Before getting to the preliminary plan for the remake of the deck park, I want to linger over the most important recent story you may not have read.
According to the Phoenix Business Journal, the Department of Justice has sued Barron Collier Co. over $66.5 million the government claims it is owed for parcels the giant land owner and developer has along Central Avenue north of Indian School Road.
You should read the story and try to make sense of it, but this gets at one of the most curious and outrageous events: Breaking up the old Phoenix Indian School and conveying the most attractive parcels of this public property to a private entity for private gain.
And make no mistake, there has been gain. Despite the company leaving the land a barren waste and claiming it is "not economically viable" to pay its obligations to the feds, this property has no doubt been quietly adding paper value like all the banked land in Midtown Phoenix.
I was stunned to read this story about the future of the historic Barrister Place in downtown Phoenix. The 1915 Hotel Jefferson, now city-owned, is one of the few remaining of what were once scores of beautiful old structures downtown.
The Republic's Dustin Gardiner writes, "The hotel, which featured 150 rooms, was decked out in mahogany, marble and expensive colonial furniture. It featured a coffee shop, a cigar stand, private suites and a rooftop garden with palm trees and a fountain."
As an EMT-Paramedic, I saw it in harder times, when it was an SRO which frequently required visits from emergency responders. Amid the human tragedy and shabbiness, it still retained good bones. Unfortunately the interior was later gutted. Now the city is looking for a buyer.
Here's what stunned me: "Councilman Jim Waring...questioned whether the city could get more money for the lot, in the heart of downtown Phoenix, if a buyer could demolish the building and start from scratch."
Fortunately, he didn't prevail. But behold what your city council risks becoming, Phoenix.
So many myths, so little time or brain cells. I suppose that is why malign falsehoods carry us forward. The latest was a story I read where a UofA professor is having a loud growthgasm over Arizona's spectacular income growth and how 2014 will be even better.
I don't mean to be unfair or pick on people, but when these ideas enter the public square through the most powerful media outlets they reinforce the "everything's fine" lie that keeps Arizona backward.
To be sure, "staying positive" on the party line is a good way to keep one's job. I am proof of what happens to dissidents.
About income: Unless something radical has changed, Arizona is an underperformer and will remain so. The snapshots of "growth" are statistical noise caused by the large population churn. A certain right-wing columnist has ridden this for years to say, in essence, "Arizona does not suck, Talton!" — even though reality is quite different.
Considering the divisions within Phoenix City Council, it is significant that light rail to south Phoenix passed this week by 8-to-1. The five-mile route would mostly be along Central to Baseline Road.
For newcomers to this blog, WBIYB is shorthand for "We Built It, You Bastards." It is my response to the thugs, trolls and hysteriacs that opposed light rail in Phoenix. We built it, the world didn't come to an end, and it is a great success. Light rail is the most hopeful achievement so far for Phoenix to have a quality future.
Now light rail connects to the Sky Train at Sky Harbor. New lines are moving ahead, deeper into Mesa, extensions north and west, and now to south Phoenix. We Will Built It, You Bastards.
Here's an important adjustment that's needed: Run the new line over to Third Avenue and south to Lincoln and then back to First Avenue/Central. That way it can connect with future commuter trains and Phoenix-Tucson rail passenger service that should use a restored Union Station as their hub. It won't cost much more and the benefit will be exponential.
We Will Build It, You Bastards. But the time line is too long — up to a decade. And with Republican austerity ruling in D.C., one hopes the essential federal money will be available. God knows, we subsidize roads and freeways way too much, with enormous damage to the environment. Phoenix should fast-track this.
In and near downtown Phoenix, three developments are worth examining.
• Renderings have been made public of the proposed Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law building for the downtown ASU campus (above and below). Someone told me it requires "seven variances" in the city code. And this code has given us a lovely cityscape? For god's sake build it, before somebody — ASU, the regents — changes his mind.
Would I have preferred a Mission-revival or other human-scale style to get away from the deadening modernism that makes downtown less interesting? Sure. Has the design been improved from its original rollout in response to community feedback. Yes, to some extent. But the perfect shouldn't be the enemy of the good. And bringing the law school downtown will be a substantial coup. Now people need to demand that the block have real shade trees (and grass!), not palo verde skeletons and gravel.
The building would go on the block between First Street and Second Street, Taylor and Polk, the site of the old Ramada Inn (Sahara). There is still bad blood with preservationists that ASU demolished this mid-century building rather than opting for reuse.
• Then we face the question of what is "good enough" or a good start. Many have been wondering how the city would use land it bought in and near the Evans-Churchill neighborhood just north of downtown since most of it was assembled for the abortive Cardinals stadium.
Now we have an indication, and it is disappointing to risk understatement.
This was also the city's most sweeping era of change. It saw the emergence of many of the trends that later turned malevolent or toxic. Below the gleam of Eisenhower peace and prosperity, much of the town was troubled.
To begin, however, it is easy to see why these years are remembered with fondness, and not merely with lazy nostalgia.
The fifties were the last decade when much of the city's life revolved around such sweet, small-town reveries as the Masque of the Yellow Moon, held annually at Phoenix Union High School's giant Montgomery Stadium. Although the Jaycees Rodeo of Rodeos would soldier on into the 1990s, it reached its pinnacle then, too. School let out for the rodeo parade day. Phoenix was not far removed from its roots of planting and cowboying.
[UPDATE: As of 9:30 p.m. MST Tuesday, Pastor held a 498 vote lead over Johnson and counting may continue until Friday]
The race for Phoenix City Council District 4 might seem like small ball for this blog, but it tells us much about where Phoenix stands and where it is going.
One candidate is Laura Pastor, daughter of Rep. Ed Pastor, without whose efforts we would not have a popular light-rail system (WBIYB*). The other is Justin Johnson, son of former Mayor Paul Johnson. (Another race pits Kate Widland Gallego against the Rev. Warren Stewart, but for simplicity's sake, I will focus on District 4).
The contest has been distinguished by mudslinging, with Pastor, for example, being compared with Paris Hilton — and a remarkable lack of substance.
If you think "everything's fine" or that Phoenix has no troubles that aren't common to other cities, this is not your post. Spoiler alert: Everything is not fine.
We discuss problems and challenges, as well as intelligent responses, frequently in this space. A previous column sought to debunk the excuses, myths and lies about the place. But reading the comments on the most recent post made me wonder: Is Phoenix uniquely troubled? If so, how and why?
Sprawl doesn't explain it. What Kunstler calls "cartoon architecture" has befouled the nation from sea to sea. Good civic design was lost everywhere. The best cities in the country are surrounded by soul-killing suburbs, office "parks," malls, shopping strips, parking lagoons and laced up with freeways.
Car culture, per se, isn't the answer, either. Oklahoma City ranks lowest in non-vehicle commuting, yet the entire metro has long backed a levy that has impressively rebuilt downtown. Freeway-mad Dallas also boasts the nation's largest light-rail system.
It's nice to read that the city of Phoenix is spending $560,000 on a facelift for First Street, including "street improvements, decorative sidewalks, new trees and pedestrian-friendly upgrades."
Unfortunately, my first reaction is that City Hall is about 50 years too late.
Into the 1960s, First Street, like much of downtown, was a thriving commercial avenue. Essential to this was affordable space for shops and a streetscape that meant every few feet you landed at the door to another business.
Let me give you an example. In 1956, between Washington and Monroe streets, two blocks, First was home to Russell Stover Candies, David's Shoes, Goldwater's, Hanny's, Dorris Hayman, Montgomery Ward, Porter Mercantile, Barney's Garage, Cole Home Supply, Morris Athletic Supply, Richards Dean Jewelery, Tony's Shoe Shop, The Normandie Hotel, Thompson's Indian Shop and Phoenix Stamp and Coin. All in two blocks.
That delightful commercial density was killed by "improvements" since then: Brutalist parking structures, hulking hotels that open onto other streets, teardowns and the Valley Center (Chase Tower) skyscraper. These destroyed literally scores of human-scale buildings and helped run retail out of downtown.
Alone among the cities of the American Southwest, Phoenix is the oasis. It has always been so, but whether it remains an oasis city is starting to come into doubt. A common narrative is that Phoenix attracted Midwesterners who wanted to recreate the landscape from which they came. This is untrue. In fact, the early Anglo residents were mostly Southerners. And the oasis predates American settlement. The archeology of the region is in flux, but it appears that "plant husbandry" was being performed by prehistoric tribes as early as 3,000 or 1,500 B.C. (or BCE if you are trapped in the politically correct precincts of academia). By the first millennium A.D., the most advanced irrigation in the New World was being perfected by the Hohokam. The Salt River Valley was an ideal location, with rich alluvial soil that would grow anything — just add water. The altitude and weather in the modern climate era allow for two or more growing seasons depending on the crop. Maize was imported from Mesoamerica. Cottonwoods, willows and other native shade trees grew along the riverbank and its subsidiary creeks. I have no doubt that Hohokam dwellings were well-shaded. The new settlers merely took it to a higher level.
The photo above captures the oasis city at its zenith, in the 1960s. Note the inviting public space provided by shade and grass surrounding an inspiring art deco building. This was the Phoenix I grew up in. At 10,000 feet, you would have seen a green city surrounded by bands of citrus groves, farm fields and horse pastures. And then: The majestic, largely untrammeled Sonoran Desert. What a place to live. The older neighborhoods were graced by mature trees and parking lawns, a grassy area between the curb and sidewalk. Encanto Park was an oasis within an oasis. Central, as you see below, was lined with palm trees. North of Camelback were shady acreages, often along streets with an abundant shade canopy, set back behind irrigation "laterals." My great aunt lived in one: It was a wonder of shade and tranquility behind oleander hedges on Seventh Avenue. Well into her eighties, this daughter of the frontier would walk out every Sunday evening to turn the valve and "take her water," the flood irrigation from the Salt River Project.
In our neighborhood, what is now Willo, few families had pools but most put in winter lawns to give the sweet season its magical green. Even driveways had grass between two narrow concrete strips. This was not the Midwest. It wasn't LA, although the parking lawns were imported from there. Instead, Phoenix created its own unique urban aesthetic. It wasn't planned. This Eden just happened. If you missed it, you have my deepest sympathy. Many areas of oasis beauty remain. If you want a sense of the practical benefit, drive south from Osborn on Fifteenth Avenue some summer evening with the windows down. When you cross Thomas into Encanto Park, the temperature will drop by ten degrees or more.
Midtown Phoenix runs from Fillmore Street north to Indian School and from Seventh Avenue to Seventh Street. It's a big, diverse district that contains some of the city's finest assets: The Roosevelt, Willo and Alvarado historic districts; central library, Phoenix Art Museum and Heard Museum; the deck park and the boundary with Steele Indian School Park; a dozen skyscrapers, and the spine of the Metro light rail. And much of it is in trouble.
The Phoenix Corporate Center is facing foreclosure after its anchor tenant, Fennemore Craig, left for new space at 24th Street and Camelback. It was originally the Mayer Central Plaza, then the First Federal Savings Building, the tallest in the city when it opened in the early 1960s and featuring an outside elevator. The Midtown office vacancy rate at the end of last year was 28 percent vs. downtown's 15 percent. Most of the towers are now considered less-desirable B-class and C-class office space. Like much of the Central Corridor, it also suffers from large blighted empty lots, such as the northwest corner of McDowell and Central and the east side of Central north of the punch card building and south of McDonald's. Only the mile between McDowell and Thomas is filled in, and shows it as an appealing urban space. What should be a prime location, the northwest corner of Central and Thomas, is a billboard behind which the homeless camp (much like the astoundingly empty space on the southwest corner of Central and Camelback).
This is not just another story of the ongoing linear slum-ization of the nation's sixth-largest city. For one thing, it's happening in the heart of the city. Second, it is the prime example of the failure of light rail transit-oriented development. Finally, it shows how City Hall is not paying attention to jobs and private investment, both of which are moving to the suburbs.
The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his clients to plant vines. — Frank Lloyd Wright
The most depressing part of Star Trek Into Darkness is not the many liberties that the filmmaker takes with some of the foundational conceits and tropes of the franchise. Only trekkers will notice (for example, a starship is not built to enter a planet's atmosphere, much less hide in the ocean, etc. etc.). No, what really bummed me out was the architecture. I mean, this is the 23rd century and we're stuck with taller versions of the insipid buildings of today? At least Blade Runner has some variety and gigantic Japanese-style electronic billboards in its vision of the future. We've got interstellar travel, transporters, phasers — and civilization is stuck with the progeny of John Portman, David Childs and Cesar Pelli. And that's if we're lucky. No art deco revival? No reinterpretations of the Chicago school? Gah! If this is the future, no wonder they want to leave the planet.
That's just movie fantasy. In the real world, there's no shortage of lists of the world's ugliest buildings (see here and here), along with Jim Kunstler's cringeworthy-but-must-see Eyesore of the Month. And to be sure, I'm treading into matters of taste, where many valid viewpoints must be considered. Still, architecture matters a great deal. It is the most important physical testimony about a civilization and its trajectory. It constitutes the built environment that at its best informs, inspires or defines so much of our lives. At its worst, it is, as Kunstler says, a landscape not worth caring about. And unfortunately a stupendous amount of our total buildings have been put up in recent decades, with most exercises in copycat banality or starchitect sculptures with little to offer humans or the surrounding streetscape.
Catching up from my recent visit "back home..."
• Many people asked me why Gov. Jan Brewer was backing a Medicaid expansion in apparent defiance of GOP orthodoxy. Has she finally shown a conscience? No. The major calculus is that what remains of the business leadership in Arizona leaned on her to accept the Obamacare/Romneycare deal, where the feds will pay for most of the expansion anyway. The biggest employers in Arizona provide no or minimal health-care coverage, so they offload (socialize) those costs to the public through AHCCCS. Among the big employers are health companies that profit from the system, and would make even more under an expansion.
Most of the New Confederacy is not participating, a calculated move to sabotage the Affordable Care Act. So why is Brewer different? My suspicion is the composition of the economy. The other populous, urbanized states have plenty of corporate headquarters and well-paid jobs (and in the case of Texas, oil and big government spending). So it's easy to say, "devil take the hindmost." In Arizona, the hindmost is the economy — Wal-Mart is the largest employer. That and health care. Of course, Brewer might simply be playing a game, knowing the Legislature will prevent Arizona's participation. But I think she's sincere. If she goes "Full Kook," the business interests might do an Ev Mecham on her.
I received a query from a group called Democracy for America-Maricopa County asking me to suggest questions for Phoenix City Council candidates. I always try to be obliging, and this issue is of special importance.
It seems as if Council has lost its consensus and focus, virtues that were essential to the progress made with T-Gen, ASU's downtown campus, the Phoenix Convention Center and light rail (WBIYB). Nothing could be worse for the city than a right-wing takeover or blocking minority on Council. And members who think civic greatness is filling potholes and collecting trash ("listening to the neighborhoods) are not much better. Phoenix is at a critical tipping point. Here are the questions I suggested:
1. Please detail your connections to the real-estate industry: Properties you own; do you work in the industry and if so, doing what?; have you served on boards that make recommendations on land use?; have you profited from land-use decisions made by public bodies, including the approval and siting of freeways?
I'm in Phoenix this week for my new novel, The Night Detectives (you can find a schedule of signings on my author Web site). One remarkable thing is how the conversations I have with friends never really change much when it comes to the topic of Phoenix and Arizona. Searching for something new...an effort is under way to produce a "new master plan" for Margaret Hance Park.
The site irritates me at the outset by claiming Hance Park is located "in the heart of down downtown Phoenix," whatever that means. It is in Midtown, a deck sitting atop the Papago Freeway from Third Street to Third Avenue. All together now: Downtown runs from the railroad tracks to Fillmore and from Seventh Avenue to Seventh Street. One could be very liberal and extend it to Roosevelt — no farther. You outlanders would be offended if I said the Loop in Chicago extended to Winnetka; you don't get to rewrite the geography of my hometown.
In any event, the deck park was the compromise when Interstate 10 was rammed through the heart of Phoenix, resulting in the demolition of 3,000 houses, many of them irreplaceable historic homes, as well as the shady Moreland Parkway. Originally, the Wilbur Smith plan called for the freeway to soar 100 feet over Central Avenue and traffic to exit by "helicoils" winding down to Third Avenue and Third Street. So things could have been much worse
Let's take a random walk through the "news from home." Much rejoicing must have come to the Real Estate Industrial Complex from the recent BusinessWeek story headlined, "A Phoenix housing boom forms in hint of U.S. recovery." Maybe it's even real and Homey was wrong when he predicted that the old growth machine — with championship golf! — isn't coming back. If so, a new housing boom would be the worst possible event in the long run. Any chance to learn the lessons of the crash will be lost, along with the opportunity to reset for a more sustainable future.
I suspect the bluster of a "boom" cloaks a recovery from a very deep bottom, so naturally the percentage gains will look impressive. In addition, we don't have the research to indicate the subdivisions that are being abandoned to "investors" — or just abandoned — as qualified buyers snap up the new stuff from the likes of Pulte. Population has increased, but not at the rates of the 1990s and 2000s. Also, the labor force for the metropolitan area is only slightly larger than it was in 2006, hardly the spectacular growth seen in the previous decades.
Some macro realities will not go away: most Americans are much poorer after the recession; wages are stagnant and have been falling on average for years; unemployment remains high and many may never find work again; "consumers" are still carrying more debt than historic norms; changing tastes and demographics, with talented young people and many boomers preferring real cities, not Sun City; Phoenix still has a low-wage economy. All these factors will be headwinds against the triumphal return of the Growth Machine.
Central and Van Buren in 1972.
Part I and Part II of "What Killed Downtown Phoenix" were the most popular posts in the history of Rogue Columnist. So much for the notion that Phoenicians don't care about the center city. Now it's time to bring the story to a conclusion.
By the mid-1970s, downtown was in a freefall, despite the construction of the Phoenix Civic Plaza, Hyatt Regency, new Hotel Adams, new Greyhound bus depot and skyscrapers housing the headquarters of the state's three big banks. Unfortunately, in the process many historic buildings were demolished, including a priceless red sandstone multi-story building at Second Avenue and Washington. Block-long parking garages and assembly of superblocks created long, empty spaces along sidewalks where once there were dozens of shops. Several valuable territorial-era structures were demolished to create the desolate, sunblasted Patriots Square (workers discovered an "underground city" from frontier Phoenix that had housed opium dens and gambling parlors, protected from the heat in an era before air conditioning). These and others lost were precisely the kind of buildings rehabbed in downtown Denver into Larimer Square.One of the greatest calamities was the demolition of the Fox Theater, the finest movie palace downtown. This happened without a peep of protest. On the land, the city built a "transit center," which was little more than a Maryvale-style ranch house "station" and parking stalls for city buses. The Paramount somehow survived, running Spanish-language films. Another calamity was the Westward Ho, which closed as a hotel and only avoided the wrecking ball by being turned into Section 8 housing. The smaller San Carlos, thankfully, was saved as a historic hotel.
Downtown was still busy in the late 1950s, at Third Street and Washington. Even though this was part of the Deuce, note the variety of businesses and pedestrians.
In the previous post, we left downtown Phoenix in 1940 as the vibrant business and commercial center of a small, relatively dense city, surrounded by pleasant neighborhoods, served by streetcars, and dependent on agriculture. World War II brought massive changes to the Salt River Valley. Thousands of troops were trained here. Phoenix was still a frontier town, wide open to gambling and prostitution, and governed by a shady city commission. At one point, base commanders declared the city off limits to troops. This began a reform movement that eventually led to a council-manager form of government and the decades of "businessmen's government" from the Charter movement.
The Battle of Britain and the threat of strategic bombing made a deep impression on American war planners. So in addition to wanting to move plants away from the vulnerable coasts, they also widely dispersed new war industries and Army Air Forces bases around the valley. One example was the Reynolds Aluminum extrusion plant built at 35th Avenue and Van Buren, far from the city center. Dispersal brought the first Motorola facility, but not to the central business district. This set in place a habit of decentralization that continued after the war when city fathers set out to bring new "clean industries" to the city. They failed to land a Glenn Martin Co. guided missile venture for the vacant Goodyear plant in its namesake town. But Goodyear returned in 1950, eventually building airframe components there. Garrett's AiResearch, which also had a plant outside the city during the war, returned after a vigorous Chamber of Commerce effort, to a site near Sky Harbor. No thought appears to have been given to locating the city's new industries near the core.
After the war, America embarked on a massive economic expansion and migration, both benefiting Phoenix. Demand had been pent up from both the Depression and wartime rationing. By 1950, Phoenix entered the list of the 100 most populous cities, at No. 99, with 106,818 in 17 square miles. Many servicemen who had trained here fell in love with the place and moved back as civilians. Air-conditioning became widely available and was installed in every house built in far-flung subdivisions. Downtown was still the state's unrivaled retail and business hub. But by the end of the decade, it had begun a decline that was not unstoppable — but few tried to prevent it or even knew how.
Downtown Phoenix in the 1930s, a view facing south.
When you see downtown Phoenix today, be kind. No other major city suffered the combination of bad luck, poor timing, lack of planning, vision and moneyed stewards, as well as outright civic vandalism. The only thing missing was a race riot, which happened elsewhere in the city during World War II and is not spoken about. First, definitions. Downtown runs from the railroad tracks to Fillmore and between Seventh Street and Seventh Avenue. Any other definition — even though much of the local media are oblivious to this — is ahistorical, inaccurate and, as my sister-in-law would say, just wrong. Twenty-fourth Street and Camelback is not downtown. Central and Clarendon is not downtown.
If one were going to site the center of Phoenix today, one would pick Arcadia, with majestic Camelback Mountain nearby. But that was not the case with the original township in the 1870s. The town was centered in the great, fertile Salt River Valley, soon to be reclaimed by revolutionary waterworks from the Newlands Act and connected by railroads to the nation. It was here that downtown grew and for decades flourished. But Phoenix was small and isolated. It did not grow from 10,000 in 1910 to more than 185,000 in 1930 like Oklahoma City. In 1930, Seattle's population was more than 386,000 and Denver nearly 288,000. Phoenix held 48,118 souls in the same year and was far from any other metropolitan area.
It's a fascinating counterfactual to wonder what might have happened in downtown Phoenix if not for the Great Depression and World War II. The decades before 1940 were the golden age of American city building, including art deco architecture and the City Beautiful movement. One can see it in such buildings as the Luhrs Tower and Luhrs Building, the Professional Building and the Orpheum Lofts (and, north of downtown, in the Portland Parkway). Conventional wisdom holds that the Depression didn't hurt Phoenix much, but this is not true. With deflation and little building happening, it stopped downtown dead. This was continued by the material shortages of World War II. By the time the economy began the long post-war expansion, downtown was facing too many obstacles and didn't have many of the grand bones of the other cities I mentioned.
Forbes reports that the number of the world's billionaires has reached a new high (1,426) representing a record $5.4 trillion in net worth. What slow recovery? If I were one of these mammals, here's what I'd do with my money:
The long empty lot on the northwest corner of Central and McDowell, in the heart of the nation's sixth largest city, would become a sculpture garden for the Phoenix Art Museum. The catch: It would have to be lushly graced with shade trees and other plants so it is an oasis in the city. A hundred grand would go to bribe the Willo Soviet, which is opposed to everything. One piece of sculpture would soar over Central as a walkway connecting the sculpture garden to PAM (or perhaps a glass gallery running under Central). The CVS drug store would go away. Working south on Central, on the east side toward the library, I would commission my friend Will Bruder to design two world-class buildings: A Phoenix Contemporary Art Museum and a (real) symphony hall.
So much for that part of Midtown. My big play would be between Thomas and north of Indian School.
A rendering of the University of Arizona Cancer Center, set to break ground on the Phoenix Biomedical Campus.
A decade after Arizona, and especially Phoenix, embarked on an effort to build a biosciences cluster, this is how things stand. According to a report from the Battelle Institute, "Arizona’s bioscience industry continues to grow at a rapid rate. Industry firms have increased employment by 30 percent overall since 2001 and have even added jobs since 2007, a period which includes the deep national recession."
That said, total Arizona bioscience employment in 2010 was 21,084 vs. 62,386 in North Carolina. The state is a pygmy in research dollars and has birthed no significant bio company. Phoenix is nowhere near being one of the nation's top biotech/biosciences centers. [Updated] A 2012 Jones Lang LaSalle report ranks Boston, San Diego, the Bay Area, Raleigh-Durham, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles and Seattle the top "established" clusters in the Americas. The "emerging" clusters are Westchester/New Haven, Conn., Chicago, Denver, Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, Dallas, southern Wisconsin, Florida, Indianapolis, southern Michigan and Atlanta. The top players are not much changed, aside from relative ranking, from a much-discussed 2004 assessment by the Milken Institute, with one exception. Minneapolis has moved into the "established" ranks. Most of the up-and-comers are new. Arizona and Phoenix are not mentioned.
A glimpse of the competition can be found by the jaw-dropping build-out of the University of California-San Francisco's Mission Bay campus, which is dedicated to bio and went from nothing to a major contender over the same decade. And this was achieved despite California's state budget crisis. It represents one path the Phoenix Biomedical Campus could have taken but didn't. Another is Houston's amazing Texas Medical Center. This is where I center my recollections of the bio effort and what succeeded and failed.
I had grand plans for my recent visit but spent most of my time sicker than I've been in years. Little time was left to catch up, but some observations:
The fabric of the old city continues to be torn away. The block of buildings on the southeast corner of Seventh Street and Roosevelt has been leveled with, of course, nothing to replace it. The last I recall, one building was a llantera (tire) outlet with American and Mexican flags painted on the outer wall. Now only the concrete foundation is left. A little farther south is a 1920s-era gas station, but would even this be preserved?
The demolished structures, which dated from the same era, were part of an actual city commercial streetscape that extended contiguously along Seventh Street. One saw the same on Seventh Avenue, Grand Avenue and Van Buren Street. It's almost all gone now, replaced by dreary new suburban boxes, each surrounded by Holy Surface Parking Lots. Or replaced by blighted empty lots. It is, as Jim Kunstler would say, not a landscape worth caring about and obviously nobody with money and power cared for generations. But the loss of variety, density and urban fabric on these approaches to downtown, along with the absurd widening of these streets, is a piece of astonishing civic malpractice. What a lost opportunity.
I didn't start this. An article in the Phoenix Business Journal is headlined, "Why Phoenix should be looking up to Seattle, not Austin." Behind it is the legitimate concern, written about here often, how the city is not attracting anywhere near its share of young, educated and high-skilled talent. In addition, as the article states, "The Texas capital beat out the Valley for a $300 million Apple Inc. campus last year, and General Motors is also placing a new technology center there." Naturally, it contains the obligatory, "Arizona has plenty of positive attributes in its corner: cost of living, proximity to California, business costs and nice winters."
Here are a few reasons why Phoenix can't be Seattle: No major headquarters of global corporations and non-profits; no world-class clusters in aviation and software; no civic stewards who invest heavily in the city, nurture its cultural assets and lead its continuous reinvention; no 24/7 downtown with hundreds of stores, restaurants, Pike Place Market, flagship Nordstrom, etc., and little critical mass in a dense, lively, cool center city. No diversified economy or University of Washington. No reputation for tolerance, progressive politics and long history of attracting world talent, whether for airplanes, software, biotech, world health or game development. We've covered some of this before.
Austin is sprawly, hot and has poor transit. Alas, here are a few reasons why Phoenix can't be Austin: It's not the capital of a state that puts attracting business, good jobs and huge amounts of federal money ahead of crazy ideology and revels in its power. No University of Texas. No world-famous music scene in a relatively dense quarter of downtown and tolerant "Keep Austin Weird" liberalism in the middle of a red state. No oil money. No history of largesse from LBJ (would President McCain have done anything for Phoenix? No.). No first-rate technology cluster, built up over many years, attracting top talent to the headquarters, R&D centers and labs of scores of well-known corporations.
The other night an Arizona Republic reporter tweeted desperately for a 24-hour coffee shop in downtown Phoenix. He was out of luck (somebody suggested a donut shop around 24th Street and Thomas, a common lack of understanding about where downtown Phoenix is located). This was not always the case. One (left) was located at Central and Van Buren, near the Trailways and Greyhound bus depots, with a lighted billboard on the roof. It survived until around 1970, when it was torn down for Valley Center, now the Chase Tower. Another, open at least into the wee hours and serving cocktails, too, was across the street on the northeast corner (Chambola's?) — after it was torn down in the '70s, the lot was vacant for decades. Yet another favorite was the Busy Bee on Washington Street, one of the many Greek-owned establishments, which (I believe) lasted until being bulldozed for Patriot's Square. These were not hipster hangouts with free wifi, but the old-fashioned coffee-shops-as-restaurants.
Beyond downtown, a number of late-night and 24-hour establishments were hopping well into the late 1970s. These included two Helsing's on Central, Shaefer's on McDowell at either Third or Seventh Streets and Denny's at Van Buren and Seventh Avenue. They were life-savers when I worked on the ambulance and we might not get dinner until three a.m. Bob's Big Boy anchored the corner of Central and Thomas and was the magnet for participants of weekend cruising on Central. Other popular chains were Hobo Joe's (with the hoho statue out front), Googies and Sambo's (a Sambo's building on McDowell across from the Phoenix Art Museum still stands, most recently a Thai restaurant). Helsing's and some of the others were works of art, but none still stand, unlike a few of their preserved sisters in Los Angeles.
Old Phoenix was not an all-night town. Which is not to say it wasn't a late-night town.
Someone important asked me to write about the biosciences in Phoenix and Arizona as the effort marks its tenth anniversary. This is fitting because I vividly remember the day I was called to the office of then Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza where he laid out the opportunity that the city had to lure star researcher Jeff Trent and the International Genomics Consortium. As a columnist for the Arizona Republic, I wrote dozens of articles to explain and advocate for this unique chance to leapfrog out of an economy that had become dangerously dependent on housing and population growth, and was falling behind on almost every measure of economic and social well-being. One column was an open letter to Dr. Trent — both of us are natives and this was from the heart — that he later told me played a big role in his decision to come home and establish T-Gen.
With Mary Jo Waits, then of the Morrison Institute, I worked to develop a "meds and eds" strategy to leverage biosciences and education; government, non-profits and eventually for-profit organizations, to create a major bio hub. As Waits repeatedly said, what if we could lay claim to the cure for cancer being discovered in downtown Phoenix? I mention my role for the sake of those who constantly yowl that I "hate Arizona," do nothing constructive, am a "quitter" or some guy in Seattle who spends his time picking on Phoenix.
The Flinn Foundation led the development of a strong strategic roadmap, as well as providing $50 million in funding. Gov. Janet Napolitano was supportive and the Legislature was dragged aboard a statewide push including leaders in Tucson and Flagstaff, as well as the Gila River Indian Community. At City Hall, Deputy City Manager Sheryl Sculley marshaled the bureaucracy to assemble land for the venture on the old Phoenix Union High School campus and oversee its redeployment. More land north was available for expansion; it had been set aside for the abortive attempt to win the NFL stadium that instead went to a cotton field west of Glendale. New ASU President Michael Crow instantly grasped the potential and soon the U of A was planning a medical school on the site. When ground was broken for the T-Gen building, even then Rep. J.D. Hayworth, hater of all things gub'ment, showed up to bask in what appeared to be a moment of history on par with the CAP. Hard as it is to believe now, it was a time of breathtaking hope.
Once again, it's left to homey to sun on the parade. People will once again conclude that I "hate Arizona."
Novawest, a "boutique real estate developer," has rolled out, let's call it an aspiration, to build a 420-foot-tall observation tower in downtown Phoenix. It is being likened to the Space Needle in Seattle, which marked its 50th anniversary in 2012. More about that in a moment. The developer has no financing. It has completed no project in Arizona. "But Novawest leaders are optimistic." The renderings — and I understand this is to be an open-air affair? — looked really hot, and I don't mean sexy. If every rendering proposed for downtown and the Central Corridor had been built, central Phoenix would resemble a five-mile slice of Manhattan. But let's give Novawest the benefit of a dreamer's doubt and get down to cases. [Jim Kunstler does, after his fashion, naming it the January Eyesore of the Month].
First, the Phoenix skyline is abysmally dull aside from the Viad Tower. But the combined power of the People's Republic of Sky Harbor and lack of capital, headquarters and civic leaders with means has thwarted anything better. Want some visionary skyscrapers? Go see my friend Will Bruder, architect of the central library. He's got some designs that would vault Phoenix's skyline to world prominence. But, again: Capital, headquarters, civic leaders with means. Without that combination, great civic acts are difficult. For example, Viad was built by the old Dial Corp. as a signature world headquarters and a gift to its city. Dial is gone as an independent headquarters, just another office in Scottsdale.
Newer readers to this blog might wonder why the parenthetical "WBIYB" is always inserted after the first reference to Phoenix light rail. It stands for: We Built It, You Bastards. A reminder of the hysterical, ignorant and too often thuggish opposition to a transportation technology that had proved successful around the country. I received death threats and demands that I be fired for columnizing in favor of light rail at the Arizona Republic. Well, you bastards, we built it and it is a big success, aside from the distortions that suppress transit-oriented development. Such a big success that Mesa (!) is building the line deeper into the city — and you can thank former Mayor Keno Hawker for having the foresight to persuade his colleagues to help fund one mile into the city; otherwise, Mesa would have been cut off from a system it now embraces.
It's a tough slog. The Legislature and governor are hostile to anything but freeways. The great crash slowed funding from Prop. 400 to a trickle, and even then most of it was going to build transportation infrastructure appropriate to the 1960s rather than today, including the misbegotten Loop 303 and South Mountain Freeway. While these will enrich a few connected developers, they are engines of sprawl, congestion, pollution and expansion of the heat island. Most Phoenicians can't imagine a lifestyle that doesn't revolve around long single-occupancy car trips.
Even so, the 20-mile starter line is expanding not only into downtown Mesa but also toward Metrocenter mall. An ambitious new line is being prepared to run west from downtown to a park-and-ride at 79th Avenue and Interstate 10. The West Line/Capitol Line is widely misunderstood in the media, but it would be an important step to creating a much more robust light-rail system.
Decades are arbitrary things. One could make the case that "the sixties" in Phoenix ran from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. In any case, it was a most consequential time, arguably the decade when Phoenix set the pattern for what it would become, for better and for worse. In the 1960 Census, Phoenix's population was 439,170, making it the 29th largest city in America and 187 square miles within the city limits. This was a startling jump from ten years before, ranked 99th with 106,818 people within 17.1 square miles. Phoenix had quickly become a big city, but unlike most others: single-story, spread out, car-dependent and populated by few natives. It had decisively surpassed El Paso as the dominant city of the Southwest. Yet, as it remains today, its power was like that of a small town.
Nineteen-sixty saw the unveiling of the Wilbur Smith & Associates freeway plan. Although its closest big-city neighbor was Los Angeles, Phoenix had only one baby freeway, Black Canyon. Over the decade, this would curve into the Maricopa Freeway but otherwise the Smith plan was mired in controversy. Phoenicians didn't want to become another LA. The Valley Beautiful Citizens Council worried that freeways would destroy an already ailing downtown. A hundred-foot high Papago Freeway with "helicoils" provoked more opposition. In the end, almost all of the 1960 plan was adopted. But surface streets carried most traffic during this era.
Downtown retail was slowly dying, as was the dense corridor on McDowell between 12th Street and 18th Street called "the Miracle Mile." This included the lush, stately Good Samaritan Hospital campus, replaced 20 years later by the brutal spaceship building that remains today. Malls were flourishing, including Park Central, Tower Plaza, Thomas Mall and Chris-Town, named after farmer Chris Harri. Many of the downtown merchant princes were dead or ailing. Others, notably Goldwater's, moved to the malls.
"We like our parking lots!" lawyer and Real Estate Industrial Complex apologist Grady Gammage said a few years ago when the two of us were speaking at an event on the future of Phoenix. And how. I've read that some 43 percent of the city of Phoenix alone is empty land. It would be interesting to know how much of the city is surface parking lots.
I remember when Kenilworth School was surrounded by grass and majestic palm trees. It lost part of that to the monstrous Papago Freeway. More was taken away by parking lots. The consequences are even more telling at North High School. At one time, North boasted a beautiful campus with shade and trees — it was the probably the most attractive campus in the state. By the time I got back in 2000, most of it had been paved over. Similarly, the old city-county building, where my fictional detective David Mapstone has his office, was once an oasis of shade trees and grass. Those were ripped out for "authentic" dirt and palo verdes, and recently the parking lot on the south end of the 1929 building was...expanded.
More than aesthetics are involved. Surface parking lots are a big cause of local warming, which has increased nighttime temperatures some 10 degrees in my lifetime, causing the summers to be hotter and last longer, and turning normal monsoon storms into violent affairs when they collide with the heat being released by all these square miles of asphalt and concrete. The lots destroy the fabric of the city and make walkability and convenience much more problematic. Many sit atop former farmland, which will really matter in a future of food shortages. Take a drive, ride light rail (WBIYB) or pull up Google Earth and look at all the parking lots in Phoenix. Interestingly, most of them are largely empty most of the time.
I was supposed to be on KJZZ's Here and Now with Steve Goldstein on Wednesday but we were pre-empted by POTUS. So let me run through a few Arizona observations:
As of Wednesday, the state was still counting ballots. If this were happening in a banana republic, it would be one thing...but in a supposedly advanced nation? This affront to democracy is not mere incompetence but a huge opportunity for mischief — not the virtually nonexistent vote fraud the GOP claims, but official vote suppression and disenfranchisement of "those people." Once upon a time, the Secretary of State's office was a sleepy but efficient place, presided over forever by Wes Bolin and his assistant, Rose Mofford. It has become increasingly politicized, especially in 2004 when Jan Brewer was both Secretary of State, overseeing the election, and head of the state's Bush-Cheney campaign. Ken Bennett is no less an ambitious political animal. This is a scandal crying for investigative reporting and reform. Also, how could you re-elect Joe Arpaio? No wonder Gov. Fright Mask is musing on another term.
• • •
For the first time, Arizona has no Democratic statewide officeholder. This is a profound change from what had been a majority Democrat state when I was little to a competitive state for both parties for many years. One-party rule is never healthy, but it is particularly bad when the One Party denies facts and reality. The Big Sort is at work — even progressives who read this blog talk about their plans to leave. So is the outsized organization and leverage of the LDS with no counterweights in the Latino community or elsewhere (Arizona once was a big union state, yes). The Sinema congressional win is fine, but her campaign was hardly progressive. Unless widespread Hispanic voter suppression took place and Carmona stages a win, this election confirms the worst. Arizona is a solid member of the New Confederacy.
A few quick observations on the $30 million Barry and Peggy Goldwater Library and Archives to be built in downtown Mesa. For the city of Phoenix, it is embarrassing, ahisorical, wounding and revealing.
Embarrassing because, according to the Arizona Republic, the library trustees wanted to put the institution in downtown Phoenix and city officials dropped the ball.
Ahistorical because Barry Goldwater was born in central Phoenix, attended Kenilworth School (as did I), managed his family department store downtown and was a Phoenix City Councilman who, among other things, backed construction of the Civic Center that is still home of the Phoenix Art Museum and Phoenix Theater.
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 lot...is 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.
The main waiting room of New York's Pennsylvania Station, shortly before it was demolished in 1963.
The effort to save the David and Gladys Wright House has become a cause célèbre, or as much of one that can find traction in the sprawling, just-rolled-in-from-Minnesota "civic" climate of metro Phoenix. A Facebook page has been set up. The New York Times flew in architecture critic Michael Kimmelman to write an appreciation of this Frank Lloyd Wright work, including such details omitted by the local media as the demolition company (!) being the one who realized the treasure they had been engaged to rip down and going to the city. The odds of success are long. Perhaps if this were the Joe Arpaio House and it was being torn down to create a day labor center for illegal immigrants. Otherwise, only the Resistance and minority of Resistance-minded citizens have a clue.
The modern preservation movement in America is often traced to the 1963 destruction of Pennsylvania Station, the classically-inspired masterwork of McKim, Mead and White in New York City. It was replaced by a brutalist Madison Square Garden with the railroad station in rat-passages underneath. New York has never gotten over this loss, nor should it. But it ensured that thousands of buildings nationwide were saved, including Grand Central Terminal. This never happened in Phoenix, yet it's not because we wanted for something grand like Pennsylvania Station to be destroyed by barbarians.
The Japanese Flower Gardens was one of our Pennsylvania Stations, a breathtaking Eden at the foot of the South Mountains. The gardens ran for miles along the legendary and evocatively named Baseline Road and offered staggering views of the city — and for anyone, not just the toffs. Lost. Replaced by miles of schlock subdivisions, faux stucco apartments, fast-food boxes and huge expanses of asphalt. Nothing was learned from this colossal act of vandalism. Not one change came to land-use regulations or an attempt at farmland preservation.
Between the glory days of the railroads and the completion of the Interstates, most visitors and newcomers to Phoenix arrived on the United States Highway System. Not for us the legendary muse Route 66 or the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental improved road that became U.S. 1, 40 and 50. When the system was created in 1925 to standardize the many named highways that existed, Phoenix probably had a population of 35,000. It was isolated and difficult to reach, with formidable mountains to the east and north and forbidding desert to the west. Phoenix's coveted agricultural produce was shipped by refrigerated railcars. What Phoenix did eventually gain were U.S. 60, 70 and 80, along with U.S. 89.
U.S. 60 evolved from the many "auto trails" and plans for highways in the early 20th century, including the Atlantic and Pacific Highway. U.S. 70 joined it on the east at Globe. U.S. 80, which gained its own folklore history elsewhere in the country, came east from San Diego to also join U.S. 60 in Phoenix. In addition, U.S. 89 came north to Phoenix from Tucson. And all four U.S. highways converged on Van Buren Street, which for decades was the gateway to the city and lined with "auto courts" and motels, all set off with neon signs to lure weary travelers. The Sierra Estrellas Web site offers a detailed history of the many motels and Douglas Towne wrote an interesting meditation on Van Buren for Modern Phoenix. Another aspect of U.S. 60: It was the demarcation for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. All living and farming south of U.S. 60 were interned, including those on Baseline Road.
With Van Buren being the repository of so much local highway history, two other gateways risk being forgotten: Grand Avenue and Buckeye Road. The WPA-built rail underpass on 17th Avenue south of the capitol shows the route where U.S. 80 separated from Van Buren, turned south and then west on Buckeye, which was also lined with small motels. Grand, the only diagonal in the young city's street grid, was another neon-lit boulevard carrying U.S. 60 to Los Angeles via Wickenburg and U.S. 89 to Prescott up terrifying Yarnell Hill.
A couple of posts ago (Dekookification), commenter Gaylord wrote:
I only read this for amusement. One of these days, Mr. Talton, I surmise you will burn out on covering Phoenix and AZ because it's too far gone and you have moved on in so many ways. I have done this: moved to L.A. after having lived in PHX for 18 years. It's such a downer to think about what the city and state could have become, if only there had been more enlightened leadership or at least those that would listen to and heed wise people such as yourself. All we can do now is shake our heads, be glad we are no longer living there, and remember how much destruction the Republicans wreak when they're given the upper hand.
It's a fair question or perhaps prediction. Soleri, whose sparkling, intelligent comments I always looked forward to, has withdrawn. On the other hand, I wonder if Gaylord really just reads for amusement. In my experience, once Phoenix gets under somebody's skin, it's a lifelong condition.
I'm glad to see my former Arizona Republic colleague Laurie Roberts carrying on a little of my work by calling for dekookification this election. Her job should be safe as long as she doesn't go after the three great enablers of the Kookocracy: 1) The Real Estate Industrial Complex, 2) The individuals with means and major institutions (you know who you are) — the fellow travelers — that don't want to rock the boat, and 3) The Mormons.
Let me be clear about No. 3. We can thank Salt Lake City, not dekookification, for the defeat of Russell Pearce. This symbol of Arizona extremism had become an embarrassment to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His words and policies went against church teachings. So he was finally forced to walk the plank. Don't be fooled: This was a Mormon takedown, not a triumph of moderation or St. Janet's "Sensible Center." And I say, good. The LDS has a long, constructive (even bipartisan) history in Arizona. Mesa Mayor Scott Smith carries on that ethic. Still, the church has followed the GOP into ever more extreme territory and remains an enabler of the Kookocracy, especially because of its superior organizational strength in a state that has lost offsetting centers of power and is marked by civic apathy. Stating this does not make one anti-Mormon.
As for Pearce, the evil that men do lives after them (and he will no doubt be back). SB 1070, the Jim Crow, voter-suppression, keep-'em-in-their-place, anti-immigrant measure, dripping with equal measures of hate and hypocrisy, is law. It and the climate it spawned have made Arizona an international symbol of intolerance, racism, cruelty and ignorance. Mission accomplished.
Eight months after assuming office, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton is still enjoying a honeymoon. That means he's making the honeymoon last. So much for critics who thought he was just a pretty face. The contrast with Phil Gordon, his poignantly snakebit predecessor, is striking. Stanton can routinely speak in complete sentences and articulate coherent thoughts. Becoming the 52nd mayor of Phoenix hasn't caused Stanton to shelve his appealing nature. People who talk to me about the mayor use words such as "smart," "easy going," "open" and "welcomes new ideas." He remembers people's names and what they've been working on. His human touch and emotional intelligence are genuine, not the surface happy talk of a politician.
I was concerned about the "biosciences" bone tossed to Desert Ridge when so much needs to be done for the real biosciences campus downtown, the one site that could be a real game-changer for Phoenix. But my sources involved in downtown, light rail and sustainability aren't worried, so good on Stanton. Another concern was Stanton taking the lead among mayors on backing military spending, when Phoenix needs a spokesman on so many more compelling and productive issues. But this seems to be part of his effort to make regional cooperation a priority (good luck with that).
Stepping back, probably the best way to see Stanton so far is that he's doing a good job of getting his feet under him in a race that's already moving fast and carrying huge stakes.
Annexation was intended to save Phoenix. It may end up killing it.
The roots of growing fast by annexing land go back to the 1940s. Phoenix had grown from its original half-square-mile to 9.6 square miles in 1940, with a population of 65,414. It was surrounded by agriculture and well separated from small farm towns such as Glendale, Tempe and Mesa.
But even before the old city commission was swept away by the "reformist" Charter Government Movement, leaders looked east and worried. They knew the Salt River Valley would grow, especially once World War II ended.
They saw how cities in the Midwest and east (St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, etc.) had become surrounded by incorporated suburbs that were already sucking away people and tax dollars. They, and all their successors, were determined not to repeat that mistake.
All the boosters' stories and all the boosters' flacks can't get our mythical bird out of the ashes. Five years after the biggest collapse since the Hohokam unpleasantness, Phoenix still has the character of a fallen souffle. Perhaps that's for the best without a better plan, because the worst thing that could happen is a return to mass sprawl building. The most striking feature — and tell me if I'm missing something — is the lack of anything big happening. I don't mean nonsense such as "Buckeye will have 400,000 people!" I mean nothing is seriously moving ahead to follow on the genuine pre-crash achievements: ASU Downtown, light rail (WBIYB), the expanded and attractive convention center, the beginnings of the downtown biosciences campus and, disappointing though it is, CityScape.
Instead, Mayor Stanton is off on a misguided quest to "save" the state's defense jobs. Mesa at least is running light-rail 3 miles into downtown, but otherwise real advancement on LRT, much less commuter or intercity rail, is so slow as to be meaningless. The Gaylord "resort" collapsed in exurban Mesa — good. Glendale is in hock forever to save the Coyotes hockey team/development-con-gone-bad — good (never thought I'd find myself on the same side as the "Goldwater" Institute). Scottsdale is still rich (except for those long stretches of empty car lots on McDowell) — but who cares? The west side is getting its far loop freeway — bad news. Is this it, other than to hope for another real-estate boom?
Progress faces substantial challenges, some new, some old. The congressional delegation, Ed Pastor excepted, won't do a damned thing to bring home federal money to build a quality economy. The Legislature is anti-city, anti-science, anti-education and opposed to any real economic development besides the "What is that Smell?" state Commerce Authority. Suburbs keep cannibalizing business from the city and each other. There's no focus on the biosciences campus, the one real area of promise, and the big hospitals are happy to torpedo it. The new "takings" law puts further handcuffs on urban solutions. The city lacks a serious economic-development strategy for the city. Government revenues were vaporized. And there's the weight of so much empty land, so much inefficient sprawl, a huge underclass, the massive catch-up necessary but impossible to fund. Kook politics has cost the state dearly.
Sometimes it's the (kind of) little things. The Hotel Palomar is open at CityScape. It's a boutique hotel run by Kimpton, which manages some wonderful places around the country, such as the Monoco in Denver, the Triton in San Francisco and the Alexis right down the street from me in Seattle. Many of the others, where I've had the pleasure of staying, are in restored historic buildings. The Palomar looks like a jail or the spawn of the ugly new county courts building. Meanwhile, the art deco headquarters of the old Valley National Bank sits vacant — it's even closer to the convention center — and the treasure of the Westward Ho is low-income housing. Across the street from CityScape? The historic Luhrs buildings look empty. The question just keeps coming back: Why can't Phoenix get its act together?
Check your defensiveness at the door, because I'm just winding up.
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton has assumed a leadership role in an effort by the U.S. Conference of Mayors to blunt or stop defense spending cuts. He apparently traveled to Washington, meeting with wealthy Republican John Sidney McCain III, nominally a U.S. senator representing Arizona, to discuss this issue. McCain did nothing to help secure funding for light rail (WBIYB), commuter rail, Amtrak, research, education or anything else that congressional members do for their states in such socialist havens as, say, Texas. But war? No problem, Greg. Come right in. This is a big thing.
Historically, May was when the temperature in Phoenix crept up to 100. Almost all week, it's been around 105 for the high. "Climate change is a hoax," as they say. The past 12 months were the warmest ever recorded, yet there is no debate, no discussion, least of all in a city likely to be heavily affected, Two days of hot wind cleared out the smoke from the wildfires, leaving only the usual smog. Better than nothing. At a book signing Tuesday night at the Arizona Biltmore, several people came up to say how much they depend on Rogue Columnist to speak truth to power, reality to the Kookocracy. It's something for me to keep in mind if some think I am just shouting the same old stuff with tiresome certitude.
Light rail seems to be doing well every time I ride it — and I depend on it (WBIYB). I can't speak for the line from Camelback to Chris Town, but otherwise it's packed-to-busy. It's curious at stations to see signs that identify trains going to Tempe and Mesa, or 19th and Montebello, but never downtown Phoenix. If you get on light rail at the Sky Harbor stop, you'd never know which way was the city center. Not smart. Tempe is trying to build a streetcar — a good sign. Otherwise, transit policy is a hash. Buses have been gutted (Your Tax Cuts at Work).
I'm not sure I understand the so-called West Link line. Is it really intended to go to Tolleson? If so, this shows how the region still doesn't get rail. Heavy commuter rail should be a priority to all the outlying suburbs, with a hub at Union Station, where passengers could connect with buses and eventually a light-rail spur as was done in San Jose. Commuter trains would provide fast service to Glendale, Peoria, Tolleson, Goodyear, Buckeye, Chandler, Gilbert, etc. The rail right-of-way is there and would require public money to expand capacity, as well as negotiations with the private railroads. But this has been done successfully around the country.
In 1974, at the age of seventeen-and-a-half, I became the youngest registered emergency medical technician in Arizona. I started as a dispatcher at Kord's Ambulance, which had the distinction of being owned by a relative of Linda Ronstadt. Soon, however, I was gravitating to the Kord's operation in Scottsdale, where my Coronado High friend Marc Terrill was working. There, under the leadership of the legendary Chuck West, the company had established the first advanced life support unit in the Southwest. It was a sea change from the throw-and-go days of ambulance drivers. This ambulance was equipped with IVs, EKG, telemetry, defibrillator, intubation gear, drugs — all the things seen on a modern rescue rig. An RN accompanied the two EMTs, who were trained as true paramedics in a program at the old Scottsdale Memorial Hospital under Dr. Bert McDowell.
From riding along and attending classes on my days off, I wrangled a transfer to Scottsdale in the fall. I was one of "Chuck's boys" (there were two female medics, too, a major breakthrough). The ambulance itself was revolutionary: Life-saving treatments could be begun at the scene. My early time was very difficult. The old guard was dominated by former combat medics who had served in Vietnam: Men who had performed surgery after rappelling into hot landing zones and no doubt they were PTSD'd to the moon. Unlike today, they had no use for the young person in their midst. They were tough, demanding, unmindful of, and quite contemptuous of, what is now called "my self-esteem." So I had to earn it. I learned more from them in a short period of time than I ever have in my life. From not even being sure of hearing a blood pressure while the siren was wailing, I learned to start IVs, intubate, triage, do CPR right, everything. I finally merited their respect. It remains one of the most thrilling accomplishments of my life, and makes me feel sad for young people today who are tossed into over-their-head jobs because they are cheap and never given proper seasoning or mentoring, whether rough or gentle.
They taught me a useful phrase and behavior from 'Nam that has served me well: Run frosty.
I want to expand on comments I made to Steve Goldstein's Here and Now on KJZZ Wednesday about Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton making a trip to Silicon Valley and the Bay Area to recruit businesses.
Foremost, this is a great start, something I've been advocating for more than a decade. The future to diversifying the Phoenix economy lies in California and Asia, not in Dubai. That the trip is so public is a bit puzzling; real success will come from years of quietly cultivating contacts. Phoenix needs to open offices in Southern and Northern California to recruit companies. I was also disheartened that Barry Broome of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council invited himself along. GPEC must please the suburbs at least as much as the city, and given the preference of the leasing boyz for suburbia, the organization is incapable of addressing the city's needs, particularly for jobs and capital investment in the central city.
Now, a reality check. Phoenix is not going to attract headquarters from Silicon Valley. You can't touch a fixer-up cottage in Palo Alto for less than $1.5 million and it doesn't make the economy skip a step. Workers would rather commute from Modesto than move to Chandler. This is the world's foremost technology cluster, and it happened because of all the things Phoenix lacks: World-class universities, trillions of dollars in government investment, an exceptionally high number of college graduates, attracting vast amounts of capital and a large entrepreneurial class focused on anything but real estate. It has a real downtown, in San Francisco. It is diverse and tolerant. There is no Santa Clara County Sheriff Joe. A real cluster is not a couple of semiconductor fabs in the suburbs. Phoenix can no more be "a mini-Silicon Valley" than the downtown Phoenix Public Market, and I love it, can be a mini-Pike Place Market. Cisco is not going to move from the Valley to "the Valley."
When Michael Crow became president of Arizona State University in July 2002, the watch began almost immediately: How quickly would he use ASU as a springboard to a bigger and better job? It hasn't happened.
Crow said he had a ten-year plan for "the new American university" and he has been as good as his word. Crow was one of the three people that progressive Arizonans vested their faith in during those hopeful years.
Janet Napolitano played defense against the Kookocracy, but abandoned the governor's office to become President Obama's Secretary of Homeland Security with little left behind as a legacy. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon suffered a lost weekend of a second term, badly downgrading any assessment of the man in full.
I always thought it was a sign of Arizona's unhealthy lack of private-sector stewards that all three stars were on the public payroll, but such was the case. Only Crow, to many the least likely, stuck and kept faith.
Crow was dealt a bad hand, if a very good salary: The Legislature had been cutting general-fund appropriations to the universities since the 1980s and was virulently anti-education. The state constitution mandated that ASU, especially, take virtually every qualified in-state student without giving it the means to pay for this obligation.
The university had grown into a gargantuan thing. It had few friends at the capitol as opposed to, say, the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Yet even Crow's critics must admit he played this hand masterfully. It wasn't long after his arrival that the UofA, which always considered itself "the university," was enviously muttering, "We wish we had a Michael Crow."
The vision of a New American University was buttressed around finding new revenue. I learned this early, when Crow asked me how ASU could be of more help in illuminating the economy. I sent him a list of some 30 indicators that were not tracked in the echo chamber of population growth and construction permits. This ended up in the economics department where the mandate was to produce it, and find a way to sell it.
The urbanist Yuri Artibise left Phoenix last year, returning to Vancouver. It's part of a continuing brain drain, although to be sure such assets as ASU continue to bring in new creatives. I don't know where the tally stands, but I fear Phoenix continues to lose more than it attracts. Architect Taz Loomans recently conducted an interesting "exit interview" with Artibise. It made me realize that it's been five years since I got the first inkling that the Arizona Republic would take away my column, which would eventuate in me leaving town. So I thought I'd use Loomans' questions as a test for myself.
What do you miss most about Phoenix? My good friends. (I tried to select one "most"; for more, see my additions in the comments section).
What did Phoenix have that Seattle doesn’t? It is the repository of so much of my history, so many of my hopes. My mother and grandmother, long dead, are so alive on the streets of Willo, Roosevelt and Storey. The church where I was baptised is still going, as is my grade school, still in its inspiring, grand building, and enchanting Encanto Park. Union Station, where I spent countless hours as a child watching trains and dreaming of far-away places. The streets I worked as a paramedic, learning too much too young. The different mountain vistas that always orient me. Phoenix is the home of my heart, a place so mangled, mismanaged, raped and pillaged, but still worth fighting for. No matter how long I am gone, when I return I can drive the streets and walk the neighborhoods as if I had never left. The ghosts of the Hohokam still speak to me on winter nights when the cold wind blows from the High Country and the peculiar acoustics of the valley mingle train whistles and voices of the beloved dead.
Back from a week in Phoenix, some observations:
1. The place still gives off the quality of a fallen souffle. Sure, a few projects are getting press out in some of the more affluent suburbs, but the utter collapse of four years ago still lingers. It's not for lack of trying by the Usual Suspects: Bottom has been hit, a turnaround is only (xx) years away, cheap land and sunshine will continue to be the basis of the economy, blah, blah, blah. But the old growth machine will not sputter back to life for one more run (with championship golf!). Too many crapola tract houses, too much debt, too few well-paying jobs, no speculative bubble driven by liar loans and securitized mortgages sold on a historic scale. What's Plan B? There is none.
2. A lack of seriousness pervades the state. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton tweets, "In Phoenix, we have a full commitment to sustainability: Sky Harbor Airport Dedicates Solar Power System." Space does not allow us to fully deconstruct these 104 characters, but we can make a start. Sky Harbor is a red giant of concrete and air pollution, contributing mightily to the heat island and dirty, unhealthy sky, and this is somehow redeemed by a "solar power system" that will power...the airport? No, the linked news story says it generates "enough to handle half the power needs of the rental car center, east economy parking lots and toll booths." Oh. (A real reporter might want to know if this includes generating electricity for the rental car center air conditioning, too, which seems unlikely, and how long the solar operation will have to run before it "repays" the fossil-fuel inputs it required and may still require).
The Capitol and legislative chambers in the 1960s, before the erection of the brutalist Executive Office Tower.
Channel 12's Brahm Resnik asked me to nominate the three most significant Arizona political events since statehood. It's a bit like wanting a cinephile to name only three favorite movies. I settled for 1) statehood, which was not a given when it happened; 2) The congressional delegation's ultimately successful decades-long pursuit of Colorado River water, and 3) SB 1070, which is a bright red marker for the hotbed of intolerance, ignorance, extremism and backwardness into which the state has descended. Other events could contend, such as Barry Goldwater's 1952 narrow victory over Sen. Ernest McFarland, marking the birth of the Republican Party's ascendancy.
One of the most telling political stories, however, doesn't concern politicians or elections, at least not directly. It's about the old capitol building. The copper-domed structure was actually built as the territorial capitol and completed in 1901. The architect was James Riely Gordon, who designed many court houses in Texas, as well as a grand one for Bergen County, N.J. Gordon set aside his usual Romanesque Revival style to create a territorial capitol made from native materials. It was originally intended to be much grander, but the territory cut back funding. Additions made in 1918 and 1938 preserved the Gordon design.
President Kennedy (perhaps apocryphally) quipped that it was the ugliest state capitol in America. This was certainly not true: The Alaska capitol resembles an insurance company office; the Ohio statehouse with its forever-incomplete dome defines homeliness and lack of proportion, and North Carolina's looks like the court house for a small, poor county. The only saving grace for New Mexico's building is that it is in Santa Fe. To me, the old Arizona capitol always held a certain modest grace, particularly when I was growing up and it dominated the vista at the foot of Washington Street. But it's also true, odd and perhaps telling that Montana, which still doesn't have 1 million people, has a much bigger, grander capitol. And otherwise poor, conservative states such as West Virginia, Arkansas and Mississippi boast majestically beautiful statehouses.
Note to national and international Rogue readers: As Arizona marks 100 years of statehood this month, you'll have to put up with more than the usual number of AZ- and Phoenix-centric posts.
In 1962, Arizona marked its 50th year as a state. It's a vivid memory for me, although I was but a child. I loved the commemorative seal with the cactus wren, so much more appealing than today's gaudy centennial emblem. Fifty years of statehood was a remarkable event for those still living who had witnessed statehood and lived in Arizona Territory, my grandmother among them. The state in 1962 had barely more than 1 million people, with Phoenix not yet at the half-million mark. Phoenix was becoming a big city with comforts unimagined 50 years before, especially air conditioning. Still, the frontier was close enough to touch, living history was all around and much of the state was still wilderness. Vast empty distances separated the settled areas and those were compact and clear in their purpose.
Prescott, for example, the onetime territorial capital, was an enchanting little town with appealing rough edges. None of today's sprawl existed. It had only recently lost its status as a division point on the Santa Fe Railway between Phoenix and Williams Jct. Mining and ranching were the economy. The highway up Yarnell Hill was notoriously treacherous. Flagstaff was a major railroad town, also depending on sawmills for the logging industry and Arizona State College. The Mogollon Rim was virtually uninhabited, just one of many parts of the state as wild as ever. The state highways were two lanes, taking you to rich history that wasn't across the street from a Wal-Mart. Even in Phoenix, you could see old cowboys, the real thing, living out their last years in the elegantly-designed-but-neglected old apartments that graced the neighborhood between Seventh Avenue and the capitol.
Midtown, including the Viad Tower, left, after the big boom.
The first defining event of today's Central Avenue was the real-estate boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s. With land from Fillmore Street to Camelback Road upzoned for skyscrapers and money flowing from the deregulated savings and loan industry, the city was remade by a huge real-estate boom. Stuck with the disjointed set of highrises outside the old central business district, the city tried to put planners lipstick on the pig in the 1970s by christening the area from the railroad tracks to Camelback and Seventh Avenue to Seventh Street as the Central Corridor. As I wrote in the previous post, the visionaries of the 1960s and 1970s imagined Central would become Phoenix's version of Wilshire Boulevard. That never happened. Phoenix lacked the economy, assets and ambition of Los Angeles. But it gave a big try in the '80s and '90s.
These were the years that saw the rise of the Dial Tower at Central and Palm Lane. It was the new headquarters of the old Greyhound Corp. and remains, with its distinct deodorant container shape and copper skin the only truly arresting skyscraper on Central. Two bank highrises were built just south of Osborn, along with a little World Trade Center-style tower at Virginia, displacing the Palms Theater, and a few midrises. USWest anchored one of two skyscrapers erected on the northeast corner of Central and Thomas, where the iconic Bob's Big Boy, beloved of cruisers, stood. But this was nothing compared with what was planned. Back in the 1960s, the idea of a monorail running down Central was floated. It was revived in the '80s as part of a developer's plan to build, north of Indian School, the tallest building in the country with the monorail connecting the mammoth skyscraper to Sky Harbor.