Phoenix on the rise?

Navel-gazing doesn’t make a city better. If Phoenix is a city on the rise, where are we in relation to our peer cities?

Downtown Phoenix skyline at sunsetI hate to rain on the Phoenix good news parade and that “Phoenix on the rise” video…

There’s a story circulating around on all of Phoenix’s social media channels about Yahoo! News’s Katie Couric focusing on Phoenix. I even watched it, because self-denial or something like that. It’s got all of the local players you’d expect in it, because they’re the Very Serious People in town.

And all of what was said in the video may be true.

But what Phoenix’s leaders are forgetting at best (or ignoring at worst) is that this isn’t a competition about Phoenix in 2017 vs. Phoenix just after the Great Recession. Navel gazing doesn’t make our city better; it lets other cities pass us while we congratulate ourselves over smaller accomplishments. It’s Phoenix vs. our peer cities both in the United States and around the world. So it’s not just Phoenix vs. Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, or Philadelphia, it’s Phoenix vs. Melbourne, Brasilia, Johannesburg, Stuttgart, and Osaka. These are all things that I’ve said before.

Let’s deconstruct one of the points of the P.R. piece very serious journalism: that Phoenix is the “next big tech hub.” Again, it may be compared itself a few years ago. But a landmark study commissioned by the real estate conglomerate Cushman and Wakefield, Tech Cities 1.0: An Interactive Look at Metrics and Cities to Watch, Phoenix didn’t make the top 25, despite being the 5th largest city by population and the 12th largest metro area by population. In in a passing bullet point on a piece on Tech Cities 1.0, cities are assessed on the quality of their institutions of higher learning, supply of tech workers, amount of venture capital, skilled knowledge workers, and entrepreneurial growth engines. Phoenix isn’t mentioned except CityLab by Richard Florida: “Phoenix ($269 million), which is not on the chart above, attracted more venture capital investment than Baltimore ($254 million).”

Is it nice that Phoenix is getting attention? Probably. But while attention is nice, we have to remember that we have a long way to go to break even with our peer cities nationally and internationally.

What Downtown Phoenix Needs

There’s one thing downtown Phoenix needs. Where are our elected leaders on it?

Quick bite for a Wednesday morning: There’s a piece that’s been making the rounds in the downtown Phoenix thought circles about how to get involved in the downtown Phoenix community to make it “suck less.”

First things first: I’m not a fan of solutions journalism, that idea that journalism must always have some sort of solution to it. It just seems like it’s a new approach on feel-good reporting. I guess I’m old-school in the fact that good journalism must cast light to what’s going on. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” said the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. So it’s up to us – the public citizenry – to decide what to do with that information.

The article in question is Want Downtown Phoenix To Suck Less? Here’s How To Get Involved by Antonia Noori Farzan. The premise of the article is that there are several downtown Phoenix advocacy groups that downtown-inclined individuals should join and then go to every single downtown meeting and talk to every single downtown elected or appointed official about design-related things.

There’s one fatal problem with that: The premise of Ms Farzan’s article seems to go on the failed notion that downtown Phoenix’s issues are design-related and that a bike lane here or tree there would suddenly cure our urban ills and make our downtown on par with those of Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, or Philadelphia.

As this blog has noted with great regularity, that’s not the case. There are way too many macro issues that are ignored because, well, I’m not sure why. But they all stem back to one thing, something I tweeted about earlier today:

That’s the thing that’s missing. And this isn’t a new chorus or refrain of mine.

  • In 2014, after Sprouts Farmers Market announced their corporate office moving from near Paradise Valley Mall to CityNorth, I wrote in Another Day, Another Strikeout, “What is the economic development strategy for downtown and midtown Phoenix? I fear to ask the next question, but I will: Is there one? I think it’s admirable that we are trying to have lots of incubator spaces and attract individual entrepreneurs but we need to ask: What is their economic impact compared to, say, the Sprouts Farmers Market headquarters?”
  • In a 2014 edition of The Friday Five suggesting alternate urban talking points (which was in reaction to a feel-good design-focused thing going on that weekend), I wrote, “As we learn of other suburban cities or, in fact, suburban parts of Phoenix, taking jobs and economic development away from central-city Phoenix, we still think about how to make a better design for our streets, sidewalks, and bicycle lanes.  That’s nice, to be sure, but I still maintain that if we don’t have the economic activity to support those physical amenities, then what’s the point?”
  • There was a metric I created as well called The Eddie Number. The premise of that is to get a sense of economic headquarters in a downtown area compared to the rest of the metropolitan area. Also in 2014 (yeah, I wrote more back then), downtown Phoenix’s Eddie Number was -11.

So this is nothing new. This has been my common refrain but it’s gone on deaf ears.

Want downtown Phoenix to “suck less”? Get money and civic leaders back downtown.

Friday Five: Moving Phoenix

As the first ballots for August’s election have been mailed out, here are five reasons why you should vote for Proposition 104 in Phoenix.

As the first ballots for August’s election have been mailed out, here are five reasons why, if you live in Phoenix, you should vote for Proposition 104. This blog also recommends returning each incumbent to their elected position as well as voting yes on all of the other propositions.

The Friday Five: Moving Phoenix (Proposition 104)It’s more than just new light rail lines. One of the common misconceptions being conveniently perpetuated by opponents of Proposition 104 is that it’s just for new METRO light rail lines within the City of Phoenix. While, certainly, those are welcome and needed, it’s more than that. The plan expands service on city buses, accelerates repairs and improvements to roads and sidewalks, adds bicycle lanes, and enhances technology for Phoenix’s transportation system. There is something for everyone.

No, we can’t just spend this money on teachers instead. A repeated talking point by opponents of Proposition 104 is that this money could be better spent on teachers and education. Since education in Arizona is the domain of the State of Arizona, I ask: Why can’t we have both? In an op-ed opposing Proposition 104 in The Arizona Republic by Tyler Bowyer, the chair of the Republican Party of Maricopa County, Mr. Bowyer repeats this tired talking point. But given his party’s proclivity against raising taxes, I would think that if his alternate proposal were on the table, Mr. Bowyer and those using that talking point would have encouraged us to vote no on that proposal, too.

As people go back to the city, our infrastructure must go back to the city. As has been documented with great regularity on this blog, there is a trend nationwide of moving back to our central cities. Some promising news came out this past week about the amount of public and private investment near the initial 20-mile line of light rail. Even amid the Great Recession, $8.2 billion in public and private investment was made near the line in 204 projects. That’s a near-sixfold return on our collective community investment. Tempe has perhaps made the most of light rail, garnering $3.4 billion in investment on their smaller section of line.

World cities require people-based transportation. If Phoenix is to be a world city, which I believe is a necessary aspiration for us to have any chance to compete in the global economy, we will need to have a transportation system in our central city that focuses on moving people around, not just private automobiles. Phoenix may have grown up and developed in the age of peak automobile; however, this gives us a chance to make quality and sensible investments in our infrastructure. As we mark the 25th anniversary of the enacting of the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990, it’s important to note that public transportation and paratransit (dial-a-ride) services, both enhanced by Proposition 104, provide a wonderful mechanism for people with disabilities to be strong contributors in the new global economy.

This is a chance to take our future into our own hands. The City of Phoenix gets no love from our state government. In fact, they try to do things that actively harm Phoenix’s future. SB 1070 in 2010 and SB 1062 in 2014 are two bills that come to mind amid many others. So what better way is there for all Phoenicians to take our city’s future into our own hands by providing a mechanism for us to create, fund, and evaluate our own transportation system? While other big cities in other states get help in building infrastructure from their state legislatures, we in Phoenix get the ‘drop dead’ message from ours. If we want Phoenix to be a world city, then we are left to do the fundraising ourselves.

If we want Phoenix to be a world city, then we need to have a forward-thinking transportation system that seamlessly blends buses, trains, bikes, and people. Please join me in voting YES in Proposition 104.

Friday Five: Urban Dispatches

The Friday Urban Dispatch for 10 July 2015: comments on Roosevelt Row, civics lesson, and moving Phoenix.

Phoenix Mayor QuestionsAs part of this blog’s The Friday Five series, The Friday Urban Dispatch is a unique boots-on-the-ground report on the urban condition in Phoenix.

Roosevelt Streets Improvements. This week marked the completion and public dedication of the Roosevelt Street streetscape improvements, the anchor of which is shade structures designed by the artist Meejin Yoon. There have also been some controversial planter pots installed on the south side of Roosevelt between 1 and 3 Streets. I like them. I think they add a level of whimsy and artistic quality to a street that is supposedly about those things.

BIDding for Roosevelt, part II. As part of this month’s Hance Park Conservancy meeting (of which I am a member of their Board of Directors), a presentation was given by Nancy Hormann, the consultant helping to organize the proposed Roosevelt Row Business Improvement District. While on the surface, this is a good idea, the devil’s in the details. Of great concern is the non-inclusion of major cultural anchors in that part of the world, such as Burton Barr Central Library and Hance Park. A business improvement district, it would seem, would be more robust and more viable if it drew from a bigger pool of support.

Entertainment districts and civics lessons. The City of Phoenix is set to create the first of its three allotted “entertainment districts” in downtown Phoenix. As I explained to the Downtown Phoenix Partnership on their Facebook page (because there is no wrong time for a civics lesson), this entertainment district is something that is a function of Arizona Revised Statues (Title 4, Section 207). It has nothing to do with what we conceive of entertainment. Nor is meant the Legends Entertainment District, which is neither legendary nor entertaining. All it has to do with is that in this entertainment district, the State Liquor Board may entertain issuing a liquor license that is within 300 feet of a school or church, subject to the customary and normal approval mechanisms like everywhere else.

Moving Phoenix. In August, Phoenix voters will vote for Mayor and those in the odd-numbered Council Districts will vote for their councilperson. This blog recommends returning each incumbent to their seats. Five ballot questions are also for consideration and this blog recommends a YES vote on all of them, especially on Proposition 104, the adoption of Transit 2050. The package involves improvements to Phoenix’s public transportation network as well as financing much-needed repairs to our streets. If Phoenix is to have any chance to compete in the world economy, public transportation is a key component. Voters should vote YES on Proposition 104.

Cities attract talent. If Phoenix is to be a world city, which I think is a necessary aspiration, then it means we must not be afraid of new ideas from outside our own boundaries. Come to think of it, it’s what ALL cities must do. So it has been extremely frustrating that many in downtown Phoenix lament the opening of Meejin Yoon’s “Shadow Play” art installation mainly because Ms. Yoon is not a local artist. If that line of thinking is valid, should the Phoenix Public Library only shelve books by local authors? Should the Phoenix Art Museum only show works by Arizona artists? Or should the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks only field players from the area? Of course not because that is not good for all. There is a definite place for local involvement and the advancing of local interests. It is not, though, in our exposure to the arts and the humanities. We must not feel threatened by the broadening of our horizons.

Tuesday Twelve: Phoenix Mayor Questions

As campaign season heats up, here are questions for the next Phoenix mayor.

Phoenix Mayor QuestionsThings have been very quiet here on edwardjensen.net since the end of 2014. It does feel good, though, to get back in the writing saddle.

As municipal campaigns in Phoenix are heating up in advance of August’s elections for Mayor, odd-numbered council districts, and several ballot questions, it’s time to pose some questions for those seeking to represent us. In a special edition of The Friday Five, here is The Tuesday Twelve (because alliteration is always acceptable): a list of twelve questions for discussion as Phoenix elects her next Mayor:

  1. The optics of Phoenix being in the state of Arizona have come up again in this year’s legislative session. Arizona’s State Legislature and Governor Doug Ducey have enacted one of the most vindictive and anti-urban budgets in recent memory. In this session, the State Legislature is debating legislation to take powers away from cities, as seen in the proposed statewide ban of municipal single-use plastic bag bans. Critics have observed that instead of Phoenix (as Arizona’s largest city) setting policy at the State level, it is the other way around. Define Phoenix’s relationship with the government of the State of Arizona. How is Phoenix lobbying at the State Capitol to advance Phoenix’s interests?
  2. There is a movement happening in America’s cities to move back to the central cities away from the suburbs and farther-flung areas. In Phoenix, the opposite seems to happen. In 2014, Sprouts Farmers Markets announced their corporate HQ relocation to CityNorth at 56th Street and the Loop 101. In January, the Phoenix Business Journal reported that in 2014, 93% of this metro area’s office leasing took place in the East Valley and that more office space was vacated in central-city Phoenix than was occupied. Why is Phoenix not catching on to this trend? What City policies can be enacted so Phoenix catches on to this back-to-the-city movement and doesn’t become the hole in the doughnut?
  3. Central-city Phoenix neighborhoods have come under assault in 2014. In September, the Federal Aviation Administration revised its flight paths for westbound departing aircraft from Sky Harbor International Airport, taking them over the Grand Avenue corridor. The Internet retailer eBay has proposed a giant monolithic building for 3rd Street and Indian School Road. Some neighborhoods lack suitable streets infrastructure. Urban transportation infrastructure like adequate sidewalks and bicycle lanes are not in good repair. How can City Hall help those who choose to live an urban lifestyle—something rare in this place—protect their neighborhoods from these assaults?
  4. Despite a wet end to 2014, Arizona is still in the midst of a multi-year drought that shows no signs of easing. In 2014, Smithsonian reported that Arizona could run out of water by 2020, citing the Phoenix metropolitan area’s leapfrog growth compounded by the effects of climate change. What immediate action does Phoenix need to take today to lessen our environmental impact? Is now the time to implement an urban growth ring to stop our encroachment on the magical deserts that surround us?
  5. Last week marked one year since the approval and public unveiling of the Hance Park Master Plan, a new approach to creating a true urban ethic in Phoenix. In the intervening year, that plan has languished in the bookcases of City Hall, as very little has been accomplished towards its implementation despite a unanimous approval by the Phoenix City Council in 2014. As this blog will comment on Friday, Hance Park is the best shot that Phoenix has to create an urban focal point; despite its $118 million price tag, it must be built. How will you help the City of Phoenix build Hance Park within this decade?
  6. The Roosevelt Row arts district has been in the news lately as two proposed apartment complexes are slated to be built surrounding the intersection of Roosevelt and 3rd Street, involving the demolition of the former GreenHAUS building, which contained several murals by the painter Ted DeGrazia (1909-1982). The proposed replacement apartment project takes its design cues from a suburban rather than urban context. This is true in other developments in central-city Phoenix as well, like the project proposed for the northwest corner of Central Avenue and McDowell Road. While other cities demand excellence and get a better quality of project, why is this the best we can get in Phoenix? How should Phoenix do better?
  7. In 2014, the City of Phoenix Community and Economic Development (C.E.D.) Department hired Christine Mackay as that department’s new director. Ms. Mackay is a 16-year veteran of the City of Chandler, including serving as their Economic Development Director from 2008-2014. In your assessment, what should the top three priorities be for C.E.D.?
  8. Phoenix’s urban circles have been openly debating changing the Phoenix City Charter regarding our city’s form of government or number of seats on the Phoenix City Council. Phoenix is a Council-Manager form of government, meaning that the Phoenix City Council sets policy and city staff (under the City Manager) implements that policy. If only one of the following could happen in this next mayoral term, which would you rather see and help make the case to voters for them to approve: making Phoenix a strong-mayor form of government (mayor-council) or adding more seats to the Phoenix City Council? What arguments would you use to help make that case?
  9. As Phoenix grows, it has looked to other cities for smart practices on how to become more urban. Which of the following most exemplifies a strong, healthy, and vibrant city: Portland (Ore.) or Houston? Why?
  10. Unlike other cities, schools and public education are not the prerogative of the City of Phoenix. Despite this, however, the City has recently approved construction bonds for several privately run charter schools at recent City Council meetings through the City’s Industrial Development Authority. Is this acceptable? Why or why not?
  11. Partisan politics has created unacceptable gridlock in Washington. Governance at the Arizona State Capitol has, at best, forgotten about Phoenix or, at worst, hindered progress. In their book The Metropolitan Revolution, authors Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley make the case that cities are tasked to lead the way in advancing progressive agendas. How will Phoenix lead the way in 21st century urban governance? What is holding Phoenix back? What reforms need to be made so Phoenix can lead?
  12. In 2016, which is the first year of the next mayoral term, the United States Senate seat occupied by John McCain will be up for election along with all seats in the House of Representatives. Would you finish your four-year term as Mayor or run for any of those seats?

Downtown Phoenix In Review 2014: Opportunities

As 2014 winds down, let’s look back on the year that was in downtown Phoenix. In this finale post, I’ll look at downtown Phoenix’s opportunities for 2015.

[editor’s note: Over the previous ten days, we’ve published our year-end Downtown Phoenix In Review 2014 series. In four posts, we looked at downtown’s strengths, weaknesses, and threats that shaped its 2014 and set the stage for 2015 and beyond. You are invited to read all of the published essays here.]

Downtown Phoenix In Review 2014 graphicDowntown Phoenix In Review 2014: IV. Opportunities

1. Building on economic momentum of the University District. In December, a study was released that showed University of Arizona’s Medical School in downtown Phoenix had a $1.3 billion economic impact in 2013. Not in this study was the economic impact of Arizona State University’s presence, though I’ve teen told that those studies are in the works. There is a curious dislike of the presence of these universities in downtown Phoenix but this is the best thing that we have going for us at the moment. These institutions also have something that private ventures might not have: permanence. This quote from an article in CityLab (formerly The Atlantic Cities) summarizes this well: “‘General Motors in Flint, Michigan, picked up and left. And with it went all of these jobs, and that really decimated the economy,’ says [author Tracey] Ross. ‘Wayne State University in Detroit? They’re not going to be picking up and leaving.’”

2. The “Central Arts District” if it gets going and becomes more inclusive. Not much is known about the Central Arts District other than it consists of several of the arts organizations in Midtown, the Phoenix Community Alliance, and the ownership of the VIAD corporate center. The Midtown Museum District, whose mission and boundaries are the same, seems to have been kept in the dark about this. Even the Phoenix Arts and Culture Commission, of which I am a Commissioner, knows nil about this group.

3. New residential projects coming to downtown. Ground is set to be broken on several residential projects in the central core this year: the Union at 1 Avenue and Roosevelt, the Muse at Central and McDowell, and projects surrounding the Barrister Place project at Central & Jefferson. Physical design notwithstanding, these projects will bring some new density downtown, always a positive. If Phoenix is going to latch on to the back-to-the-city movement happening nationwide, then some new residential density is needed. This is a start.

4. The Super Bowl comes to Phoenix in February. As the world descends to Phoenix for February’s Super Bowl, Phoenix has started to put its best foot forward. While the game is in suburban Glendale, most of the main events are in downtown Phoenix. This is a great chance to show the world about Phoenix. Despite the problems of the N.F.L. this year surrounding domestic abuse (among other things), the Super Bowl brings the eyes of the world to its host city. Phoenix’s urban leaders should capitalize on this.

5. A new Chief for the Phoenix Police Department. After a tumultuous tenure as Chief of Police, Daniel V. Garcia was fired by Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher on 18 December after Mr. Garcia called a press conference slamming his critics and demanding a contract extension from the same City that ordered him not to hold that press conference. Telling of Mr. Garcia’s tenure was his curious absence from a marathon City Council meeting the previous day to address community-police relationships. With community-police relationships on everyone’s minds these days following high-profile incidents in Ferguson, New York City, and even here in Phoenix, a new start was needed.

Downtown Phoenix In Review 2014: Threats

As 2014 winds down, let’s look back on the year that was in downtown Phoenix. In this third post of four, I’ll look at downtown Phoenix’s threats.

[editor’s note: Over the next few days, we’ll be publishing our year-end Downtown Phoenix In Review 2014 series. In four posts, we’ll look at downtown’s strengths, weaknesses, threats, and opportunities that shaped its 2014 and set the stage for 2015 and beyond. You can see all the published essays to date here. Part IV will be published tomorrow.]

Downtown Phoenix In Review 2014 graphicDowntown Phoenix In Review 2014: III. Threats

1. A lack of major economic players in downtown Phoenix. In December, it was announced that Actors’ Theatre closed down after nearly three decades of performance.  The artistic director of the group, Matthew Wiener, said that the most important factor that led to the troupe’s closing was the decline in institutional support.  “We have very few Fortune 500 companies headquartered here.  Those things are very important.”  And of the major companies that are here, they settle in other cities or in the far reaches of Phoenix.  In July, Sprouts Farmers Market announced they were moving their corporate headquarters to the downtown-killing CityNorth development.  It is problematic that Phoenix is both central-city and suburb in one.  The idea that we must have economic activity all across the 550 square miles in Phoenix is killing our city, as is the next point…

2. Thinking regionally. This is a major mantra of a few of those in positions of power and influence in Phoenix: that we are better off as a region than as individual cities.  While that sounds idyllic and certainly nice, in practice, it means that other cities run laps around Phoenix for economic development.  Downtown Tempe, for instance, is growing tremendously.  No more evident was this than at last month’s PlanPHX community gathering.  I attended the economic development session and one could have easily thought one was in something from the State of Arizona or metro-wide economic development organizations.  It took a full half hour to get to Phoenix; I was almost at the point of interrupting their regionalism reverie to say, “I am sorry, but I thought this was a session on improving Phoenix’s economy, not the state’s or other cities’ economies.”  The longer we think that we will succeed in Phoenix by letting other cities run laps around us, the more irreparable Phoenix’s economic future will become.

3. Future of Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury in downtown Phoenix. In the wake of the electrical fire at the downtown Phoenix Sheraton Hotel, owned by the City of Phoenix but operated by Sheraton, news came out that the City was taking a financial loss on the hotel’s operation.  It emerged that the City was using funds set to finance improvements to or a potential replacement for the 22-year-old U.S. Airways Center to make up the balance.  With the facility now called Talking Stick Resort Arena, after the casino resort operated by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community (east of Phoenix) and with the expectation that private sports teams must have publicly funded and operated sports stadia, one must wonder if the Suns’ and Mercury’s days in downtown Phoenix will come to a close in a few years’ time.

4. Failing to capture “back-to-the-city” movement happening nationwide. In 2013’s strengths list, I wrote that there was a nationwide renewed interest in downtowns and urban areas. Unfortunately, that renewed interest has not really been captured here in Phoenix.  The cities of Tempe and Mesa have run laps around Phoenix vis-à-vis economic development.  Everything here is labeled as “the Valley” or “Arizona” despite being in or for Phoenix.  The local NHL team abandoned the name Phoenix Coyotes for the ambiguous “Arizona Coyotes” for the start of this season.  The 21st century global marketplace will be based on urban: urban areas, urban activity, and urban economics, not states or broad regions.

5. More “brain drain” from Phoenix. There were several notable departures from Phoenix this year and one more has been announced for early 2015.  Whatever their reasons for leaving (and there is no wrong reason to depart Phoenix), we wish them the best on their new adventures.  This doesn’t include the hundreds and thousands of those whose departures go unnoticed or unheralded.  For Phoenix, though, this is something that desperately needs to be addressed: why are people leaving and what structural things can be done to make the case for people staying in this place?

Downtown Phoenix in Review 2014: Weaknesses

As 2014 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.

[editor’s note: Over the next few days, we’ll be publishing our year-end Downtown Phoenix In Review 2014 series. In four posts, we’ll look at downtown’s strengths, weaknesses, threats, and opportunities that shaped its 2014 and set the stage for 2015 and beyond. Part I of this polyptych looked at downtown’s strengths. Parts III and IV will be published after Christmas.]

Downtown Phoenix In Review 2014 graphicDowntown Phoenix In Review 2014: II. Weaknesses

1. “Still-none” items from 2013 Year-in-Review weaknesses list. At the end of 2013, I commented that two of downtown’s weaknesses were a lack of a close, walkable grocery store and not enough residential density. Here we are, one year on from those comments, and we’re in the same boat.  Though more boutique restaurants have opened downtown, the economic activity and residential density needed to support them isn’t following.  The recent closest thing to a grocery store for downtown, Bodega 420, closed in June. Speaking of residential density: while some projects are slated to begin in 2015, those will bring limited relief to many of central-city Phoenix’s housing problems, including genuinely affordable housing for families, not just urban hipsters.  It might be, unfortunately, too little too late.

2. Thinking we can copy-and-paste our way to become a better urban city. There is a difference between taking smart practices from other cities and just trying to emulate them.  I was engaged in a conversation with a downtown observer who said that downtown Phoenix and downtown Denver were alike.  While this might be true on a very superficial level, this ignores one very crucial element that the design-centric community here ignores incorrectly at best and dangerously at worst: context.   There are very different contexts for why Denver (or any other city, really) is the way it is and why we are the way we are in Phoenix. Understand those first and then things will start to make sense and downtown advocates can work on smarter and better projects.

3. Suburban-urban projects underway on Central Avenue. Construction began in earnest on the new Elevation Central apartment complex at Central and Highland this year and the Lennar “Muse” project at Central and McDowell is set to begin in early 2015. Both of these projects are uninspired in their design and where they are in this place and moment in Phoenix history. Both projects are four-story stick (read: wood frame) wraps of a five-story parking garage and both projects do not make architectural gestures to Central Avenue, urban living, or this unique moment in Phoenix’s urban history. They look like projects better suited for the far suburbs than transit-oriented development in central-city Phoenix.

4. Results from November’s elections. To nobody’s surprise, Republicans took over the United States Senate and kept their hold on the United States House of Representatives and all of Arizona’s statewide elected offices.  (Of course, when the other major party runs away from its accomplishments or its de facto leader, this was bound to happen.)  In Arizona, cities and urban issues failed to come up as talking points from the candidates, which shows that there isn’t an interest at the statewide level to have Arizona’s cities be key parts of the 21st century urban-centric economy.  Only one candidate replied to a list of urban-centric questions I posed: Congressman-elect Ruben Gallego.  (I think it helped his campaign, n’est-ce pas?)  In addition, November’s elections solidly disabused the notion that Arizona is a purple state: despite a few progressive enclaves in Phoenix and Tucson, this state is solidly red.

5. New flight departure paths from Sky Harbor and initial Council inertia. In September, the Federal Aviation Administration published new departure procedures for aircraft departing over central-city Phoenix, taking them over Grand Avenue instead over the Salt River.  While details on who knew what and who approved these plans are unclear at best, there was a lot of inertia to get individual members of the Phoenix City Council to use their collective bully pulpit to effect change.  In some correspondence I have received, one councilperson said that the City has no jurisdiction over the FAA and so they would not contact the FAA on that constituent’s behalf.  While that statement is technically true, the City does have a bully pulpit it should be using how it can.  Recently, the Phoenix City Council unanimously passed a resolution asking the FAA to revert to the pre-September departure procedures.

Downtown Phoenix In Review 2014: Strengths

As 2014 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.

[editor’s note: Over the next few days, we’ll be publishing our year-end Downtown Phoenix In Review 2014 series. In four posts, we’ll look at downtown’s strengths, weaknesses, threats, and opportunities that shaped its 2014 and set the stage for 2015 and beyond. The quartet of posts from last year provide indispensable context to the urban condition and are worth your read.]

Downtown Phoenix In Review 2014 graphicDowntown Phoenix In Review 2014: I. Strengths

1. Hance Park Master Plan reveal. One of the big urban events in 2014 was the unveiling of the Hance Park Master Plan in March. The new Hance Park Master Plan makes a statement for urban public space in Phoenix. NYC-based !melk (led by Jerry van Eyck) worked with of Scottsdale-based Weddle Gilmore and Phoenix-based Floor Associates to create a fantastic plan for the 32.5-acre urban space. The Hance Park Conservancy, Phoenix’s first conservancy dedicated to a specific park, is now working to coordinate the $118 million fundraising project to translate paper to reality. Parks and public space are an integral part of the urban experience and this opportunity to create a defining urban space in Phoenix is an opportunity that we cannot let slip by.

2. Upgrades and maintenance at some of Phoenix’s best public art projects. Two of Phoenix’s best public art projects received major upgrades in 2014: Janet Echelman’s “Her Secret is Patience” at Civic Space Park received a new net and upgraded lighting in early December and two new artist-designed terrazzo floors at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport opened as part of the Terminal 3 SkyTrain expansion. The Airport’s terrazzo floors and the Echelman at Civic Space Park are, in my opinion, two of the nicest things that we have in this city and both show that we can do fantastic art projects in this city.

3. Music festivals in downtown Phoenix. March featured two big music festivals in downtown Phoenix: the VIVA PHX festival on March 7 and the McDowell Mountain Music Festival at the end of that month. Both festivals brought energy downtown and, most importantly, people. As I wrote in March right after the VIVA PHX festival, it seemed like downtown Phoenix was a “city in potentia.” The question is how can we keep that energy happening all the time?

4. Overwhelmingly unified opposition to SB 1062. In February, the Republican-led State Legislature passed Senate Bill 1062, a bill that would make it legal for individuals and businesses to deny services to others based on one’s religious beliefs, which is a thinly veiled assault on civil rights for everyone. Drafted by the anti-LGBTQ “Center for Arizona Policy,” the legislation would have unfairly targeted our LGBTQ friends, neighbors, and colleagues. After the bill was passed in the Arizona State Legislature, scores of Phoenix (and Arizona) chambers of commerce, community organizations, and elected bodies came out in near-unison against this damaging legislation. Governor Brewer ultimately vetoed the bill.

5. Groundbreaking of ASU’s Arizona Center for Law and Society. On 13 November, Arizona State University and its community partners broke ground on the new downtown Phoenix home of the ASU Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, the Arizona Center for Law and Society. The building is set to open in time for the Fall 2016 semester and it will bring more development and density for downtown’s University District. Time will tell how open the building will remain to the public but I remain optimistic.

Friday Five: Different Urban Talking Points

The Friday Five for September 26: Some different urban talking points when we consider Phoenix’s urban renaissance.

friday five logoWe love talking about urban design in this city.

As we learn of other suburban cities or, in fact, suburban parts of Phoenix, taking jobs and economic development away from central-city Phoenix, we still think about how to make a better design for our streets, sidewalks, and bicycle lanes.  That’s nice, to be sure, but I still maintain that if we don’t have the economic activity to support those physical amenities, then what’s the point?

So here I offer five different urban talking points that we should be discussing about in addition to urban design:

1. Downtown Phoenix’s lack of corporate headquarters. I have written several essays on this topic and I will certainly refer you to those.  As a supposed rebuttal to this, one reader pointed out the then-just announced expansion of WebPT in the Warehouse District, as though that was the ultimate panacea.  That’s great; but why is that the exception to the rule instead of the rule?  While I’ll admit it’s not a perfect measurement, there are 13 companies on the Fortune 1000 list based in the Phoenix metropolitan area.  Two are based in downtown Phoenix (Pinnacle West Capital Corporation and Freeport-McMoRan), making downtown’s Eddie Number -11, not good.  It should be the number 1 priority of civic, business, and governmental leaders to make that number closer to zero.

2. Downtown Phoenix needs to be family-friendly. This takes many different interpretations. When we think about adding residential density to central-city Phoenix, we can’t just think about studio or one-bedroom apartments for young single people to live in, even if that’s the fastest growing demographic.  We have to make sure families with young children can not only live here but thrive here.  We need to think about diversity of everything.  And that also means making sure that there are opportunities for families to enjoy the same amenities that those living alone enjoy.  While I’m glad that there are fantastic restaurants, coffeehouses, and bars in central-city Phoenix, those can be a bit expensive for those who aren’t necessarily independently wealthy or exactly welcoming of families.

3. Quality public educational opportunities for children need to exist. I have heard too many times from new parents who live in central-city Phoenix that when their child needs to go to school, they’ll need to move out to the suburbs where good schools exist.  Even if central-city school districts aren’t as bad as people make them out to be, there is still a perception that they are.  The Madison and Scottsdale districts will always have the perception that they’re better than Phoenix or Osborn school districts.  And unless local charter schools can create spaces for those within a specific geography, those will never be the answer.

4. Maybe downtown Phoenix shouldn’t be treated as a special-case silo. The new draft of the Phoenix General Plan has five key thematic areas to shape City Hall’s philosophy of the City of Phoenix: communities and neighborhoods, the economy, sustainability and “green” living, connectivity, and making downtown vibrant.  The talk in urban circles, certainly in some conversations and groups I’ve led, is to break down the silos in City Hall and to foster interdepartmental collaboration, something unfortunately rare.  I fear that if we make downtown its own special case, we’re making it its own silo, which runs anathema to what we’ve tried to accomplish.  The first four thematic areas are certainly true for just all parts of the city but have a different interpretation and vernacular in the urban context.  All that makes downtown special is that it is the civic, cultural, and commercial core of both the city and region, something that this general plan document doesn’t affirm.

5. We need to stop thinking of a downtown with specific boundaries. I live in Midtown Phoenix near the Heard Museum; as I write this, I’m looking from my office window of my third-floor Midtown apartment and I see the various towers of Midtown.  By any definition, it’s just as urban than, say, Central and Van Buren.  I will freely admit that it was a massive planning mistake in the 1950s and 1960s to allow dense development to happen outside of downtown.  These are, though, the historical cards that were dealt and we need to find ways to celebrate the fact that we have, as I’ve commented before, a linear downtown.  But our talk about making downtown better ends south of McDowell Road.  The same problems that plague Downtown also affect Midtown.  Empty or underutilized lots?  Transit-oriented development?  We’ve got it all.  Before you say what I think you’ll be saying, I am not saying that we should immediately abandon our labels of what is “downtown” and what isn’t nor am I saying that, for instance, 24 St and Camelback is downtown (it’s not and never will be).  Phoenix’s urban core runs along Central Avenue from Camelback to Jefferson.