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.
As a billionaire, I would control several technology companies. All would be moved to the Central Corridor. This would bring several thousand well-paid, highly-talented employees. These would also attract the many vendors that provide services to the core companies. This "ecosystem" would grow and generate wealth in Midtown. None of my companies or vendors would do business outside the central core. Want to jump on my money machine? You have to come to Central. I would also need space for my assorted foundations and philanthropic endeavors.
To provide space for them, I would remake the mile north of Thomas. Most of the skyscrapers would come down. The upzoning of Central north of downtown has been a curse to a walkable, high-quality boulevard and few of them would be missed. My vision would be a seamless streetscape of low-rise buildings, none more than a few stories tall, leveraging the light-rail line for transportation. I would engage architects from around the world who could recreate anything but mind-deadening modern and post-modern structures that are way overdone in Phoenix. Art deco, Arizona territorial, adobe/pueblo revival, Spanish mission, Chicago commercial, streamlined moderne, Beaux-Arts. A built environment that is human scale, inspiring and full of interest and variety.
This would entail buying and bulldozing Park Central. Done. And relocating the existing offices. Check — downtown would see new demand, sparking new high-rises where they belong, and many of the law firms, etc., might like to stay in my new Midtown Mile. This corridor would be lined with palm trees, filled with shade trees (such as ficus, mesquite, desert willow) and adorned with pocket parks. No rocks. No gravel. No palo verdes. In addition, the streetscape would seek to recreate the dense, walkable, short city blocks of retail that were destroyed by the superblocks with their dead space, buildings out of scale and elephantine parking garages.
Mixed-use would be incorporated throughout this mile. Thus, I would subsidize indefinitely a couple of dozen useful retailers facing the street, incorporated into the office buildings, apartments and condos facing Central. Among them: Bookstore, map store, hardware store, stationer, shoe shop, men's and women's clothing, specialty art and architecture bookshop, pet supplies, urban garden shop, bakery, kitchen shop, cheese shop, home accessories, etc. Here's the deal — each would have to be locally owned. Relocations from elsewhere in the sprawl-opolis would be welcome. The Walgreens and Jack in the Box could stay, in new buildings. Lots of neon. Apartments and condos would be located close to Central. Breaking up the superblocks would allow for bungalows to be built (returned, really) farther east and west toward Third Street and Third Avenue. I would also lavishly fund the local public school district.
The Midtown Mile would draw new companies by its quality density. Success would breed more success, especially as I persuaded more of my rich buddies to invest in central Phoenix. So I'd have a few other projects left in me. One would be using a shell company to acquire the Central-facing parcels north of Indian School from Barron Collier, before it knew what I had in mind. I would give that land to the city for Steele Indian School Park, as should have happened in the first place — provided the city turned the park into a heavily tree-shaded oasis in perpetuity. I would also help fund more shade and year-round grass for the deck park (it should lose the Margaret Hance name; whatever her achievements or shortcomings as mayor, she was no friend of the center city). Better to invest the water in shade for the core than in lakes and golf courses for new sprawl out in the middle of nowhere. I would also work with the city on a public-private partnership to bring light rail to south Phoenix, provided the line ran past Union Station.
Another shell company would have bought the depot, relocated the telecom equipment, and returned it to use as a railroad station. Having taken a sizable position in the Union Pacific railroad, I would have no problem persuading the board to add capacity and work with the city to create commuter rail to Goodyear, Buckeye, Tempe, Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert. Adding shares in Burlington Northern Santa Fe would help me give that railroad an attitude adjustment about helping accommodate commuter rail to Glendale, Peoria, Sun City and beyond. All would converge on a restored Union Station as a multimodal hub with light rail, city buses and intercity buses. A few derivative plays, and I could find a way to fund intercity passenger rail to LA and Tucson.
My tax refund would put businesses into the Luhrs Building and Luhrs Tower. Finally, I would buy the Westward Ho, relocate its Section 8 residents to a new building, and restore it as one of America's great historic hotels.
Not all of this is a pipe dream. I've seen how wealthy stewards and real headquarters are essential to the sustained progress in Seattle's core (e.g., the Amazon campus). On a smaller scale, Zappos is trying to transform downtown Las Vegas, which is also the subject of several efforts to return passenger rail linking Vegas and LA. All it takes is money, an urban sensibility and focus. Sunshine alone won't do.
"If I were a rich man...," as Tevye sings.
Read more about the best practices happening in downtowns in Rogue's City Desk.