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…
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.]
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.
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.
The 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.
Commenters on my Facebook were quick to point out the usual failed Phoenix logic: “At least it’s still Phoenix instead of another town” was a chorus repeated on several occasions. It was suggested by a commenter that this was OK since Phoenix made a massive investment in the downtown-killing CityNorth project despite, as another commenter pointed out, it being a failed project. Other commenters suggested that we should work with Sprouts to have a grocery store downtown, possibly as part of the new development at Central & McDowell.
This idea that we must have economic activity all across the 550 square miles in Phoenix is killing our city and any hope we have to compete in the 21st century global marketplace that will be based on urban areas, urban activity, and urban economics. It may be very downtown-centric of me but there are two Phoenixes, if you will: there’s Phoenix proper, the urban part that is a much smaller size, say between I-17 on the west and south, SR-51 on the east, and Dunlap Avenue to the north. Then there’s the other part that I do not like to call Phoenix: the suburb of Phoenix that is subdivisions and sprawl, even if it is within the city limits of Phoenix. That other “Phoenix” is sucking all of the life from the Phoenix I know and love. When you’re both a suburb and central city, as Phoenix and “Phoenix” are, this is what happens.
All of the research and all of the trends suggest one thing: Downtowns of core cities will carry cities and regions forward, full stop. Even worse is this idea that Phoenix will succeed if our other suburban cities succeed. In a recent Twitter exchange I had with Jon Talton (@jontalton), author and Phoenix observer (and guest on an early episode of The Downtown Phoenix Podcast), he noted that “‘Regional’” is killing Phoenix. It’s the civic destruction without the entertainment value of Rob Ford.”
Other cities in our metropolitan area are certainly succeeding while downtown Phoenix falls behind. I have frequently praised Tempe for landing the new home for the U.S. national basketball team and State Farm Insurance developing in their downtown. I have publicly lauded Mesa and their former Mayor, Scott Smith, for the work done to bring quality economic development to downtown Mesa. If you would have told me 15 years ago that downtown Mesa would have a world-class performing arts center, light rail, and a nice downtown, I would have laughed at you. Outside of Arizona, we hear of developments moving specifically to downtown environments. California’s Active Network is moving their headquarters with 1,000 jobs to downtown Dallas.
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? Or any headquarters for a major or emerging company? The lack of central-city economic stewards makes the downtown development case challenging, especially when the City of Phoenix has adopted the policy (in my estimation) that we need to spread the thin wealth of economic activity and development over the entire 550 square mile footprint.
Another troubling question that needs to be asked: Where have our central-city councilpeople been? Or what about the economic development groups that are tasked with downtown’s growth? My fears are that they were, again, asleep at the wheel. At last year’s overly contentious Phoenix City Council elections, one of the candidates said that they thought midtown Phoenix needed an economic development strategy; perhaps presciently, that same candidate called midtown an “inner city.” Absent an economic development strategy, we will become one in no time.
While we focus on walkability and creative temporary uses for undeveloped land in urban Phoenix, the good quality development—the stuff we want and so desperately need—moves away from here. We can have the most walkable streets and good urban design, if there’s nothing to walk to, then what’s the point?
This needs to be a wake-up call for all of us. We need to do better.
There’s a definite lack of seriousness in Phoenix. How can Phoenix become The Serious City?
[editor’s note: This essay provides context and a general theme for Series 2 episodes of our media project, The Downtown Phoenix Podcast, whose series 2 première and ninth episode in toto is set to be released next Monday, 7 July 2014. Subscribe and listen to its Series 1 episodes at downtownphoenixpodcast.com.]
By way of introduction, last week I was in conversation with a couple of people about the future of Phoenix and assessing its condition on a lot of issues. I think one of the most poignant questions asked of me if I had ever thought of leaving Phoenix for somewhere else. I sense they were taken aback by my answer: “Only every day.” Of course, I have no economic reason to leave here: I’d be taking a tremendous gamble that I’d find something elsewhere. In addition, my support network of friends, family, and colleagues are all here in this place. When further asked if this should make people think positively about coming or staying here, I replied, “It shouldn’t. It should give people pause and make us assess the urban condition here to make the necessary policy and design interventions so this place can be economically viable in the global economy.”
There is a definite crisis of seriousness in this city. While other urban environments across the country and in our metropolitan area score dense transit-oriented development, the best we can muster in Phoenix is four-story suburban residential complexes. While downtown Tempe gets major operations centers for U.S.A. Basketball and State Farm Insurance, a Phoenix councilman touts two new fast food restaurants opening near a shopping mall as investment. We’re not taking ourselves seriously and expecting great things of ourselves, our civic leaders, and our elected officials.
We know that the global economy is becoming more and more focused on cities and urban agglomerations instead of countries or states. Cities are competing against other cities for economic development: it’s Phoenix vs. Seattle or Fortaleza, not Arizona vs. Washington or Brazil. Unfortunately, Arizona’s cities get the short end of the stick when it comes to who defines whom: it’s always Phoenix that gets branded by the crazy political environment of either the State of Arizona or Maricopa County.
One last thing: In his first monologue returning to television after the 9/11 attacks on 17 September 2001, David Letterman, urging his audience to face the coming uncertain days with courage, said that “pretending to be courageous is just as good as the real thing.” As a 13-year-old kid confused and wondering what was happening and what was going to happen next, Mr. Letterman’s words resonated — and still resonate — with me.
The same philosophy applies to what I’m trying to get at here: If we want Phoenix to be an important city, we need to pretend and act that it already is. The rest should follow.
More on this later — especially as part of Series 2 of The Downtown Phoenix Podcast.
The Friday Urban Dispatch for May 9: Comparing Phoenix’s urban progress to cities that have done the urban thing for a couple centuries.
The Friday Urban Dispatches are a unique boots-on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening in our own backyard of downtown Phoenix. For this edition, there’s a unique twist.
Things have been quiet here on edwardjensen.net over the past couple weeks as I’ve been away from Phoenix taking some much-needed time in different cities. Using the Amtrak Northeast Regional intercity train as the connector, I visited Washington, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston. This week’s Friday Urban Dispatch highlights some of the highlights from my two weeks away and how we can implement them in Phoenix…
Density, density, density! The average population density of Phoenix is 2,798 people per square mile. Of the quartet of cities I visited, Washington, D.C., had the lowest population density at 9,856 people per square mile, an almost fourfold increase over Phoenix. One certainly feels the increased density of all of the cities because there is a definite energy — a certain je ne sais quoi — in those cities. Public transportation is beyond wonderful. The sidewalks are full. People are enjoying third places in public and private spaces. (For your edification, Philadelphia’s population density is 11,379 people per square mile; Boston is 12,793; all five boroughs of New York City is 27,012; Manhattan proper is 48,201.)
Stored-value transit cards. Washington’s WMATA has SmarTrip. New York City’s MTA has the Metrocard. Boston’s MBTA has the Charlie Card. And Philadelphia’s SEPTA is working on its own system. 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.
Blending old and new. By far, Boston was the best city in which the old and the new were seamlessly blended together: one enriched the other. In lower Manhattan, skyscrapers were built around and even integrated historic buildings seamlessly and beautifully. Were this happening in Phoenix, I am sure the historic preservation community would cringe. If our definition of historic preservation is that we must retain buildings as they were when they were built, then we will not achieve the density Phoenix needs to have. By museum-ifying buildings and neighborhoods, that is a fast path to ensuring that we will not get there, these historic buildings will deteriorate, and we won’t get the urban density and quality we need to be in Phoenix to be competitive in the 21st century world economy. Preservation is important; however, we must reuse buildings in ways that celebrate history but look toward the future.
Great cities require great parks. One of the common elements of these four cities are their use and love of parks and public spaces. Among other parks, Washington has the National Mall and various squares; New York City has Central, Bryant, Brooklyn Bridge, and Prospect Parks; Boston has the Boston Common, Boston Public Garden, and Kennedy Greenway. All of these parks have public-private partnerships and conservancies that fund the parks’ operations and maintenance. We have some nice parks and preserves in Phoenix that are sometimes woefully underused. As I have commented previously, there is a hopeful future of downtown’s Hance Park: its Hance Park Conservancy is beginning to implement a wonderful new Master Plan that celebrates desert urbanism.
Grand statements. As my friend Will Bruder said once, “it takes one really good street to make a city.” To take that a step farther and to build on that philosophy, it takes one statement to show that we are who we think we should be. I am proudly serving on the City of Phoenix’s Bicycle & Pedestrian Ad Hoc Task Force and one of our first deliverables is to come up with a new Bicycle Master Plan for Phoenix. I have been reminding my colleagues on this citizens’ panel not to think linearly but to think disruptively. What interventions can we make to make a statement not only to ourselves but to the world that we take cycling seriously here? A two-way cycle track ran the length of Pennsylvania Avenue from The White House to the Capitol in Washington. New York City has closed off Broadway to automobiles in Times Square. These are grand statements and it’s time that Phoenix have some grand statements of its own. What about making Central Avenue in midtown and downtown Phoenix’s first truly complete street? Or what about making all of the canal crossings to go above or below major streets?
Toward D.C., not New York City. A lot of Phoenix advocates think that buildings should be tall just for the sake of being tall. The new Arizona Center for Law & Society building in downtown Phoenix’s University District? Too short. Roosevelt Point? Ditto. Just recently announced is a tower to go on the Central Station site that will block much-needed winter sun for the Civic Space Park. I’m a big believer in a constant and continuous density that features buildings about 6-10 stories tall, which is what is found in downtown Washington. It’s a perfect height in which the buildings and the street engage each other intimately and one is not detached from the other. While the towering skyscrapers in Manhattan are certainly engineering marvels and some are nice to see, they create a cavernous feeling and limit seeing the sky. In Washington, the sky is readily viewable and accessible. There’s also a rebellious nature on proud public display in Washington. Their official motto and rallying cry is taxation without representation, noting that while Washington residents pay Federal income taxes, they do not have voting representation in the U.S. Congress, sending a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives. While Phoenix has voting representation in Congress and in the Arizona State Legislature, the values of urban Phoenix are certainly different from what our representatives in the Arizona State Legislature are trying to force upon us.
The Friday Urban Dispatch for April 25: density, bicycles, and shade.
The Friday Urban Dispatches are a unique boots-on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening in our own backyard of downtown Phoenix.
Will it be built? News broke this week of the purchase of the soon-to-be-former Childhelp building at 2354 N Central Avenue in midtown Phoenix. While Childhelp has moved to the Phoenix Family Advocacy Center building down the block at 2120 N Central Avenue, Deco Communities is planning a $22 million five-story condominium project to replace the current building. This will be the first new-build project in midtown since the opening of light rail in 2008 and the first new project proposed since adjacent anti-density / NIMBY neighbors in historic districts killed a four-story apartment complex at 3rd Avenue and Camelback near the uptown Phoenix METRO station.
Ballpark density. Another residential project has been proposed for south of the Union Pacific railroad tracks. Marketed as the “Phoenix Ballpark Properties,” the project takes design cues from the developer’s recent portfolio of projects in Portland, Ore., and Denver. Situated on a site containing two historically significant buildings and a warehouse, the two buildings will be integrated into the site while the warehouse will be demolished. It’s a project, it’s density (yay!) and the design is relatively okay. But one does wonder if this design would pass design review in those two other cities.
Bicycle share on hold. The news came out earlier this month that due to supply chain issues, the launch of Phoenix’s “Grid Bikes” bicycle-share system is on hold until later this year. While many in the downtown community are lamenting this, I’m actually quite happy with the delay. As we are starting to march toward summer, bicycling happens with only the most die-hard individuals who have their own equipment. And this gives Phoenix more time to set up actual bicycling infrastructure in the downtown core, which is something I believed should have been done before bicycle-share was launched.
Yet another high-priced destination restaurant. I realize that I’m turning into a sort-of Mr. Cranky when it comes to the opening of restaurants downtown but while I’m sure they have good food, I wonder where the nearby density to support them is. Also, for those of us who prefer to make our own meals at home in our own kitchens (for health reasons, economic reasons, or because we like to make our own food!), where’s our walkable grocery store downtown?
Shade, shade, shade. On Facebook, I posted my three ways to make urban Phoenix more livable and more walkable, especially as we near summer. I’ll share them here: 1. Shade; 2. Shade; and 3. Shade. And no, metal shade doesn’t count…at all. We need trees that provide shade at the pedestrian and bicycling level. And while I realize palm trees are a key part of Phoenix’s history and heritage, no new palm trees should be planted in Phoenix. Existing palm trees can certainly be replaced with new palm trees as the need arises. This is something that I have continuously communicated with City leaders and in my civic advocacy but it always seems to fall on deaf ears. Sometimes the simplest interventions are the best.
For Friday April 4: Friday Urban Dispatches are a unique boots-on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening in our own backyard of downtown Phoenix.
The Friday Urban Dispatches are a unique boots-on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening in our own backyard of downtown Phoenix.
Hance…enHANCEd. Last week was the big master plan reveal for the next chapter in the life of downtown’s Hance Park. The plan delineates the park into three areas: a neighborhood park on the west, a civic plaza in the middle, and a performance hub on the east.
BIDding for Roosevelt Row. The City of Phoenix is in the process of authorizing up to $80,000 to study whether an Enhanced Municipal Services District (EMSD), otherwise known as a Business Improvement District (BID), would work in the Roosevelt Row neighborhood. The academic literature is mixed on its assessment of EMSDs but a couple trends and themes quickly emerge: 1. Property values in EMSDs do rise significantly. For real estate investors, this is good; for independent shops, can they shoulder the added expense of their lease payment? 2. EMSDs are generally instituted in areas that have significant decline in property values or civic interest. If there’s one neighborhood in central city Phoenix for which that is the exact opposite, it would be Roosevelt Row.
Budgeting for the worst. Since the last Friday Urban Dispatch, the City of Phoenix released their trial budget and their cuts-only solution to ameliorate a $38 million deficit from the books is not pretty. It closes parks and parks-related programming, slashes operational support to arts and cultural organizations, and places minimal value on the civic fabric of our community. While I do think some long-standing contracts, including employee compensation, need to be looked at, to fix this year’s budget through cuts only is not right. Was the 2% food tax phased down too early? Maybe.
A podcast of action. After Monday, The Downtown Phoenix Podcast will be 3/4 finished with its inaugural series production. What’s in store for it after the series 1 finale goes online on April 21? Even I don’t know. I have been pleased with its reception and I am sure it will be back for even greater things.
This statement was delivered on 26 March 2014 to the City of Phoenix Parks & Recreation Board to urge them to approve the new Hance Park Master Plan.
[editor’s note: This statement was delivered on 26 March 2014 to the City of Phoenix Parks & Recreation Board to urge them to approve the new Hance Park Master Plan, which they did unanimously. Please join me and the downtown Phoenix community tonight at Hance Park to see and celebrate the kickoff of the next phase of Hance Park’s life…5-8pm at Hance Park. The best way to get there is via light rail.]
Chairman Peck and Members of the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Board:
I speak before you this afternoon to talk to you about my park, Hance Park. As the Master Plan Design Team and City of Phoenix staff have indicated, it’s not every day that 32.5 acres of urban space comes up for discussion. And that is what this really is: urban space.
What the Master Plan Design Team have come up with is a truly urban design that will set the standard of excellence for urban parks. Our work, however, is not complete when you approve this plan nor is it complete when the full Phoenix City Council approves it in April. What you’re approving tonight, Mr. Chair and members of the Parks Board, is a plan of action.
To get our new Hance Park, it is contingent upon both you as the Parks and Recreation Board and us as citizens of this great city to work together in partnership. The interest is there: dozens of community meetings with packed houses have been held since the Master Plan Design Team started their work in August 2013. The interim design presentations had capacity crowds in their repsective auditoria. Estimates of attendance for [tonight’s] enHANCE event are in the thousands.
The point I am making here, Chairman Peck and members of the Parks and Recreation Board, is this: There is considerable desire that Phoenix should have a forward-thinking urban park. There is consensus that it should be Hance Park.
Some PERSPECTIVE on Hance Park from Episode 3 of “The Downtown Phoenix Podcast”
[editorial note: This is the text of the PERSPECTIVE essay for Episode 3 of my media project, The Downtown Phoenix Podcast. A new feature on the Podcast, the PERSPECTIVE essay is a miniature essay in which I establish context and, well, perspective, on the contents of that show.]
There have been a lot of stories flying around about what the enHANCE Park celebration is on the 27th of March from 5-8pm at downtown Phoenix’s Hance Park.
As we see it, the celebration isn’t about the completion of a process. Were it that, this plan would end up as yet another plan sitting on a shelf at Phoenix City Hall.
This celebration is a kick-off for the multi-generation project that is the rebirth of Hance Park as a truly urban park in the emerging urban community of Phoenix. While we’re generally loathe to use phrases like “watershed moment” or “turning-point” in our conversation, this kick-off event has the potential to be one of those events.
Dozens of community meetings with packed houses have been held since the Master Plan Design Team started their work in September 2013. The interim design presentations have had capacity crowds at their respective auditoria. Estimates of attendance for the 27 March enHANCE event are in the thousands. The point I’m making here is this: There is a considerable desire that Phoenix should have a forward-thinking urban park. There is consensus that it should be Hance Park.
It’s up to us to get that park built and to get the density built around the park.
The Downtown Phoenix Podcast is a new media project in and for downtown Phoenix that champions serious conversation to bring positive action to our communities and neighborhoods. To learn more and to subscribe to the Podcast, visit downtownphoenixpodcast.com.