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Downtown Phoenix, once an afterthought, now a residential hotspot

Artists and astute planning turned a blank slate of empty blocks into a boomtown

Aerial view of downtown Phoenix, featuring Her Secret is Patience, an elevated sculpture by Janet Echelman
| Jonathan Ammon

When Quinn Whissen, who grew up in Phoenix, thinks about her experiences with the city’s downtown as a child, one thing she recalls is leaving. While the Sun Belt city has been booming for decades, its downtown has, for much of that time, been known as a bland collection of office buildings and stadiums, ringed by vacant lots leftover from a failed ‘70s urban renewal scheme. It was a place to escape as soon as possible; the city even devised the Sunburst Traffic plan to facilitate a quick way home for suburbanites attending shows and events downtown.

“I think Jane Jacobs would think it was a shitshow,” says Whissen, discussing the traditional layout of downtown Phoenix, beyond a core of office buildings and commercial activity. “There were literal craters of vacant land downtown, and acres and acres of torn-down buildings. It was a struggle.”

When Whissen returned to Phoenix in 2011, after working in Los Angeles, she noticed things had changed. A lot. In a conservative state known for hyper-charged suburban sprawl—during the late 20th century, developers were converting empty land at the rate of an acre an hour—Whissen found dense urban development finally taking root. Light rail stops criss-crossed downtown, energetic bars and restaurants drew people onto the sidewalks, an arts district was thriving, and downtown campuses brought students to an area dominated by office workers and government bureaucrats.

“It really changed, and made me want to stay,” she says. “It’s totally different now.”

Roosevelt Row's annual Chile Pepper Festival
Roosevelt Row's annual Chile Pepper Festival activates a vacant lot at 5th Street and Roosevelt as new infill house construction rises in the background.
Photo by Andrew Pielage. Photograph courtesy of Roosevelt Row CDC.

So different, in fact, that Whissen now helps runs an organization she co-founded called This Could Be Phoenix, an urban advocacy group that speaks to the new attitude Arizonans and others have about the booming downtown of the country’s sixth largest city. Thanks to the traditional perception of the city as miserably hot and horizontal, sprawl slowly seeping across the Valley of the Sun, many haven’t noticed the creative energy being generated downtown.

But developers, who are rapidly building new residential buildings, and city officials, who are pushing for more downtown growth, see a chance to redefine the city’s reputation.

“We’re starting from a blank slate here,” says Jeff Moloznik, VP of Development with RED Development, a firm behind a number of recent downtown developments. “There’s absolutely nothing here. The idea that you can take over and build in an empty lot that’s within the original boundaries of downtown Phoenix: that’s unimaginable in other cities.”

Murals in downtown Phoenix
Two murals commissioned by Pravus Gallery, both by El Mac and Augustine Kofie.
Photos by Greg Esser.

The traditionally defined downtown of Phoenix—between 7th Street and 7th Avenue on the east and west, and McDowell and Grant Street on the north and south—is comparable in size to those in other cities, roughly 1.9 square miles. Traditionally, these blocks have lacked full-time residents, and like similar districts in other sprawling American cities, turn into a ghost town at night. That’s changed dramatically over the last few years, as the city has made a radical shift towards urban infill and walkable development, and will rapidly change again over the next 24 months, with 3,000 new units under construction or about to open early next year (thousands more are in the pipeline through 2018). According to a late 2015 study by Phoenix-based ABI Multifamily, average rent in the area jumped nearly 50 percent over the past five years to $1,357, with rental rates hitting $2 a square foot, unheard of in other parts of the city.

“Phoenix is like so many other aging city centers in the United States,” says Moloznik. “They have strong demographic potential, but they’ve been neglected, or designed and built in a way that consumers don’t interact with anymore. Consumers want to engage in real urban life, and we think there’s a huge opportunity here.”

To understand how downtown Phoenix has turned around so quickly, it’s important to understand why it became so barren compared to other downtowns, why a once walkable city changed course. While an average Phoenix summer suggests melting into the asphalt, due to painfully long stretches of 100-plus degree days, the city was actually once known as the “city of gardens,” due to the rows of shade trees and irrigation channels.

A map of Phoenix circa 1885
A map of Phoenix, circa 1885
Library of Congress
Palm Avenue, Phoenix in 1908
How to design for the desert: Palm Avenue, Phoenix in 1908
Library of Congress

But, starting in the post-war era, cheap land and air conditioning fueled a building boom that worked in direct opposition to the environment, sprawling across nearby communities and creating a car friendly model of suburban growth. Professor Andrew Ross, in his famous book on Phoenix, Bird on Fire, famously called Phoenix the “least sustainable city.” Many urbanists felt that planners, who never really left their cars, didn’t appreciate the need for more walkable streets and pedestrian infrastructure.

That led to a cookie cutter approach that Greg Esser, an artist who moved to the city in 1996 to run the city’s arts program, said creates an endless grid of suburban-style building.

“There are corners of Phoenix that look disorienting to me, since they all look similar,” he says. “Each has a check cashing place, fast food restaurant, gas station, and a little retail strip. You see through miles and miles of this in every direction. It’s disconcerting to me.

Map of Downtown Phoenix

Starting in the late ‘90s, things began to change in downtown, thanks to intentional moves by the city, and a burgeoning creative community. Esser found the city, and its arts scene, wasn’t as close-knit as the one he had left in Denver. In response, he helped found Eye Lounge, a collective gallery and art space on 5th and Roosevelt. Located amid vacant lots just outside the core of downtown high-rises, the space became a locus of the arts community, and over time, would help catalyze the growth of a neighborhood called Roosevelt Row. Eventually, it spawned the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation, which supports the establishment of artist-owned and -run spaces, all of which started attracting restaurants, shops, and other developments. Eventually, this example of artist-led redevelopment and retail demand, now recognized nationally for revitalizing the area, helped drive the need for more rooftops.

“Giving the creative community ownership can play a positive role in building up parts of the city,” says Esser. “Now Third and Roosevelt is one of the most densely populated intersections in Phoenix, with a tremendous increase in foot traffic.”

Way-finding signage for small locally-owned businesses in Roosevelt Row
Artists Roy Wasson Valle and Neil Borowicz created way-finding signage for small locally-owned businesses in Roosevelt Row. A collaborative mural by Lalo Cota and Breeze is visible on Carlys Bistro.
Photo by Greg Esser

At the same time Roosevelt Row was becoming a destination, the city began enacting a series of long-term transportation and development plans that became catalysts for the current downtown land rush, building up an urban framework, brick by brick. Valley Metro Light Rail was introduced in 2005, bringing accessible mass transit (it now exceeds ridership expectation by 40 percent). A tree and shade masterplan, aiming to cover 30 percent of the city with shade, sought to improve walkability, while a new downtown building code introduced in 2010 steered developers toward high-rise construction. City and state support for the downtown ASU campus, home to 15,000 students, which opened in 2006, and Phoenix Biomedical Campus, which opens next year, added an energetic population of students and educated professionals looking for a downtown home post-graduation. Dan Klocke, Executive Director of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, says all these moves that laid the groundwork over the last 25 years suddenly bore fruit over the last five years.

According to the city’s director of Planning & Development, Alan Stephenson, Phoenix needed to step up to attract a younger generation.

“The economy is pushing western cities to develop light rail, multiple transit options, urban infill and denser downtowns,” he says. “It’s where millennials want to be.”

CityScape Phoenix
CityScape Phoenix
RED Development

With these seeds planted, the downtown has suddenly come into its own. Suburbanites across the valley are “starting to feel like they live near a great urban city,” according to Tim Eigo, an attorney who runs the Downtown Voices Coalition, an advocacy group which promotes sustainable urban development. While culture has become more concentrated, the relatively recent boom of residential and non-office development, such as Skyline Lofts, Roosevelt Point, and the STARKJAMES container homes, means it lacks a definitive visual and architectural character.

“There’s a growing feeling that the city has a voice,” he says, “But, we really feel like development should accompany that. I see developers come in from out of town who have great projects, and do great things in other cities. We want them to do their best work here.”

With more and more projects breaking ground, it seems logical that developers would begin bringing their A game. Eigo says mid-rise projects are sprouting up around the downtown core. Molozniak agrees growth will only continue. When his company developed CityScape, a mixed use hotel/commercial/residential project, in 2006, it was considered a bit risky. Now, downtown is filled with creative mixed-use projects, and RED is finishing up a new development called Block 23 with retail and a Fry’s Grocery store, the first in the area.

“In the next ten years, it’s going to become a much more crowded, dense city,” he says. “Most people don’t grasp how affordable and livable it really is.”

Clearly a big Phoenix booster, Whissen agrees the city is full of potential. She wants to make sure this momentum goes toward sustainable development of pedestrian infrastructure, as well as a focus of more integrated and imaginative projects (“We’re getting a lot of shitty projects from out of town developers who think this is a gold mine of real estate, and can come and do whatever they want.”). Phoenix is a desert city, yet development of the streetscape suggests modern Phoenicians are just starting to really design around those environmental constraints.

As the cranes strung across the skyline suggest, downtown Phoenix is coming into its own. While the development of a true 24-hour downtown gets near universal praise—having literally thousands of new residents downtown is a success story—many caution that the city’s traditional, developer-friendly culture may push out some of the elements that helped start this boom. In and around Roosevelt Row, Esser is seeing some of the pioneers being pushed out due to rising rents, and others point to the need for more middle-income housing amid the new high-end apartment boom. The bigger, long term challenge is getting young people, artists, and others more engaged in the community and cultural ecology of downtown Phoenix. He feels there’s still room for improvement.

“This is so different than developments in other cities,” he says. “In Denver, the building boom happened among existing communities. Here, it’s literally rising from the ashes, to use the Phoenix metaphor, creating new communities where there wasn’t one before.”

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