My love/hate relationship with Phoenix

There has been a lot of spirited debate over CityScape. A lot of it is definitely deserved since a public space was taken from us and replaced with a (suburban) shopping center. Local filmmakers Steve Weiss and Leslie Barton ask passers-by where the park is within the new CityScape in this two-minute video:


A lot of people will say that CityScape is an improvement over the former Patriots' Square Park (PSP) since that park was a sea of concrete frequented by homeless people. But PSP was a public space. CityScape is not. (Public funding does not make a space "public.") PSP had shade and grass. CityScape has concrete and more concrete. I remember walking through PSP one May morning with some classmates from my high school before a rehearsal at the Orpheum Theatre and we both found PSP quite charming.

So this is why I have a love/hate relationship with Phoenix. There are plenty of great people in the community who advocate for good change, sustainable change, and useful change. (This is the love part of the love/hate paradox.) We know what we want in a lively, urban core. We want a downtown that has a plethora of unique and locally owned shops. We want to promote walking, bicycling, and public transit use instead of always hopping into a car. We know what works because we have seen what doesn't work. And yet we never seem to give up.

But then there's a city government that just doesn't seem to get it. (This is the hate part.)  The City of Phoenix have done some great things but then they do some absolutely bone-headed things that cancel out the good things. The new additions to the Phoenix Convention Center? Amazing. The Sheraton? Definitely needed. Light rail? Phenomenal. Creating an ASU campus in downtown Phoenix? Yes, please.

Then we see the silly and stupid things that they've done. Demolishing an easily-reusable former hotel/dormitory to make room for a parking lot? Approving and subsidizing City North (mock urban development in the suburban fringe)? CityScape (plopping a suburban mall over PSP)?

What makes me sick is that even with great people fighting to make downtown Phoenix a great place, our civic leaders either ignore or placate us. It's almost one step forward, two (or three) steps back. And I get sick of it. When I meet with these great people at things like Radiate or Get Your PHX, this sentiment is always shared by many.  For Radiate, we (almost usually) meet at local establishments because we know the value that locally owned and locally operated places bring to a community. Then we have the City of Phoenix and RED Development work to bring in out-of-state corporations to CityScape: CVS Pharmacy (headquartered in Rhode Island), Five Guys (Virginia), Urban Outfitters (Pennsylvania), and Lucky Strike Lanes (California). Its design completely runs foul of walking. There is no love — no entrances (save for CVS's) — given to the adjacent sidewalks.

We want a livable downtown core. We don't want parking lots or poorly designed suburban shopping centers. Those of us who live in downtown (or midtown) Phoenix don't want to live in the suburbs. We actively chose to live in an urban environment. If we wanted a suburban shopping center with out-of-state chains, we'd just rather live in Peoria, Scottsdale, or Gilbert.

So that's my love/hate relationship with this city. There are great local advocates who tirelessly advocate for good, sustainable, and useful change. And then there are people who try to help but do more harm than good.

8 thoughts on “My love/hate relationship with Phoenix”

  1. I would actually consider the Convention Center & Sheraton as fails b/c they are superblocks. Pedestrianism dies around them. Those two projects are testaments to our city's disregard for pedestrians and enabling urban environments.
    But Light Rail, ASU, and hatred for parking lots – I'm all over that 🙂

  2. in an urban environment i'm not sure you can put pedestrianism aside – it's one of, if not the, defining characteristics of "urban".

  3. Great post, Eddie! ASU students appear split on CityScape. Some agree its design and tenants might be lacking, but many are excited about places like Urban Outfitters opening, which not only provides a close and hip place for young people to shop but is employing a large number of them, many of whom couldn't find jobs in the downtown area elsewhere.

  4. Sean, I'm not setting pedestrianism aside. I know urban theory; I know that pedestrianism is the defining characteristic for urban living. When I say that the PCC and the Sheraton are good, I mean on the whole for downtown Phoenix. Are there design elements that we urbanists lament? Of course.

  5. Thank you, Dustin. The intent of the post wasn't to dish dirt on CityScape. Far from it.
    It seems like there are two downtowns. There's the downtown Phoenix for ASU students. These are those who live in Taylor Place who have all the basic services taken care of for them. They have a restaurant, they have a convenience store, and they have resources for their life and studies all located in or near the residence hall. If they want to venture out for something different, then CityScape might serve up utility value for them.
    Then there is the downtown Phoenix of those who live here year-round. (Like me.) We want a place that fosters an urban lifestyle. We want nice, green public spaces. We want local businesses to support. We want to not have to drive everywhere. What do our city leaders want? Do we want to cater to ASU students? Or non-students? I'm prepared to argue that it's the former.

  6. You know my favorite refrain: What Would Jane Jacobs Do? Specifically referring to CityScape, what would she have thought? I would argue her review would be mixed. There are significant and unimpeachable positives to the new Patriot's Square Park. For one, there is the stability and long-term potential of the site. Before, it would have taken significant investment to overcome the structural problems, e.g. at the old PSP, I heard that the tree roots were breaking into the parking garage below. Could anything be done to fix those problems in the future? Where would that investment have come from, and what could someone have put in its place? I'm not sure I know what other options were available that would have been significant improvements on a never-used brick park. When was the last time PSP was even used as a downtown park? I honestly don't know — it could have been days or years before it was demolished. But before it was even an issue of whether it existed or not in that form, where were the advocates trying to reclaim and improve the park? I always saw the pervasive and universal view that it was abandoned.
    Second, JJ (and my other favorite, William Whyte) advocated for a wide variety of needs that make public spaces work. There are already many more eyes on the park now than before. It has food, retail, public art, sitting space, and it will grow more shade as the trees mature. Plus, the surrounding buildings provide shade. Would Jane Jacobs disapprove of those improvements?
    I worry that we too narrowly define "public" space today. Is that definition unquestionable? Can we (as a society) not innovate, challenge the status quo, and redefine what it means to be public and private? I would hope we can think beyond the definition of the words and (without bias) see the value of the place – public, private and public/private. Maybe that's a sacred tenet to many, which is perfectly reasonable and valuable. In my humble opinion, it is much more a place now than it was in recent memory.
    I see many local businesses planned for CityScape. Public House is the one that comes to mind right away, but I know there are more. Isn't Aaron May doing two restaurants there too? Not every place there is local, which is absolutely true. Does it need to be entirely local?
    Also, I think what is missed is the economic development side of any major transformational project, something I know we both see as valuable. CityScape has meant significant permanent job growth for downtown Phoenix. Is there not value in that?
    I absolutely respect differing views, and I love that this discussion is happening. Thank you, Eddie (and many others), for continuing to be an advocate and intelligent voice in downtown. I don't know what I believe or think about CityScape. I definitely see and understand everything you mentioned. I also definitely see and understand everything I said above. I just don't know that this is simple for me. So I appreciate that you thought it out, and gave me the opportunity to think out the other side.

  7. While I'm not a fan of CityScape from an architectural point of view, I think it's inaccurate to characterize the development as dominated by chains based elsewhere. Your post names the major chains opening there, but it leaves out the chains that have withdrawn as the economy has soured. The original CityScape plans included places like P.F. Chang's and Border's. They've long since bowed out and have been replaced by more interesting and locally-owned places like Vitamin T, Silk, and LGO Public House. While their presence does not erase the blank walls that make CityScape so lacking in street presence, CityScape has looked to local businesses to fill in gaps left by skittish chains, and that's a positive development.
    As for the Sheraton and PCC, I think both are a net positive. The Sheraton is a drab beige tower, but at least it has some street presence, with patio dining wrapping around the corner of 3rd Street and Van Buren. It's hardly perfect, but it does a far better job of addressing the street than older hotels like the Hyatt, which has huge blank walls on three sides. The PCC creates some long blank blocks, but I don't know of a convention center anywhere that has a different outcome. Convention centers are always a mixed blessing for Downtowns, but at least I find the PCC more attractive than many I've visited in other cities.
    Where I agree most vocally with you, Sean, and others is in rejecting the decision by the City, with the misguided backing of organizations that favor the "big project" approach to Downtown, to demolish the Sahara and replace it with surface parking. That's a mistake that's been repeated far too often here. It's not so much that any one parking lot is devastating, but more that we die the death of a thousand cuts when keep allowing news ones to pop up where buildings previously stood. The net effect is a Downtown in which chasms of emptiness separate activity clusters and discourage exploration and spontaneous discovery.

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