Priorities for Downtown Phoenix

The first post of five that outlines attainable solutions for making downtown Phoenix a great place to be.

There’s been a lot made about that op-ed in Sunday’s edition of The Arizona Republic about downtown Phoenix. Personally, I thought it was full of aspirational platitudes that could easily be applied to Pittsburgh as much as Phoenix or Poughkeepsie. But, like the attention-craved downtowners that we are, any publicity is good and we have to go at it and spin our way through it.

I reject that. Completely.

I read through the piece a couple times and it seemed like a generic consultant’s report instead of a piece that offered solutions tailored to our desert downtown. And, after reading through the piece a couple times, I was very confused. It didn’t offer any new ideas or concepts for our downtown. It talked on and on about educational issues, something that downtown inherently cannot solve.

In other words, it didn’t do anything for me. And reading through the blogs and Twitter streams of some of downtown’s most critical thinkers, who bought in to that op-ed, I was very dismayed.

It’s time for an honest look at downtown’s priorities. Over the next four Tuesdays, I’m going to shine a light on those priorities. Some of the priorities can be applied to downtowns and urban areas in general. Some of them are uniquely Phoenix needs.

Which leads me to this: I’m prepared to argue that downtown Phoenix’s four priority areas should be shade, connection, grocery, and density.

I really don’t like to employ the overused Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs because it’s just that: overused. But each of the areas here build on each other. In downtown Phoenix, that bottommost level would be shade. Hot summers aren’t a new invention for Phoenix, even the Hohokam had to deal with them. (We’ve just made them hotter by clear-cutting agricultural fields around the urban core to make way for exurban development.) If one looks at recent architecture in Phoenix, one could reasonably deduct that it doesn’t get warm here.

The next level up on that hierarchy is connection. Urban areas require connection by non-automobile needs. The connections, however, aren’t there. Bike lanes exist in islands and vacuums by themselves. Key parts of our downtown, like Grand Avenue, aren’t connected to the rest of the Phoenix public transportation system. Light rail is a wonderful asset to the community but very few spur lines from that initial twenty-mile starter line have been contemplated; I doubt the usefulness of those lines that have been considered.

Another level up is grocery. Perhaps this is a uniquely Phoenix case since we don’t have a true walkable grocery store in our community. Need groceries? The nearest full-service grocery store to downtown Phoenix is a Safeway at 7th St and McDowell. Within downtown, there are two convenience stores and two mini-markets that sometimes don’t cut it. As much as we all loved the indoor Urban Grocery at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market, it had limited selection and high prices.

Once you have these three fundamentals, then you can achieve the big thing that makes urban environments shine: DENSITY. (If you’ve been engaged with me in any sort of conversation lately, then you know that this is my constant rallying cry.) Consider the following: There are about thirty coffeehouses in downtown Phoenix, including independent places like Fair Trade and One Coffee and chains like Starbucks and Dutch Bros Coffee. There’s also a score of expensive “destination” restaurants in the same area. But who lives here? The biggest continuous population in downtown Phoenix is ASU students. Aside from a few others who live at 44 Monroe, the Orpheum Lofts, and Alta Lofts, that’s not a lot of non-ASU density.

I hope I’ve piqued your interest for the next four weeks. This should be a wild ride and a good critical analysis of our downtown. It’s time to leave the analysis to true urbanists: those who live here and those who know what makes cities go forward. (Perhaps I should remind you that my ASU degree is in Urban Studies.)

5 thoughts on “Priorities for Downtown Phoenix”

  1. I came to phx as a kid in 1959. at that time downtown had big stores, the court, some tall office bldgs. parking was a hassle, and downtown land was expensive. Today, the stores are gone (to the malls), land is even more expensive, and parking is more of a hassle. I use transit a lot, and think it makes sense to live close to where you work. Most phonicians don’t think that way. The mentality is “single family detatched”. So your house is either 2 or 20 miles from where you work, or shop. You want to get in your car, park close to work or store, then get back in the car and go home. So, you have no reason to go downtown, other than court or a sports game. Pouring money into downtown does make the land more valuable (to the owners). Take our big convention center, who are we trying to compete with; Anaheim, LA, San Francisco, San Diego, Las Vegas, Denver, Houston, Chicago, DC ? I don’t think we’re in the same league as those venues. It seems a lot of public money to sink in just to compete with second tier convention sites. same goes for light rail. It’s great for those that can use it (I do), but all we got was year 1896 technology (dressed up in a 2000 look). For 1.8 billion, that’s 1800 million, we could have got a lot more transit, to serve a lot more people. It’s time to stop importing “experts” from back east (we’ll be living with the federal court house forever), and trying to make our downtown like “back east”. we need to come up with our own version.

  2. I like this post and agree with your heirarchy of needs. I take issue, however, with the final paragraph:

    It’s time to leave the analysis to true urbanists: those who live here and those who know what makes cities go forward. (Perhaps I should remind you that my ASU degree is in Urban Studies.)

    The first sentence is absolutely correct, but that knowledge doesn’t have to come from a formal degree. It’s largely experiential. The sentence in parentheses therefore strikes me as unneeded credentialism. We’ve already go too many people pushing divisive agendas and making questionable decisions based on claims of expertise, real or imagined. I don’t think Jane Jacobs ever took a single class in urban studies.

  3. I disagree that a grocery is more important than density. With density, a grocery will naturally follow. If you keep trying to shoehorn more retail into downtown without the residential density to support it, it’ll keep failing. When stores keep failing, Downtowns reputation will continue to erode.

    Shade should be our #1 priority. We need to become obsessed with shade. Look at old pictures of Phoenix, say pre 1960, it was insanely shady, they weren’t dummies. If UofA’s campus can technically be an Arboretum, why not Downtown Phoenix? Thats a goal we should pursue, it would be a good way for us to encourage shade in a creative way. Phoenix should also find creative ways to fund tree planting programs. How about every time the D’backs hit a HR or the Suns sink a 3 pointer, they donate a tree planting to the City? I’d love to see 1K trees planted per year for the next 10 years in the ‘inner loop’ (I-10/1-17) to help cool the core. All dirt lots should be required at the very least to be planted with grass, but bosques of cheap, non water intensive trees would be best (i.e. Mesquites).

    I also take issue w/ the 1st reply about “parking is more of a hassle.” Downtown Phoenix is insanely easy to park in. Is it as easy as PV Mall at 2pm on a Tuesday? No–but urban areas aren’t shopping malls. I’ve never searched for more than 5 minutes for easy, affordable parking in Downtown Phoenix. When I lived in Boston there were times I’d search for 30-45 minutes for parking in the more urban zones.

  4. Yes, it’s insane that we lay down asphalt, which makes the valley hotter, without adding more cooling shade trees.

    One way we could almost instantly increase density is to have the cities abolish their minimum parking requirements, which harm the economy by unduly burdening business owners, and replace them with modern parking management technology to permanently prevent parking shortages.

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