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.

The (Almost) Friday Five: Transportation Improvements

The (Almost) Friday Five: Some thoughts on public transportation improvements in Phoenix in light of City Hall’s push to collect our feedback.

[editorial note: On some Fridays here on edwardjensen.net, we publish “The Friday Five” — a quick list of some things that catch our attention either about our community or anything in general.  Today, we are talking public transportation improvements. This week’s “Friday Five” is published on Thursday because there will be a Friday Essay.]

friday five logoThe City of Phoenix announced a new online initiative called talktransportation.org to collect Phoenix residents’ ideas about transportation improvements and the future of transportation in our fair city.  While my verdict is still out on these online forms of citizen engagement and the quality of information received, I applaud the City for doing this again.  Here are some thoughts I’ve shared to improve transportation in this city:

1. Get rid of the $2.00 bus fare tax and reintroduce transfers. At the moment, it costs $4.00 to purchase an all-day pass except if you’re on a bus, where it’s $6.00. While the reason given was that it is to encourage riders to purchase their passes and tickets at transit centers or third-party retailers, there is no practical reason to keep it. An all-day pass should be the same price no matter where it is purchased.  Conversely, the two-hour transfer should be reintroduced because our bus system is designed around Phoenix’s grid streets system.  To get from one point to another on bus or light rail, there is a great chance that you’ll need to take two (or more) bus lines or connect from bus to train.

2. Designate high-frequency routes and increase service and capacity. When METRO light rail opened after Christmas 2008, it ran one train every ten minutes between 7am and 7pm on weekdays.  Today, the headway is 12 minutes between trains on weekdays, with less frequent service outside of those times.  For buses, a quick glance at the schedule shows that the most frequent line is the Thomas Road line, Route 29, which achieves a 10-minute headway during weekday morning and afternoon commutes.  Using ridership data, Valley Metro should identify these routes with high ridership and create a high-frequency service promise for these core lines.

3. Retrofit existing light rail stations with cooled spaces and put shade at all bus stops. Train and major bus stops in many Midwestern cities have adapted quite well to the extreme cold that comes their way by installing heated areas on platforms and stations.  Having traveled to some of these places during the winter, it is very welcome for this native desert dweller whose idea of cold is anything beneath 50º F!  While I know that physics and electromechanical engineering state that it’s easier to heat than to cool, the number 1 hallmark of a great city is adapting to climate.  We’ve created two light rail platforms in downtown Phoenix that have cooled spaces.  Let’s make them all have cooled spaces.  In addition, let’s put shade at all bus stops.  Too many bus stops are just a sign with no shelter from the heat.  We live in a desert; it gets hot here.  Let’s adapt to our warm climate.

4. Have the bus system achieve schedule parity with light rail. Right now, the last city buses leave downtown Phoenix around 10:15pm on weekdays and 9:00pm on the weekends. Meanwhile, the last light rail trains leave at 11:30pm Sunday through Thursday and 2:30am late night on Friday and Saturdays. Bus service needs to be enhanced to match light rail or light rail service needs to be cut back to match bus services because the two methods complement each other.

5. Introduce stored-value transit fare cards for all riders. Washington’s WMATA has SmarTrip. New York City’s MTA has the Metrocard. Boston’s MBTA has the Charlie Card. In Minneapolis, they have the GoTo Card. All of these cards are reusable cards that have combinations of stored value and day / week / month unlimited-ride passes for bus, subway, or commuter rail. These cards can be purchased by anyone from a vending machine or a station agent. Phoenix doesn’t have that system and it’s long past time we have something like that. Our closest thing is the Platinum Pass but that’s only for companies through trip-reduction programs. Paper tickets for various passes are available. If we want to make public transportation a truly viable and equal option for urban dwellers as we want it to be, a stored-value card program available to the masses has to be introduced.

Why 2 (The Need for The Serious City)

Part 2 of the essay introducing and exploring the need for The Serious City. Continues on last week’s essay.

[author’s note: Last week, I wrote Part 1 of this essay. Today’s essay is best suited if you’ve read Part 1 first.]

serious logo 2 smOne of the common criticisms of THE SERIOUS CITY is that people think it tries to invalidate existing ways of thinking about cities, place, and context. As I see it, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. This is a different way of thinking, true, but it builds upon all constructive ways of thinking about cities. It puts the focus of its thought on the policy side of the spectrum as more important than design.

What THE SERIOUS CITY seeks to accomplish is the following three things:

  1. In addition to asking the procedural questions of ‘how,’ ‘what,’ and ’when’ in its decision-making processes, The Serious City asks ‘why.’ Why are we doing this? What long-term effects will come from these processes?
  2. Realizing that each place is unique, The Serious City understands that copying-and-pasting solutions from other cities is not always the best approach. This does not automatically invalidate everything that has been implemented in other places; instead, this causes decision-makers to think about this place and understand context, geography, and environment.
  3. When criticism is levied against a city for any reason (including for no reason), The Serious City is able to evaluate that criticism and respond appropriately to it. It can differentiate factual observations from hyperbole and stretching of the truth. A response can range from no response to the appropriate policy interventions. This is not ‘blind-boosterism’ nor does it say that people who critique a place ‘hate’ it; instead, this is an introspective exercise to understand this place.

That’s really it. I’ve heard too many times that we need to emulate other cities in our urban renaissance. People think we need to look like Portland or Denver and take design and policy cues from them. We need to look like Phoenix. We need to address our core issue — that we live in a desert that gets pretty hot for five months of the year — and create a city that incorporates that.

But design is not the only thing. There are the important elements of policy and those seeking to run for elected office. How can we educate those individuals running for elected office for urban districts about the importance of cities and how to best serve their constituents? What does good urban policy look like at Federal and state levels?

It will be these questions and these principles that guide our conversation. Let’s do this.

Why 1 (a Primer for The Serious City)

The formal introduction of THE SERIOUS CITY, a new movement to consider why we do things, not just how, what, and where.

[author’s note: When I wrote this essay, it turned out to be quite a long piece. In the interests of shortening it, it will be posted in two parts: the introductory part you are reading right now and the payoff post, as it were, will be published next week.]

the serious cityThis week has been a perfect convergence of several events, conversations, and discoveries from the urban academy.  (I love it when convergences like these happen!)

On the events front, you have probably listened to the final episode of my media project, The Downtown Phoenix Podcast.  After a full eight-episode series with new content, it became readily apparent that if I wanted to accomplish what I had set out to do, a radio program (which the Podcast essentially is) wasn’t the best vehicle.  That said, it was a blast to produce and I certainly learned a whole lot about both the medium of a podcast and the community in which we live.  Still, though, it’s time to move on and stay on the cutting edge when it comes to sharing information about urban advocacy and thinking creatively about our cities.  (If you’re reading this news for the first time, you should read this announcement.)

This week has been full of conversations, too: I had a phone chat with a friend who is spending some time away this brutal Phoenix summer in the Pacific Northwest and we discussed a lot of things, including the continued delays of the GRID Bicycle Share network’s launch.  We discussed that some of the cities in the Pacific Northwest that have a strong bicycle culture and are known across the country and around the world for it (e.g., Portland, Ore.) do not have a bicycle share program but that has neither hindered nor hampered growth of bicycling there.  We also wondered if Phoenix’s bicycle share system would be successful based on these criteria and what would happen during the summer, when outdoor activity should be curtailed.

And then there was the ongoing saga about the 1938 WPA-built Civic Building at the Arizona State Fairgrounds.  The Arizona State Fair Board shelved plans to demolish the building, said to be in a sorry condition, after various preservation-minded people said the building should be preserved.  Observant individuals will note that I was very quiet on this topic.  My views on the historic preservation movement — especially in Phoenix — are in a state of flux.  While I believe that we need to preserve our built environment, I think we need to be mindful of how we preserve things, working toward new and creative uses to incorporate these historic buildings and solely not just preserving their historic form and function.  It’s nice and certainly a feel-good moment to save buildings but is it fundamentally okay to dictate to individuals and groups what to do with their buildings in the absence of proposals?  As I commented in my 14 March 2014 edition of The Friday Urban Dispatches, we might need to rethink our decision-making philosophy: “Rather than saying ‘no’ outright, let’s ask this question: ‘No…but what are our alternatives?’”  So, in this case, here’s the beginning of a conversation: “No, you shouldn’t demolish the Civic Building but here are some ideas — and funding sources — to rehabilitate the building to make the building useful for another 50-60 years.”

All of these conversations and events converged at a moment when I am asking of both myself and of our community: “What’s next?”  My academic training is in urban studies and urban policy, after all, so I know my approach is different.  I bring a different perspective to the table, something that I definitely understand.  It’s frustrating to me when we consider some projects that have no academic basis for their success and, in my considered opinion, unfortunately won’t work.  When we consider design above policy or economic activity, something I’ve strongly argued for in previous essays on this blog, that’s something that we should not be sustaining.

Enter in THE SERIOUS CITY.  I’ll be talking about it more in depth on Monday’s essay, as promised, but I’ll quickly explain it here.  A Serious City is a city that asks “why” in its decision-making processes.  It understands true urban context and understands that sometimes, the best approach isn’t the one that’s being done in every other city.  That’s not to say that benchmarking and taking smart practices from other cities is verboten; instead, it takes those practices and evaluates them in a manner consistent with its urban environment.  It also understands how to respond and react to criticism levied against it, differentiating factual observations from hyperbole and stretching of the truth.

Whew. Next week’s essay — part II, if you will — will explain this in greater detail.  Have a great weekend.

Where’s the shade?

A desert downtown lacks shade: the one thing that will make it immensely more walkable year-round.

[editor’s note: This is not the post-Downtown Phoenix Podcast essay promised for Friday. That’s still coming, you guessed it, tomorrow.]

Yesterday, some friends of mine and I went to the afternoon matinee Diamondbacks game at downtown Phoenix’s Chase Field. Despite a D’backs pitching meltdown and more Detroit fans present at the game than Diamondbacks fans, it was a fun afternoon. Leaving Chase Field, though, it became very apparent that we have one major design flaw in our downtown: there’s no shade.

Yep, in a desert city, there’s no shade. And when it’s 115º F (46º C) outside, walking in full sunlight is not a fun thing to be doing. It’s also downright dangerous.

So while we keep thinking of new ways to make downtown Phoenix — and all of our urban environs — if we deny the fundamental fact that we need lots of natural shade, what’s the point? Metal shade doesn’t count. And palm trees, despite being a part of Phoenix’s historic character, provide no environmental benefits to pedestrians.

Some pictures from my collection of an unshaded downtown Phoenix…

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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.

“Game-changing moment”

The Downtown Phoenix Vocabulary explores exactly what a “game-changing moment” in our community is and what may be on the horizon.

[From time to time and inspired by the goings-on in and around downtown Phoenix, I am going to produce some updates to “The Downtown Phoenix Vocabulary,” which will be filled with words, phrases, and ideologies that either should be continued in our part of the world or, more likely, discontinued. You can read all of the posts as they are added at edwardjensen.net/tags/downtown-phoenix-vocabulary.

urban vocabularyThe last big essay I wrote, “Another Day, Another Strikeout,” garnered both praise and criticism as I expected. Its fundamental question — is there an economic development strategy for downtown and midtown Phoenix? — still remains unanswered. Some readers were quick to remind me that some small companies are moving or expanding downtown, with WebPT’s recent expansion in the warehouse district cited by one particular reader as a “game-changing moment” for downtown. While I think this was brought up to deflect attention from the question at hand, it did make me think that we need to have a discussion on what a “game-changing moment” is, especially when it comes to urban Phoenix.

As I noted in this week’s episode of The Downtown Phoenix Podcast, Thursday July 10 marked the sixth anniversary of METRO light rail’s first appearance in Downtown. To my estimation, the 27 December 2008 opening of light rail was the last game-changing moment downtown. It brought forth a new way of thinking about the urban condition and urban experience in Phoenix, disproving notions that Phoenicians would neither warm up to nor ride public transit. (It’s broken ridership records month after month, year after year; in addition, future expansions are slated to open in the next several years.)

Some future game-changing moments in potentia include the redevelopment of Hance Park as a world-class urban space that adds to the urban public infrastructure, the building of the Portland on the Park project adjacent to the Japanese Friendship Garden and Hance Park that is downtown’s first condominium project since the Great Reset, and when downtown’s University District — home to all three Arizona state universities — is complete in a few years’ time. Ground was just broken on the new Arizona Center for Law and Society on Arizona State University’s campus, which unlike many downtown advocates, I actually support its building and siting where it is.