Clarifications on “My love/hate relationship with downtown Phoenix”

I think I need to offer a bit of clarification on my last post.

I love the discussion that's been started. Yet in reading through your comments, it seemed like I did a poor job at getting my intended point through.

Most everyone seemed to latch on to the idea that the post was merely to dish dirt on CityScape. Far from it. Though, in re-reading the post, I can see why people might think that. I sure talked a lot about CityScape!

When I thought through the post, my thought was this: Phoenix does some great things. Then it does some not-at-all great things. My love/hate relationship isn't because of CityScape. Far from it.

My love/hate relationship stems from the past decade or so that I've been living and learning in downtown Phoenix. I've seen tremendous strides in downtown Phoenix's renaissance. To their credit, the City has had a tremendous hand in that. That was the point about all the major infrastructure investments (ASU's campus, the Sheraton, the Civic Space Park, the additions to the Convention Center, light rail, etc.).

Yet intertwined with all these great advancements, there have been some silly things done that make me (and many) question the true intent of downtown development.  Tearing down an easily re-usable hotel to make way for a parking lot? Subsidizing the construction of CityNorth? Allowing for a heat-sucking cement plaza at CityScape?

In these questions is contained our frustration. We know that the suburbs have for all too long defined the area. My friend David Bickford (you may know him as @exit2lef or @phxrailfood on Twitter) keeps lamenting that Scottsdale's boundaries in various publications keep creeping well into Phoenix. People tend to associate with their suburb instead of the metropolitan area. Or, if they live in Phoenix, it's never just "I live in Phoenix." There's usually a modifier in there: north Phoenix, south Phoenix, and so on.

Perhaps it's an inherent struggle for identity. We who live in downtown Phoenix want to be identified as urbanites who choose to live here. We want a diversity of local food options to complement the national chains. We want to walk places instead of hopping in our cars to go to the nearest Safeway at 7th St and McDowell. And for those who come to downtown Phoenix to work or to go to an event, they have completely different needs. They have a reason to come here and then leave. In my opinion, it seems like our civic leaders tend to cater to these people's needs more than those who live here continuously. (Seriously, however: what good is a boutique bowling alley with a strict dress code to us?)

As my friend and colleague Colleen mentioned on Facebook in response to the original post, we need energy downtown. I completely and unequivocally agree. That includes parks, stores, restaurants, and things to do. And yes, it has to be more than one teeny market, a few local coffee shops and long walks to the few nice restaurants that students and many can't really afford. During weekdays and whenever there is a game at U.S. Airways Center or Chase Field, that energy is sort of there. At other times, that energy is missing or secluded in many discrete locations.

That energy has to go from different points to be continuous over all of downtown. And I don't have all the answers. But let's get that dialog started.

Who's in?

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.