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Phoenix a tear-down city

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Rogue Columnist

Phoenix a tear-down city

  • Alan Stark/Flickr

It's an outrage that two of the very few remaining buildings of the Deuce, the Madison and St. James hotels, are being torn down to make a surface parking lot. Phoenix sure doesn't have enough surface parking lots. Apparently a "compromise" with the Phoenix Suns, which owns the property downtown, will "preserve" a fragment of one building. That's almost more pathetic and insulting than blading the whole thing. These commercial buildings from the early 20th century only make sense as part of a whole, i.e. a walkable block of these human-scaled, useful and historic structures, a "smile full of teeth," as it were, right up to the sidewalk. In isolation, they lose these winning features. A few pieces of rubble in a surface parking that a joke?

Team owner Robert Sarver must be sitting in his San Diego palace savoring getting some of his own back, after not being able to demolish the Sun Mercantile to build a W Hotel. According to my sources, Sarver was presented with a stunning architectural option that would have twirled the hotel tower well above the roof of the historic structure. He shot it down in favor of something more conventional and dull and destructive. Which never happened anyway. It's amazing the Sun Mercantile survives, and a credit to preservationists. Does anyone think Sarver, had be owned the Suns at the time, would have pushed for a downtown arena as Jerry Colangelo did? Just as I'm sure Ken Kendrick and pals wish Chase Field was on the rez near north Scottsdale. Seattle's looking for an NBA team. Don't assume anything with "stewards" like this.

I realize this post is coming very soon after a meditation, sparked by the fight over the Wright house, on all that Phoenix has lost. And yet the losses just keep coming. A century-old store in Higley was no match for the sacred widening of the holy wide "streets" which are the width of major highways. But the downtown calamity especially stands out.

Asking for City Hall's help now is problematic. The super-duper "takings" initiative passed a few years ago would allow the property owners or the "Goldwater" Institute to sue if any hippy-dippy historic preservation were attempted top-down. The time for wiser public policy was from the 1960s through the 1990s, when Phoenix abandoned its downtown, saw no use for these intact blocks of buildings and finally embarked on massive tear-downs to — I am not making this up — "clean up blight." Policies did nothing to dissuade owners from tearing down perfectly usable buildings. Kimber Lanning tells a story of how she came in one day to find her Modified Arts building damaged because the owner next door had decided to level his building without warning her. Suburban codes actively discouraged renovation, reuse and multiple use of historic buildings.

Property owners who cared would help — we see this with the remains of Roosevelt Row (which was once an unbroken row of storefronts containing useful businesses), saved by a few Resistance fighters. But the absentee owners, land bankers and endless speculative plays leave few owners with real means who actually care about the city.

Lack of headquarters companies and private-sector investment is a huge liability here. Wells Fargo could have put its operations center on the abundant empty land of the center city — but it went to Chandler. We're supposed to thank these schmucks at the banks for keeping a few hundred (if that) jobs downtown, where they should have thousands there? But that's what happens when you're a back-office town. Not only that, but one with endless spec office development drawing tenants farther out, no matter how inefficient or destructive.

Lack of real stewards also makes a massive difference. In Seattle, homeboy Paul Allen has spent huge sums on the center city, including the redevelopment of South Lake Union. Among its tenants is the new and growing headquarters of Allen saved and did a beautiful restoration of Union Station, as well as Cinerama. Bill Gates put the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the core. It's not just Seattle. Downtown Omaha has been remade by Warren Buffett. Phoenix lacks such stewards. No wonder some rich dude put a musical-instrument museum on private land (away from those people) in Desert Ridge instead of near the Phoenix Art Museum and Heard Museum in the city's heart. That's not a steward. That's a clueless dilettante.

Five Arizonans made the Forbes 400 richest Americans: Artie Moreno, Peter Sperling of the University of Phoenix fortune, Bob Parsons of Go Daddy, real-estate developer and Campbell Soup heir Bennett Dorrance and Discount Tire's Bruce Halle. These are billionaires. But they have no particular affinity for Phoenix proper and downtown especially. Why the hell is the "University" of Phoenix corporate slab sitting on the south side of the Salt River off the ugly Maricopa Freeway? Because the Sperlings have no pride in, or passion for, the city whose magical name they hijacked.

For a place so dominated by construction and real estate, Phoenix suffers from an astounding lack of creativity and innovation in these fields. Michael Levine is a heroic exception, but a city this size needs dozens more and well capitalized. It suffers from the lack of a diverse business community and longstanding community connections, including to downtown. Thus, the Westward Ho, which hosted presidents, barely averted the wrecking ball. It should be like the Brown Palace in Denver or Netherland Plaza in Cincinnati — iconic, treasured, restored to grandeur. Hasn't happened.

The preservationists and Resistance fighters have soul and passion, but they lack the essential tools of money and power. Thus, we get a downtown that is, sure, better than it was in 1980, but far below what it should be for a city of this size. Young, talented and educated people gravitate to cities with real downtowns. These include the very kinds of buildings, with their variety, scale, style and architecture, that were torn down with such zeal. A real downtown is Phoenix's trump card against suburbia; without it, Scottsdale always wins. It's stunning and heartbreaking to imagine what bad been. Now, slow progress happens but the world is not moving slowly.

One saving grace comes from Michael Crow, who has made ASU a major force downtown. Thus, the land-banker holding the property at Third Street and Roosevelt found a way to pry it from his cold, dead fingers for the actual productive use of student apartments.

Elsewhere downtown, a few historic buildings have been saved, but virtually none are being used by the private sector, unlike the case in more vibrant cities. And, unlike more successful cities, the losses are usually not made up with splendid new buildings. CityScape? It looks like minor project out on a Dallas or Atlanta beltway.

My point is this is not all native nostalgia pity party. The losses and failure to build represent policy and civic failures that resonate beyond downtown. Until they are addressed, Phoenix will continue to underperform against its peers, continue to miss opportunities. And the loss of physical history is an insidious force, a civic carcinogen.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.

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