Downtown Phoenix In Review 2013: Weaknesses

As 2013 winds down, let’s look back on the year that was in downtown Phoenix. In this second post of four, I’ll look at downtown Phoenix’s weaknesses.

In these past couple weeks, I’ve been thinking about the things that have happened in 2013 in downtown Phoenix and how they shape its present as well as the next year in our community.  Yesterday, I discussed downtown’s strengths; tomorrow, I’ll share my assessment of downtown’s threats. The finale is on Sunday where I’ll share downtown’s opportunities.


In the traditional SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis, on which this quartet of posts is modeled, a weakness is defined as something of internal origin that is harmful to organizational mission. I had a difficult time categorizing items that are weaknesses or threats (external origin) so this afternoon’s post should be read in concert with tomorrow’s entry when that comes online.

1. Still No Downtown Grocery Store — It’s been decades since downtown Phoenix has had its own grocery store.  For downtown denizens, our nearest grocery store is a Safeway at 7th Street and McDowell Road, a trip that almost certainly requires a car to travel to safely.  In September, a Whole Foods Market opened in the Town & Country shopping center at 20th Street and Camelback, even more removed from downtown.  To create density downtown, the literature would suggest that a walkable grocery store is required; however, this is the classic chicken vs. egg paradox.

2. Still Not Enough Downtown Density — Since the Great Reset, we’ve had about a dozen new “destination” restaurants open in downtown and about a half dozen new coffeehouses open (which is seen by many as good; my judgment is still up for grabs) but we still don’t have decent density in downtown.  Some new projects have opened on the edge of the downtown core (including several age-restricted projects in the Roosevelt neighborhood) but there are still miles to go.

3. Too Much Talk vs. Not Enough Action — Almost every day in 2013, I seemed to read about yet another organization that has popped up to try to leave its mark on this community.  In skimming through the “about us” descriptions and mission statements, one trend has become alarmingly clear: a lot of these new groups don’t fully understand the wider context for why things are the way they are.  I’m not saying that this youthful naïveté is not instrumental in making things happen; what I am saying is that a thorough understanding of history, nuance, context, and setting is important so that the right decisions are being made instead of the decisions with the most support.  There are great organizations in downtown to be sure — Downtown Voices Coalition, the Roosevelt Row CDC, Grand Avenue Arts & Small Business District, and the Midtown Museum District to name a few — and I would think that we should focus on these established players in town that have already effected great positive change in our communities and in city government.

4. Designing the Micro vs. Designing the Macro — In Phoenix, we have a bad habit of looking at areas under a small lens with great focus instead of a broader picture.  We look at streetscape design improvements for several blocks of one street instead of improving a much greater portion.  The Adams Street redesign concerns the two blocks of Adams between Central Avenue and the Convention Center.  Why doesn’t it stretch over to 1st Avenue to include one of our downtown’s most-urban sections of street?  Or why not over to 3rd Avenue to include the Orpheum Theatre and Phoenix City Hall?  (One of my first essays in 2014 will address this very project.)  We forget that two of the tenets of urban design are connectivity and connectedness: something that is hard to achieve when one looks at the micro scale instead of the bigger picture.

Downtown Phoenix in Review 2013: Strengths

As 2013 winds down, let’s look back on the year that was in downtown Phoenix. In this first post of four, I’ll look at downtown Phoenix’s strengths.

In these past couple weeks, I’ve been thinking about the things that have happened in 2013 in downtown Phoenix and how they shape its present as well as the next year in this community.  Over the next four days, I’ll share my assessment of downtown Phoenix’s strengths (today), weaknesses (tomorrow), threats (Saturday 28 December), and opportunities (Sunday 29 December).


1. Downtown Phoenix, Inc. — Formed at the end of 2012, this was a new way in which to coordinate the major operations in downtown Phoenix.  While the organization has its initial kinks to work out, the group of people in place to lead Downtown Phoenix, Inc. (DPI), is a great group that can be a unifying force for downtown advancement.  In my conversations with DPI’s CEO, David Krietor, I am assured that he knows the tasks that are at hand and will surround himself with the best possible people to get the job done.  And, even more assuring, he knows that there’s more to downtown / urban Phoenix than the central business district: there are the emerging urban areas along Lower Grand Avenue, Roosevelt Street, and in the Garfield and Eastlake Park neighborhoods.  I think DPI is something that we need to get behind and support however we can.

HPF 25 Sept (Community) 22. Hance Park Master Plan — On 12 March 2013, the City of Phoenix Parks Department announced the new design team to work with the community to create a new Master Plan for Hance Park.  Led by Scottsdale’s Weddle Gilmore, downtown Phoenix’s Floor Associates, and New York City-based !melk, the new design is working its way through multiple revisions and community meetings.  In September, eight community design charrettes were held to get a pulse of what people wanted in their urban park.  The initial design rethinks the park into three areas as well as integrating the Burton Barr Phoenix Central Library into Hance Park even more.  The design will be finished in March 2014 (in time for an unveiling during the second McDowell Mountain Music Festival at Hance Park, so I hear) and then the task begins to find the money to build the new Hance Park.  A great city requires a great parks system and Hance Park is on its way to serving as the cornerstone of that system in urban Phoenix.  I’ve also written on why we might also want to reconsider the name to “Roosevelt Park” and I hope you read through that essay.

3. Adoption of LGBT Non-Discrimination OrdinanceIn an unnecessarily contentious City Council policy session on 26 February 2013, including a change of venue to the larger Orpheum Theater building, the Phoenix City Council approved by a vote of 5-3 new language to make it illegal to discriminate against members of the LGBT community within the City of Phoenix.  Opponents from Arizona’s conservative community, including the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, curiously challenged the bill as a “bathroom bill,” saying that it would open the door for child predators.  Their accusations have been wrong.  A bill was taken up in the State Legislature to overturn Phoenix’s legislation but that, fortunately, failed.  As I say, urban design is one thing; good urban (and inclusive) policy is even better.

Header-Logo-In-Box14. Opening of Downtown’s First Dog Park — Those who know me (and know me well) might find it interesting that I’ve included this item on the list and especially as a downtown strength.  I was a most vocal critic of the discussions surrounding the dog park (including a misguided proposal to install a linear dog run on 1st Street south of Hance Park).  I felt that those discussions distracted from the bigger issue at hand: the renaissance of Hance Park.  But it’s heartwarming to see that there has been a lot of community involvement both in construction and in the ongoing operation of the dog park, including a “Friends” group dedicated to funding the dog park’s continued operation.  It’s shown that people in Phoenix love their parks and will advocate for them.

5. A Nationwide Renewed Interest in Downtowns — Perhaps not solely a 2013 issue, there has been a renewed interest in downtowns and urban areas.  People are seeing the benefits from living in central cities: reduced costs of commuting, better health, and more amenities within a short walk’s distance.  As an urban dweller since 2006 (and an observer of downtown Phoenix since 2000), it’s great to see the strides being made.  In urban Phoenix, there is a long way to go but we’re getting there…even if it’s slowly.

Summer Reading 2013: Downtown Phoenix

My summer reading: the history of downtown Phoenix plus the wider contexts of urbanism post-World War II.


Summer Reading 2013: The History of Downtown Phoenix and the Context of Urbanism post-WW2

The books (so far, there’ll be more):

  • The Emerging Metropolis: Phoenix 1945-1973, William Collins (2005)
  • Urban Theory and the Urban Experience: Encountering the City, Simon Parker (2004)
  • Urban Policy Reconsidered: Dialogues on the Problems and Prospects of American Cities, Charles Euchner and Stephen McGovern (2003)
  • Metropolitan Phoenix: Place Making and Community Building in the Desert, Patricia Gober (2006)
  • Growth in Arizona: The Machine in the Garden, Morrison Institute at Arizona State University (1998)
  • Desert Visions and the Making of Phoenix: 1860-2009, Philip VanderMeer (2010)
  • Urban Theory: A Critical Assessment, John Rennie Short (2006)
  • Images of America: Downtown Phoenix, J Seth Anderson, Suad Mahmuljin, and Jim McPherson (2011)
  • Megapolitan: Arizona’s Sun Corridor, Morrison Institute (2008)

More will be added, I’m sure…

Her Secret is Patience

A picture of Her Secret is Patience, the public art piece in downtown Phoenix.

I think it goes without saying that my all-time favorite piece of public art hangs right here in downtown Phoenix. It’s Her Secret is Patience, created by the artist Janet Echelman, for the Downtown Phoenix Civic Space Park.

Photo of the Day, 19 Oct 2012

It, like most things in downtown Phoenix, photographs better at night than during the day.

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.)

More thoughts on the Downtown Phoenix Public Market closure

Some follow-up observations on the closing of the Downtown Phoenix Public Market’s Urban Grocery and a hypothesis to chew around. (with updates)

[UPDATE 1, 1:20pm 5 May 2012: Community Food Connections, the public-private partnership behind the Downtown Phoenix Public Market, released a statement. The link is below.]

The Downtown Phoenix Public Market’s indoor Urban Grocery is closing in a week.

That we know. We also know that the outdoor Wednesday evening and Saturday morning markets are staying open, Food Truck Fridays will go on, and Royal Coffee at the Market will remain open.

Here are two images from the Downtown Phoenix Journal with signs sharing this news:

Three things strike me as odd here. Now, I admit that I have no inside information and that all I’m saying here is speculation. But these are observations worth noting:

  1. The only thing that’s closing is the indoor component of the market. Both Royal Coffee and the outdoor components (Wednesday and Saturday open-air markets and Food Truck Friday) are staying.
  2. Some of the recent First Street/Pierce Street streetscape improvements and pedestrian enhancements really tied into the Public Market area. The City of Phoenix spent a lot of money on these projects and there is a public art component that’s yet to be completed. While those might be for the outdoor components of the market, it’s still worth noting.
  3. If memory serves, the group that owns/operates the DPPM is a public-private partnership. It’s not an indictment of anything but it’s something to keep in the back of one’s mind when evaluating this situation.

Now, as people have observed both on Twitter and in my first post on the topic, the Urban Grocery isn’t really all that much of a grocery store. I admit that as much as I try to shop local and support local agriculture, there are times when Bashas’ or AJ’s will get my business just because their prices are lower. (But hey, they’re both still local!) I suspect that many others have a similar viewpoint. That leads me to my hypothesis of this entire situation:

I wonder if the Urban Grocery is just going to be rebranded and relaunched as something else, perhaps as an actual urban grocery store.

I have no firm information to corroborate my hypothesis. It’s just a gut feeling, actually. Don’t go quoting me on this! But given the factors above, it might just be something to chew around.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m sad that the Urban Grocery’s going away. It’s been a wonderful “third place” for downtown Phoenix and I’ve had many wonderful meetings and conversations there over the two-and-a-half years it’s been opened. If it goes away completely, then the loss that it has on the downtown Phoenix community is immeasurable. But if something else comes to the space, then perhaps this might have been for the better.

Time will tell. I’m sure that we’ll learn more in the days and weeks to come.

UPDATE 1, 1:20pm 5 May 2012: Community Food Connections, the nonprofit organization behind both the Downtown Phoenix Public Market and the Urban Grocery, released this statement:

“For the last 2.5 years, the Urban Grocery has been the only grocery store in downtown which also supports many small, diverse and local businesses. The outdoor market will continue that mission of supporting small farmers and businesses while creating a great community gathering place for the 100,000 people that came during the last year. I also want to personally thank our landlord and the City of Phoenix. Both have gone above and beyond in their support of this community project.”

“Additionally, Cindy Gentry has resigned as executive director of Community Food Connections. In my entire career I have honestly never met anyone so dedicated to the community and the mission of an organization. Her contribution to this community and downtown in particular has been amazing and she will be sorely missed. In the meantime the board of directors will continue the outdoor market with help from people already involved in running it on a weekly basis. Like any business there are risks with opening your doors and sometimes it just does not work out. It can be particularly difficult when it is such a community based business. However, I want everyone to keep the faith because the outdoor market is doing great.”

“Thank you to everyone who has supported us over the years and please come visit us at the Phoenix Public Market every Wednesday and Saturday.”

The Downtown Phoenix Public Market is closing

The Urban Grocery at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market is closing next weekend. For now, that’s all we know.

[UPDATED with an author’s note: for more thoughts on the closing of the indoor Downtown Phoenix Public Market, check out this post.]

The Urban Grocery at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market is closing next weekend.

For now, that’s all we know. The indoor grocery store, opened a couple years ago, is closing next Saturday 12 May. What is known is that the outdoor open-air markets will continue as well as Food Truck Friday.

Whatever the situation, this is sad news for downtown Phoenix. It’s hard to say why this is happening but I think part of it is a lack of density around the place and in downtown Phoenix. That an independent grocery store and hyperlocal market couldn’t survive is definitely troubling for downtown Phoenix’s renaissance.

It also confuses the downtown Phoenix conversation significantly.

Time will tell before we find out what’s happened. But we who fight the fight for downtown Phoenix just have been handed one of our most significant blows to date.

For more thoughts on the matter, I invite you to read “More thoughts on the Downtown Phoenix Public Market closure.”

Failure to Launch: Downtown Phoenix edition

Downtown Phoenix still isn’t ready to take off. Parking lots for cars — the enemy of density — is still a priority. Grr.

In the midst of re-doing my blog, I’ve gone through and looked at some old posts of mine. (Unfortunately, I’ve lost almost everything I’ve written before 2011, which happens to be a lot of content. But that’s okay, I guess.) Anyway, one of those posts was my year-end retrospective post I wrote before the New Year 2011, in which I said:

We’ve learned that downtown Phoenix just isn’t ready to take off…yet. We’ve seen steps forward and backward with CityScape. Even with light rail access, parking spaces are still important to downtown Phoenix planners, as evident with the demolition of the Sahara/Ramada Inn for a parking lot (even with better alternatives) and an extension of a parking lot’s life in the heart of the urban core. [from here, written 27 December 2010]

Keep in mind that this building at 2200 N Central Avenue is less than a block away from the Encanto / Heard Museum METRO light rail station. But no, we have to consider car parking. If we have to consider that “abundant parking” is a key feature for anything in central Phoenix, then what we have here is a failure to launch.


Enough about dog parks!

…in which I ask: Can we stop arguing over a downtown Phoenix dog park and move on to other issues?

A map of the temporary site of the downtown Phoenix dog park.Earlier today, the Hance Park Steering Committee held its final meeting. The Hance Park Steering Committee finished putting together its document of principles that will (hopefully!) head out as an RFQ process as the first step to make Hance Park a cultural and recreational gem for Phoenicians and for the world. As someone said, “Hance Park is our Central Park. Let’s not mess this up!”

At the previous Hance Park Steering Committee meeting, the Steering Committee recommended placement of a temporary dog park at the northwest island of Hance Park, located across from Kenilworth School, between 3rd and 5th Avenues and Culver Street. This was the decision that has had support from community members, institutional processes, and the right decision makers.

Enter today. A new fight was waged against democratic processes. A neighbor adjacent to the proposed Hance Park dog park site gave a three-minute speech about why a dog park should not go at this temporary site. A lot of people asked him this question: Why weren’t your issues brought to the table when the Ad Hoc Dog Park Committee was going through its recommendation process? Of course, the gentleman had no answer. His flyers (which were printed on gloss paper with somewhat professional graphic design) linked to an online petition which, at the moment of this writing, has only two signatures.

I’m not a fan of dog parks but I am supportive of the process that has been taken here by the Hance Park Steering Committee. I am also supportive of the Hance Park Steering Committee’s desire to launch an RFQ process as a means to develop Hance Park’s new Master Plan. But as for dog parks: this location is sensible and temporary. It is a sensible site because it executes the democratic processes and recommendations of the Ad Hoc Dog Park Committee and is cognizant of community input. It is a temporary site because the formal design team will work with the neighbors and site a dog park at the location that works the best. If it’s the same site, nobody knows.

So, I have a question to my fellow downtown Phoenicians: Can we put this saga to rest? There are so many larger pressing issues that face downtown Phoenix that we should work together to find solutions.

Dog parks are for the dogs. Let’s work on human-scaled issues together. That’s my approach: who is with me?

Monday opinions on dog parks

…in which I opine on a downtown Phoenix dog park and express dismay over the tenor of the dialogue.

A map of the temporary site of the downtown Phoenix dog park.I’m finished opining on the downtown Phoenix dog park.

Everyone has a right to their own opinion. I enjoy hearing the different thoughts that come out in the dialogue and I’m amazed by the diversity of ideas produced. But I have become distraught at the tenor of the conversation. It appears like there are groups of people who are so entrenched in their viewpoints that they fail to consider other opinions.

I’m not saying that one side is right and the other is wrong. I am saying that it is only fair to have a reasoned and rational discussion among all sides about the dog park issue. Personally, I believe that there are more important things to downtown Phoenix’s renaissance than siting a dog park. We need to consider our downtown’s macro issues, being mindful that these are the things that make a downtown truly great: arts and culture, affordable housing, community building, good design, sustainable transportation, social equity, historic preservation, a diverse economy, strong neighborhoods, vibrant public spaces, and solid planning.

While I’m sure that organizations with which I’m affiliated (like Downtown Voices Coalition, the Hance Park Conservancy, and others) will weigh in on this issue, it is my hope that the debate is civil.

I, personally, am finished weighing in on the dog park. My priorities are based on that list above.