The smart folks in the comments section of Rogue Columnist did not disappoint. So in the spirit of Abe Lincoln ("It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt"), I should probably just send you to their thoughts and end the post right here.
Still, a few observations.
Let me join Soleri and others on my own SimCity dreams. Oh, to have the Westward Ho restored to its glory, as has happened in other cities around the country (such as the Netherland Plaza in Cincinnati, the Skirvin in Oklahoma City or the Book Cadillac in Detroit)! To have the old Valley Bank building bustling again, with its magnificent lobby as I recall it. I'll see that and up you: A restored Union Station as an intercity and commuter train station, with intercity and city buses and a trolley to light rail. A real Symphony Hall worthy of a world-class city at Van Buren and Third, or any of the many vacant lots. Rebuilding some of the lost treasures, such as the red sandstone building that was located, as I recall, where the awful Wells Fargo (First National Bank of Arizona) tower now squats, on other empty land. Rebuild the Fox Theater, too. Somewhere architects must exist who would do something so subversive as to design pleasing, classical buildings.
For those wishing something to feel good about: Light rail, ASU Downtown, CityScape, the Phoenix Convention Center, Herberger Theater Center, Sheraton, Phoenix Biosciences Campus, Dodge Theater, Children's Museum, park of the Floating Diaphragm, USAirways Arena, Chase Field and the shady, grassy oasis of Arizona Center. These are all real accomplishments, major assets upon which other civic goods can grow.
For Jim Hamblin and PhxSUNSfan, I can't agree more on the need to differentiate — and cool — downtown with shade trees. Can anyone beat some sense into City Hall about this? In the spirit of the new civility, let me say: Stop throwing down rocks, you morons! I hope SUNSfan is right about CityScape. Even though the project failed to achieve the soaring heights of its renderings and has other drawbacks, downtown desperately needs it to succeed. I could go on. But great comments, debate and dialogue all around (what a nice change from my old AZCentral blog).
Some further thoughts: Does Phoenix need a downtown? Yes. First, because the metro area doesn't have LA's "polycentric" set of real "downtowns," including real downtown LA. Scottsdale is exclusionary, affluent and, as Sheriff Peralta crudely puts it in my novels, "tits on a stick." Tempe missed its chance to create a lovely boutique downtown and is now in a deep hole. WestGate is an arid suburban development. Etc. None of these are a metropolitan downtown, with the energy, diversity, public spaces, transit center, corporate power, concentration of talent, walkability, infrastructure and critical mass of a real downtown. That downtown Phoenix is an underperformer for a city its size is a sign of the entire metro area's weakness, not its innovative outside-the-box achievements. Second, the troubles that plagued downtown Phoenix spread; if you can't fix them there, you can't anywhere outside of rich Scottsdale or LDS Gilbert, however many suburbs and malls you have. Finally, a real downtown offers the kind of choice, talent magnet and competitive edge that one-note-Phoenix desperately needs. Every major city has suburbs, malls, its versions of Snottsdale, WestGate and Gilbert. They also have real downtowns.
Downtown matters (the huge traffic the last post generated shows that, too). Another reason: Sustainability. Much of metro Phoenix has no long-term future aside from being re-converted to agriculture or desert. It's just too much, too spread out, too inefficient for a high-cost energy future also buffeted by climate change. If Phoenix wants a chance, it must reclaim its core, including downtown (which historically is the railroad tracks to Fillmore and Seventh Avenue to Seventh Street, whatever new boundaries new planners want to invent). The central core has renewable water resources. Want to preserve the desert — focus on the core. Want to counter extremism — build a downtown that attracts open-minded, "liberal" people.
City Hall may have done all that it can do as far as big bricks-and-mortar projects. Work remains, however. A tax on banking empty land would do wonders to spur development and knock off the absurd prices that the land bankers are demanding (so would down-zoning). All this empty land is a curse from past civic malpractice, but it could be a major asset, right down to as good freeway access as the suburbs (and better rail, transit and infrastructure). And City Hall needs to either develop the empty land its sitting on, especially in Evans-Churchill, or return it to the private sector zoned at a market-friendly rate for, say, single-family bungalows such as those build in Denver's New Urbanist Stapleton redevelopment. City Hall needs to invest the water for grass and real shade trees. And it needs to make downtown and the wider core the cheapest, easiest place to do business. Oh, and there's the matter of the Biosciences Campus, the game-changer that's moving too slowly and lacks influential champions.
The private sector that remains, along with other stakeholders, need to create a real economic-development entity to go after business and fight the anti-core bias of the leasing boyz. However this is structured, it needs energy, the employment of international best practices and some heavy hitter support. I can't say it enough: Downtown now most needs private investment, more business (not just restaurants and entertainment) and more high-paying jobs. It also could be a great place for "port of entry jobs" into the information economy for the children of immigrants, whether with biomedical manufacturing or other "blue-collar" tech jobs. And never enough can be done to connect downtown to the rest of the Central Corridor.
I know these solutions seem as fanciful as dreaming about a Fox Theater resurrected, or that we could recover the bungalows, Victorians, lawns and palms than once graced Second Avenue from Van Buren to Roosevelt. The Powers That Be are focused on the wasteful expansion of the metropolitan boundaries for short-term profits, the entire area is scrambling to clean up the fallen souffle of all the sprawl that came before, and most Phoenicians are just struggling to pay the rent and mortgage. The Kooks are in charge and nobody wants to pay the taxes needed to dig out of the budget gap. Most Phoenicians, also, don't "get" urban. Of the few who do, many are beaten down. Others are in line for it; trust me, I have the scars. But the notion that Phoenix can prosper as a sprawled blob of single-family houses and endless driving is even more preposterous than the most extravagant downtown dream.
Depending on the comments, we may revisit this again soon. If not, eventually — because the health of downtown Phoenix remains the core issue of the future for city, metro and state.