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.
Amid this giddiness, Barron's published its (in)famous article saying Phoenix was overbuilt and facing a historic collapse. The boosters reacted with their usual defensiveness. Then the roof fell in. With the crash of the savings and loans, not only did the capital go away, but many of these deals were exposed for the frauds they really were. No 120-story tower was built. Western Savings, one of the most important leader companies and anchor of the punch-card building, went out of business, its leadership under a cloud.
In the ruins, old Central was lost.
While Park Central continued on as a mall, most of the small shops that defined the street from Fillmore north to Camelback moved or went out of business in anticipation of towers that never came. The site of the old McDonald's is still without a skyscraper: It's part parking lot and part Yoshi's fast food. Downtown had been declining since the 1960s and most of the interesting buildings on the avenue were lost to tear-downs, including the horrific loss of territorial-era business buildings to "create" the sun-blasted expanse of Patriot's Square. The Westward Ho was barely salvaged — but only as housing for the poor. The rot moved to McDowell. Midtown and Uptown never recovered from the 1990 collapse. The leasing agents, who exercise outsized power in the Valley, focused on Scottsdale and 24th Street and Camelback, never losing their post-crash hostility to Central. Many of the developers who had placed their faith in the avenue were wiped out, never to return.
City Hall had plans and schemes to make Central "the premier avenue of the Southwest." So it got more palm trees, a brick median, etc. Will Bruder's stunning Central Library opened in 1995, followed soon after by the Phoenix Art Museum expansion. The Roosevelt district healed from the catastrophe of ramming through the Papago Freeway, although in a tunnel rather than ten stories in the air. Atop it was placed a park named ironically for Mayor Margaret Hance, who did as much as anyone to destroy these priceless neighborhoods. Terry Goddard, as mayor, killed midrise projects that would have fatally destabilized them. Central was made one-way south of Roosevelt, with First Avenue carrying southbound traffic all the way to Grant using a new underpass. But this couldn't make up for the loss of energy and life, especially when cruising was banned.
Some of Central's character north of Camelback was saved with Murphy's Bridle Path, even as the old acreages were filled in with gated properties and condos. "North Central" became a tony neighborhood, running from Missouri to the Arizona Canal. City money also spruced up Central in Sunnyslope, knitting it more tightly with the city, to the displeasure of die-hard Slopers. South Central was gradually built up, too, although a plan to link it with Ahwatukee by tunneling through the South Mountains was defeated. But never again would Central be what it once was, what it might have been, much less the Wilshire Boulevard of Phoenix.
For one thing, developers moved east, particularly once City Council was greased to allow greater heights outside the Central Corridor, which had been sold as the only place for towers no ifs, ands or buts. The low-rise, semi-rural area around Camelback and 24th Street became the Esplanade, the brainchild of soon-to-be-disgraced governor, dodgy developer Fife Symington. It would have been taller of the rich neighbors of the Biltmore hadn't intervened. Other midrises and office "parks" congregated along the newly christened Camelback Corridor. Along with the loss of companies, public leaders abandoned Central. For example, wealthy Republican John Sidney McCain III keeps his local office not in the core, but in an office building on north 16th Street, while Jon Kyl is near 24th and Camelback (the better to avoid the public spaces of a central city?).
Scottsdale got into the act, making its once quaint downtown into an office destination, a prelude to the building boom at the Scottsdale Airpark. At the same time, Phoenix's economy was becoming more narrow. Commercial real estate was driven more by spec building, with the leasing boyz stealing companies from existing locations, instead of being a consequence of new demand. In fact, corporate Arizona, particularly the kind that occupies skyscrapers and makes a stand in a city (as Walter Bimson did with Valley Center) was shrinking. Wall Street destroyed Dial (Viad). The big banks were bought and shrunk. Central Newspapers built a new downtown headquarters but was acquired by Gannett, which moved Channel 12 there, leaving an empty hulk on Central. No new players with capital, employees and commitment emerged to replace them.
A crushing blow came when Park Central shut down as a mall. Another was the rise of land-banking, encouraged by the continued up-zoning, although midtown Central may never see another skyscraper again. When the Indian School closed, a deal that didn't smell right performed a federal land swap leaving Barron Collier Corp. in control of the land facing Central from Indian School north on the east side of the street. It has never been built on. At the time, the boosters hailed the rise of Steele Indian School Park as "Phoenix's Central Park." In reality, the park is rather pathetic, lacking shade trees, Encanto-like amenities and, crucially, walled off from Central by the empty private land.
As to the "what might have been," I can't help imagining a Central where the skyscrapers had been confined to the old downtown (Seventh Avenue to Seventh Street and the railroad tracks to Fillmore). It would have made for an impressive skyline, not to mention a much more efficient use of infrastructure and a dynamic central core. The Westward Ho would have been refurbished into a great historic hotel, as is found in every major city. The art-deco Professional Building would have been condos or a boutique hotel. Then: More preservation of the old houses that faced Central, and offices along Central with height limitations. Think of the appeal this gives the walkable avenues in Washington, D.C. Imagine if the entire Indian School had been turned over to the city, which had turned it into an Encanto Park writ large? The "might have been" would have meant no Esplanade, no purple condo tower sitting north of the Phoenix Country Club. The old Phoenix of great views for everyone, not just the rich, would have been preserved. It would have required a capital-wielding leadership, political will, economic-development strategy and urban-design vision that Phoenix simply isn't capable of.
So by the time I returned in 2000, Central was transformed, mostly for the worse. It retained the best collection of architecture, the most impressive urban views, the remnants of authenticity to offset the plastic of "exclusive" Scottsdale. South Central had gained a few blocks of Latino flavor. It held many fond memories. That was about it. The Japanese Flower Gardens are, of course, gone, replaced by suburban schlock. When the biggest real-estate boom in history hit that decade, Central figured in a few condo hoaxes, most absurdly tall, such as the 60-story towers "planned" for just south of the McDonald's and north of the punch-card building. But these were obvious shams. They lacked the conviction of the 1980s boom, or the economic assets to make them real. Scottsdale had become the center of the state's limited affluence, with the "Camelback Corridor" as an appendage. The exception was what became the One Lexington condos, where a bank midrise was stripped to its skeleton and rebuilt. It was finished and marketed by a Vancouver, B.C., outfit that specialized in urban projects. Oh, if only such expertise could have been applied to 44 Monroe.
Which brings us to the second defining event: The building of light rail. Somehow the city survived what was characterized as a nightmarish, unprecedented boondoggle that would cause traffic jams all the way to Eloy and grow mutant zombie woozits. Oh, the horror! This, at least, was the view of many local-yokels whose view of the world is car-centric Phoenix and some suburban burg in the Midwest. In fact, light rail (we built it, you bastards) is just as successful as I predicted it would be. It gives the city a substantial advantage on a four-and-a-half mile stretch of Central. Here is a place that could attract all sorts of quality infill, not least because it is a central location to the sprawling metro — and you don't have to drive. Some activity has begun to happen, marked by a number of urban-cool restaurants and coffee shops. CityScape might be a powerful boost, even though the reality is a huge disappointment from the stunning project hawked to the public — and the chain restaurants get a taxpayer subsidy to compete against such local Central mainstays as Portland's and Cheuvront.
Much more is needed, from stopping the bleeding of employment and drawing private investment to taxing the land bankers and attracting more practical retail, not just restaurants and coffee houses. It's a sign of Phoenix's arrested development that the light-rail stop at Camelback is just an empty lot, as if Amtrak had let you off where the depot once stood in Concrete Slab, Okla. In a major city with a healthy, diverse economy, this would be a prime location for a signature midrise, mixed-use building with billboards incorporated, a la LA. A healthy city would be utilizing the retro circular buildings by the punch-card to their cool potential rather than letting them sit empty. Central and the corridor need big shade trees. Hundreds of big shade trees. More ornamental palms, too.
Can Phoenix find the leadership to capitalize on Central's potential? It had better. The metropolitan area is a creation of an era of cheap gasoline, fading fast. Water resources will not allow for Superstition Vistas or the other rackets of the Real Estate Industrial Complex, even if the old sprawl paradigm were coming back. Every metro against which Phoenix competes for talent and capital has miles of tract housing and malls. But they also offer great downtowns and urban neighborhoods. Only Central has that potential for Phoenix (not Mill Avenue, not Scottsdale Road). Phoenix's future is intertwined with Central Avenue, just like before, whether Phoenicians realize it or not.
Central Avenue runs for 14 miles, through the heart and soul of Phoenix, and it carries enough stories and memories to fill blog entries running at least as long. I've tried to tell two.
Oh, and Mayor Stanton, bring back cruising.
"Phoenix has no history and no character." Huh? Take a step outside the master planned community of your mind and cruise through the Phoenix 101 archive.