Back when I was a college right-winger (and in those days we were few and had no pretty girls), I wrote fierce papers demonstrating the murderous fraud that was Karl Marx. A professor gently cautioned me that even if I disagreed with Marx, he offered another way of "seeing through history." He was right, of course. Marx's ideas led to some of the most bloody deeds in history. But his emphasis on class (and this was not original to him) is indeed useful.
I think about this as I watch downtown revivals and their failures. A city such as Seattle preserved most of its core buildings, many businesses and the downtown evolved organically and with all sorts of people. Phoenix and Charlotte, on the other hand, clear-cut most of their downtowns and started from scratch. If you arrived in Phoenix after 1980, you'd think the downtown was always vacant lots, government buildings and a few towers. Of course, Phoenix had a thriving downtown into the 1960s. Charlotte was similar.
Their results have been vastly different. But the class and power undertones are unmistakable and they have shaped the fate of each downtown and city.
Both Phoenix and Charlotte tore down blocks of old buildings. In Phoenix, some of the losses were profound, including the Fox Theater, territorial-era apartments and Victorians near the capitol, and 1890s and art deco commercial buildings along Washington Street. In other cities, these might have been rehabbed for new businesses, as was done in places such as Denver and Seattle. An abundance of older, affordable buildings might have also spawned many small businesses.
That didn't happen. Tear-downs became not only tolerated but policy. In Phoenix, especially, leaders saw no potential in the buildings and worried about their use by the homeless or drug-addled. In Phoenix and Charlotte, land was snatched up for new development. But how this proceeded was very different.
In Charlotte, the big banks drove development. They lent themselves to more new skyscrapers. But the real catalyst was Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl Jr.'s mid-life conversion to urbanism. Thus, instead of building its operations center out on the fringe of the city, BofA put it right downtown, turning a clear-cut blighted area into a model New Urbanist neighborhood. As the nation's second-largest banking center, Charlotte abounded in private capital. In 20 years it's gone from a non-descript medium Southern city to this Oz-like downtown. It's all very new and clean and pleasant. But it lacks much diversity or urban fabric, such as the old hat shop that's been there forever, etc.
In Phoenix, city government drove the development of a few big projects. Arizona Center was a festival marketplace that faced in on itself, cut off from the street like a suburban office park. It predictably languished. The arena and ballpark succeeded in bringing people downtown, but failed to be the catalyst for other businesses in the way of Coors Field in Denver. The convention center, convention hotel and ASU campus are similarly good and needed projects. But it remains doubtful whether they can generate much spin-off. Unlike Charlotte, where the empty land was controlled by the banks and developers who want to do projects, much of central Phoenix is locked up by land bankers that have no incentive to build.
Developers who do face serious obstacles, including from city hall. Here's what one told me recently:
"As an architect and a developer singularly focused on trying to kick-start the downtown community with mixed-use projects, apartment high-rise buildings, 24-hour connectivity and a wide array of opportunity for all, we are deeply troubled by Mayor Phil and his willy nilly council; self serving and irrelevant as always. Not one thing the man proposed in his recent State of the City address is being backed by sound planning, enabling zoning and council approvals no matter how willing the developer community might be. Our proposals for air rights sharing, underground connectivity between buildings, solar shading and the use of solar energy and a wide variety of other planning, design and development issues are all but being ignored as is any sound downtown planning for the future. ASU can not by itself promote the future of this great city.
"Especially troubling for the development community is the lack of interest or confidence in the downtown market by the institutional investment community such as TIAA-CREF, The Hartford, Prudential, REITs and hedge funds. The fault is that of the City leadership and the lack thereof."
It all comes back to the key drivers. Are they private sector or public sector? City Hall can be an impediment, but it can never be a master developer. If you're going to clear-cut a downtown and start over, you need powerful patrons who can knock heads and write checks, and put up buildings. Without them, these entrepreneurial architects and developers have a much harder time.
But I also can't help noticing a class element in both cities. Whether consciously or not, both Phoenix and Charlotte drove the poor from their downtowns. Not only were the old single-room-occupancy hotels knocked down, but so were the drug stores and inexpensive retailers convenient to the bus lines. Even now, a back story about resistance to putting the county hospital on the bio-medical campus -- a great teaching and research fit -- is "leaders" not wanting the poor and underclass near "their" big investments, such as the stadiums and convention center.
Unfortunately, this strategy defeats one of the big draws of a downtown: the diversity. In Phoenix, a bottom-feeder economy has produced such a huge underclass that it surrounds downtown anyway -- a downtown with huge swaths of nothing. Without a real urban energy and vibe, it has a hard time competing against downtown Scottsdale and Tempe.
In Charlotte, affluent neighborhoods are near downtown, and the downtown itself now has several upscale neighborhoods. This is what an affluent, economically powerful city can do. But the result is a pleasant urban monoculture.