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.

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.