mall

Arizona State Capitol[Source: Will Bruder, president, Will Bruder + Partners Ltd., Phoenix] — Happy birthday, Arizona!  Last Thursday marked the 96th anniversary of your statehood.  On Feb. 14, 1912, from the porch of the Territorial Statehouse, Gov. George W.P. Hunt and citizens of the day celebrated Arizona becoming the 48th state in the Union. Much has happened since that day.  The Territorial Statehouse, completed in 1900 and located at 17th Avenue and Washington Street, has been renamed the state Capitol.  Arizona has transformed itself from a territory of opportunity into one of the fastest-growing states in the Union.  Its capital city, Phoenix, has been recognized as the fifth-largest city in the United States and the largest center of state government.

Although the Grand Canyon will always be known as Arizona’s natural wonder of the world, there is increasing attention to the Valley of the Sun as an aspiring urban oasis in a challenging desert.  Much hard work has brought an array of cultural institutions, a convention center, an Arizona State University campus, a biotech-research initiative, light rail, and more to downtown Phoenix.  There is the sense that something is happening.

Only a few blocks away, however, around the Capitol, much of that energy dissipates.  Yes, schoolkids are still bused in to learn about our democracy and visit our historic gems like the Capitol Museum, the Carnegie Library (100 years old), and the Arizona Mine and Mineral Museum.  And, yes, there are wonderful owner-restored homes in the Woodland Park neighborhood and grass-roots community organizations, such as the Capitol Mall Association, doing important advocacy work in their neighborhoods.  But sadly, much of the area has become a shabby shadow of its youthful 1900s vitality.  Today, it is a place where few go with pride or interest.  Approximately 28,000 state employees work there, but at the end of each day, most speed quickly away down dispiriting one-way streets.  Dusty, empty lots, homeless hopelessness and crime sadly inhabit the area.  Wesley Bolin Plaza/Park, once the site of community events and celebrations, is choked with too many cars parked in the sun and arguments about memorials to tragic events of our past.

With only four full years until our 100th birthday, the celebration of our statehood centennial, we must refocus our attention and energy on this important place.  It is time not to merely talk about another well-intended plan for the Capitol District, another report that will join the 20 plus that have preceded it.  It is time to create something large in concept, practically phased as a marriage of public and private pride, and confidant enough in its ideas and stakeholders to become an inspired reality.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Alternative design for hotel/condo project leaves Sun Merc intact

While visiting the online Skyscraper Forum, a Phoenix resident found renderings of architect Will Bruder’s proposed design for the W Hotel and condo project.  One view looks southeast along Jefferson Street between US Airways Center on the west and Suns parking garage on the east (where you can get an inkling of how the back of the building cantilever’s over the Sun Mercantile Building).  A second view shows how the physical integrity of the historic structure is protected to a greater extent.