Almost Missed: Central & McDowell

An apartment complex is proposed for a key corner in midtown Phoenix. This is a good thing, right? Think again. This is a missed opportunity.

[ed. note, 18 August 2014: Today at 2pm at Phoenix City Hall, there is a site plan review hearing on this project. Come to voice your opinion.]

photo credit: skyscraperpage.com
photo credit: skyscraperpage.com

There has been much excitement lately about a new apartment complex that is proposed for the northwest corner of Central Avenue and McDowell Road at the southern boundary of midtown Phoenix, situated in the heart of the Midtown Arts District, near the McDowell Road light rail station, and near the excitement surrounding Hance Park. As such, the design and architecture of the building will celebrate not only this location but this unique moment in urban Phoenix history, right?

Oh, if only that last sentence were true.

The design foisted upon us by the developer and architect fits in more to a suburban context in Anytown USA than this geographic place and historical moment. The building doesn’t even attempt to make gestures to its geography or its moment in history; it is a four-story building that makes no design cues to anything but its own parking lot.

Given what’s proposed, the fact that this project is garnering excitement from civic leaders and neighborhood interests is very disappointing. I’ve frequently said on this blog that “we must do better” in Phoenix and this is one project that needs to do better. But in thinking about what “better” means, I’ve only thought about one thing: This project must be stopped before it gets farther along in approvals and the building process. Such a grand re-design is needed that scrapping what is proposed, hiring an architect with an acute knowledge of the urban Phoenix condition, and coming up with a different plan is the only solution.

For any project that will go on this site, we must ask this fundamental question: Is this project worthy of being a downtown and midtown gateway?

As part of the downtown Phoenix zoning overlay, the northwest corner of Central & McDowell is designated as “downtown gateway,” meaning that buildings can go up to 250 feet in height and, more importantly, be built right up to the street. This design is neither of those. Its setback from Central Avenue is in the neighborhood of 20 feet and its height is, as mentioned above, four stories.

I am keenly aware that height doesn’t necessarily equal design quality. In fact, I’m more in favor of buildings that are 10-12 stories in height (a consistent and continuous density) than building really tall-for-Phoenix buildings for the sake of being really tall. But consider: One of the requirements for the true success of Hance Park’s redesign will be density on and near the park. My friend Tim Sprague’s Portland on the Park project will provide good density; no, I’m not being paid or encouraged to say that.

Many have said that a grocery store will make this project work and although downtown Phoenix desperately needs one, integrating a grocery store with this project won’t save it. Phoenicians should look at the new Lunds store in downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota, recently opened and integrated with new apartments in the former Saint Paul Public Safety Building (which was a façadectomy), as a model. An all-stick frame construction, as is proposed, will not fit a grocery store…full stop.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put something of quality on a key vacant lot. To put the proposed project here is a waste of a lot of things.

I will say it again, Phoenix: we must do better. We simply must.

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