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.
One could argue that Phoenix would be better served by a lesser skyline, with lots of four-to-six story buildings clustered in a lush, shady core — let the mountains be the skyline, with the tallest building a lovingly maintained, five-star Westward Ho Hotel. Alas, that train left the station in the mid-1950s. Phoenix had a chance to have an architectural landmark with the new city hall. Leaders settled for the mediocre midrise that architecturally gives the finger to south Phoenix.
Towers are abundant worldwide. At 2,772 feet, the Tokyo Skytree is the tallest in the world. These usually have a function besides delighting and feeding visitors; usually they are nests of broadcasting and other communications equipment. As for restaurants and observation towers, Dallas' Reunion Tower, opened in 1978 and attached to the Hyatt Regency, is a landmark somewhat similar to what Novawest seems to have in mind. It is 561 feet, long ago was eclipsed by Dallas' towers, but still glitters like a cotton ball at night. Still, it offers little better views than the Compass atop the Phoenix Hyatt. The proposed Phoenix Tower would actually be shorter than the Chase Tower (built as Valley Center, a corporate headquarters and gift to its hometown by Valley National Bank).
Comparisons with the Space Needle are unfortunate, unless they lead to a deeper reflection on what's missing and needed in Phoenix for it to succeed beyond architecture. It's similar to cities and towns opening little gatherings of stalls and proclaiming they "will be like Pike Place Market." Er, have you ever been to Pike Place Market and do you understand the decades of hard work, private stewardship and public investment required to keep it thriving?
A few observations about the Space Needle (605 feet tall): It was part of the 1962 World's Fair, the second such exhibition (after the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition) that Seattle has created. Seattle even beat out New York City for the 1962 slot, ensuring world participation. Phoenix has never hosted a world's fair. The fair, monorail and the Needle came about through a remarkable combination of civic pride, audacity, salesmanship and stewardship. Seattle had, and has, a real economy to back this up. Fifty years later, the Seattle Center, site of the fair, is going strong; the edgy architecture of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is nearby. So is the urban tech campus of South Lake Union, served by a streetcar. And Seattle lucked out with the Needle's design, gaining a graceful icon during a time of architectural conformity to the (way, way) overdone International style.
So, just to be clear, I wish this aspiration well. But it will be no Space Needle. That doesn't mean that the city couldn't learn from the best practices in Seattle and elsewhere, rather than just hoping for more people and more subdivisions. Which brings us back to capital, headquarters and civic stewards with means. Plus a relentless focus on livability in the core at ground level.