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.

Another Day, Another Strikeout

News broke of a local company moving their HQ to farther-north Phoenix. This does not bode well for downtown Phoenix at all.

render_citynorth54thstThe news broke earlier this week that Phoenix-based Sprouts Farmers Market had signed a deal to move their corporate headquarters from near Paradise Valley Mall to the farther-removed and failed CityNorth development near Loop 101 and 56 Street. The new offices will include a Sprouts market. What’s ironic in the article is this quote from Sprouts CEO Doug Sanders: “It also will better reflect the Sprouts brand and our commitment to sustainability.” Yes, because having all of your HQ employees continue to drive to their jobs really is sustainable.

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.