Central and Van Buren in 1972.
Part I and Part II of "What Killed Downtown Phoenix" were the most popular posts in the history of Rogue Columnist. So much for the notion that Phoenicians don't care about the center city. Now it's time to bring the story to a conclusion.
By the mid-1970s, downtown was in a freefall, despite the construction of the Phoenix Civic Plaza, Hyatt Regency, new Hotel Adams, new Greyhound bus depot and skyscrapers housing the headquarters of the state's three big banks. Unfortunately, in the process many historic buildings were demolished, including a priceless red sandstone multi-story building at Second Avenue and Washington. Block-long parking garages and assembly of superblocks created long, empty spaces along sidewalks where once there were dozens of shops. Several valuable territorial-era structures were demolished to create the desolate, sunblasted Patriots Square (workers discovered an "underground city" from frontier Phoenix that had housed opium dens and gambling parlors, protected from the heat in an era before air conditioning). These and others lost were precisely the kind of buildings rehabbed in downtown Denver into Larimer Square.One of the greatest calamities was the demolition of the Fox Theater, the finest movie palace downtown. This happened without a peep of protest. On the land, the city built a "transit center," which was little more than a Maryvale-style ranch house "station" and parking stalls for city buses. The Paramount somehow survived, running Spanish-language films. Another calamity was the Westward Ho, which closed as a hotel and only avoided the wrecking ball by being turned into Section 8 housing. The smaller San Carlos, thankfully, was saved as a historic hotel.
In the late 1960s, the Postal Service canceled its mail contracts with the railroads. This colossally foolish move hastened the end of most passenger trains. Thus, by 1969, the Sunset Limited, once one of the finest streamliners in the world, was reduced to three-times-a-week service, often with as few as two cars. The dining car was replaced with one that carried vending machines. The other trains that had served Union Station were gone, including the modest but well-appointed Hassayampa Flier, which connected Phoenix with the elite mainline trains of the Santa Fe Railway at Williams Junction. Although the Sunset improved after Amtrak took over its operation in 1971, Union Station was open for only limited hours. Meanwhile, although agriculture remained important in the Salt River Valley (in 1975, it accounted for 16 percent of the land use in Maricopa County, vs. 6.6 percent for urban/suburban), the once-busy produce district south of Madison Street shriveled. Newer facilities built elsewhere and truck transportation made the old area, so critical to downtown's economy, less attractive. In the 1960s, the city had built soaring overpasses for Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street above what were as many as 20 busy railroad tracks. By the time both overpasses were completed, the tracks were being torn out for scrap (only one survives).
Still, as the photo above shows, some businesses hung on. Most blocks were still intact. As importantly, residential areas adjacent to downtown such as Evans-Churchill and the neighborhoods between Seventh Avenue and the state capitol remained. But they were in steep decline. Many blocks in the Deuce also still held businesses and bars, despite the intrusion of the Civic Plaza, the new Greyhound station and a new Phoenix Fire Department Station One. A number of single-room occupancy hotels were still in business, a cause of endless amusement, grief and danger during my ambulance days, but often in handsome buildings that in another city would have held great potential. Woolworth's and a few other retailers hung on along Washington Street, almost entirely serving the poor.
Margaret Hance was mayor from 1976 to 1983, and although she had grown up in what is now Willo and attended Kenilworth School, she proved no friend of downtown. Like the popular Milt Graham in the 1960s, she had no vision for the center city aside from agreeing to every upzoning request along Central Avenue. Graham was outright hostile to transit. At least her predecessor John Driggs rode the bus from his home on North Central to downtown. Hance was indifferent. The result was that Phoenix had a terrible bus system for a city its size, and no realistic Plan B to the freeways most residents didn't want. Initially, traffic engineers made streets wider. Tellingly, three lanes exited downtown, while only two lanes entered the central business district. One "gift" to the old central business district was revealing: The fortress-like police headquarters (above), one of the ugliest and most forbidding buildings in the Southwest. Another, just south, was a new Post-Mortem Laboratory (PML), or county morgue.
During the 1960s and 1970s, most of America was having policy conversations about "the crisis of the cities." One response in many places was widespread and destructive urban renewal. A more constructive reaction began in New York City after the horrifying destruction of Pennsylvania Station in 1963, with the historic preservation movement. None of this happened in Phoenix. This city saw itself as the future — one popular illustration showed a monorail going down Central above the automobiles. "Phoenix doesn't have slums," local leaders said glibly and some may even have believed this. The newness of the place and the temporary decline of older cities seemed to validate this hubris. It didn't help that the closest big city was Los Angeles, the king of freeways and sprawl. At the same time, after the traumas of the Depression and World War II, America forgot how to make beautiful cities, the critical elements of civic design. In Phoenix, especially after banker Walter Bimson retired, downtown was seen not so much as a problem but irrelevant.
In 1971, Greyhound Corp., the diversified Chicago consumer products company that also owned the bus lines, relocated its headquarters to Phoenix. To civic leaders, this was a sign of the city's attractiveness and economic-development strategy (basically, do nothing and let the sunshine do the selling). It was seen as the first of an exodus of Fortune 500 headquarters that would leave the declining cities of the Midwest and East and come to Phoenix (that didn't happen). But Greyhound built its headquarters at Rosenzweig Center at Central and Clarendon, three miles north of the old central business district. Phoenix was still the center of corporate Arizona — and there were numerous, sizable locally-owned companies in this era before the industry consolidation that began in the 1980s — but it was migrating to Midtown and Uptown.
The city finally tried to put lipstick on the pig of helter-skelter high-rise rezoning by designating the "Central Corridor" in the 1970s. This only encouraged more upzonings and land speculation, disrupting not just the old neighborhoods — many had long since been torn down and replaced with empty lots — but the seamless fabric of single-story commerical buildings along the city's premier avenue. It was accompanied by no serious strategy for urban quality, especially transit (light rail was decades away). The city also tried to bring some control, at least on paper, to the vast sprawl that had extended the city limits to Bell Road. The answer was the Urban Village concept. In theory, every so-called urban village would have its own "downtown," at least in the eyes of policymakers and, later, in the minds of city council members. This, too, hurt the real downtown.
A snapshot in 1977, a year before I left Phoenix never expecting to return: Most Phoenicians had little reason to ever venture downtown, except to deal with the government, lawyers or bankers. A few stores remained, catering to the poor, as did the pawn shops, bail bond offices and bars. A handful of media remained, including the two newspapers. Students still attended iconic Phoenix Union High, although it would close in five years. Conventions and concerts happened at the Civic Plaza, but there was little to keep people downtown before or after. A pervasive seediness and lifelessness hung over the place.
Even though I had gone to high school in Scottsdale, college in Tempe, and carried a heavy case of inner-city burnout from the ambulance, I couldn't quite let downtown go. I would especially drive to Union Station, my special pilgrimage (I still do). As parochial a Phoenician as any, I didn't know any better than city leaders why downtown mattered, something inside me just believed that it should. I was even proud of the new bank-built skyline, trying not to conclude that most of the buildings were soulless. Yet contrary to Bimson's hopes, the center of gravity has shifted decisively to Central north of Thomas. The nearly two decade wait for the Pagago Freeway had created a dead zone between downtown and Midtown. As the Deuce contracted, the homeless slept on porches in what became the historic districts — there was a real question whether these neighborhoods could be saved. The closest-in neighborhoods were slums with very good bones. Population was falling. North of Thomas, however, Central was vibrant. Park Central was thriving, even though the massive Metrocenter "super-regional" mall had opened "far out" at Black Canyon and Dunlap five years earlier. City leaders pledged that Bell Road would be Phoenix's northernmost boundary, period. It didn't matter. When I had been a little boy, the streets of downtown had been full of people, commerce and action. Now, less than 15 years later, they were nearly devoid of pedestrians. Downtown was as good as dead.
Or so it seemed.
By the mid-1980s, it was becoming clear that downtowns were still important, even in a post-industrial age. Jane Jacobs was being rediscovered and James Howard Kunstler was beginning the intellectual spadework that would lead to his seminal book The Geography of Nowhere in 1994. Healthy downtowns provided a host of goods to entire metropolitan areas. Today, they are attracting young talent and hot companies that don't want a car-dependent suburban "campus." They're more efficient, innovative and environmentally advantageous. Also, every city competing against Phoenix has the same suburban sprawl — but the best also offer vibrant downtowns. As importantly, the urban ills of sick downtowns had a way of spreading. Cities around the nation began focusing on their cores with fresh approaches and the renaissances were plentiful. And Phoenix elected an urban thinker as mayor in 1984 with Terry Goddard, the man who smashed the Charter movement's lock on power of more than three decades. Meanwhile, a cohort of artists established studios and galleries in the warehouse district. One pioneer, Beatrice Moore, founded her studio in 1987. What began in 1989 as an annual Art Detour tour of downtown galleries became the monthly First Friday in 1994. Urban pioneers began the long pull to save what became the F.Q Story, Roosevelt and Willo historic districts.
The attempts to kill downtown were far from over, however. While I was gone, Central experienced a phenomenal boom through the 1980s, capped off by the city's one distinguished piece of highrise architecture, the Viad Tower. Only the two Renaissance Square towers were raised downtown. The remainder (nine) were north. Even worse, more was destroyed than created. In the speculative mania fueled by risky savings-and-loan money, property was assembled for literally dozens of proposed skyscrapers. Few were built, but land was cleared and remains so to this day (you can read more about this era on Central here). When the real-estate crash came in 1990, the long-lasting consequences for downtown were two-fold. First, the entire central core was stigmatized by the development industry. From then on, it would make its money elsewhere. Second, as the depression on Central lingered, with even Park Central mall closing, it prevented any comeback downtown. The closest-in neighborhoods continued losing population at a dramatic rate.
More blows came as Phoenix's foremost downtown companies were lost and severely mauled. The Arizona Bank was purchased in 1986. First National went soon after. Arizona Public Service, which morphed into AZP Group and then Pinnacle West Capital Corp. in an attempt to diversify, was wounded in the S&L crisis by its Merabank subsidiary as well as high debt. It shed workers on a vast scale and never recovered its old pre-eminence or employment levels. Merabank closed, leaving the art deco Professional Building an empty shell, and so it remains. Then, in 1993, giant Valley National Bank, which almost single-handedly slowed downtown's demise, was bought. (Central Newspapers, publishers of the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette, would build a new downtown headquarters and hang on until 2000, before being acquired by Gannett). The overall loss of well-paid headquarters employees ultimately reached into the thousands in the years ahead. And nothing was replacing them. Their civic leadership and philanthropy were never restored (things worsened when Wall Street wrecked Viad, the former Greyhound, leading it to radically downsize, including killing its planned second tower).
Here, again, was a situation other large cities didn't face: A total clearcutting of downtown headquarters and even the regional headquarters of, say, the acquiring banks were located in other cities. Phoenix's core became dependent on subsidies from City Hall and real-estate plays.
Another heavy blow came when the city allowed the Esplanade to be built amid the pleasant, single-story area of 24th Street and Camelback. A Ritz-Carlton tower followed, and in the coming years more office and condo buildings would break ground. Low-rise offices proliferated along a newly designated "Camelback Corridor." Here was a new "downtown" — without poor people, without messy public spaces, closer to Scottsdale and Paradise Valley. It would draw numerous companies and law firms from the real downtown and from Central.
The Goddard years had hits and misses. Establishing the historic districts was a clear success. He championed historic preservation, with the Orpheum Theater being a triumph. At Third Street and Van Buren, he laid the groundwork for the Rouse Co. to build a version of its highly popular "festival marketplaces" with Arizona Center, which opened in 1990. It included towers for APS/Pinnacle West and the Snell & Wilmer law firm and an exquisite shaded garden. A year earlier, the Herberger Theater Center opened across the street. Also nearby, the Latino-flavored Mercado opened a year earlier, a partnership between developer and soon-to-be-governor Fife Symington and Chicanos por la Causa. With all this new development adjacent to the Civic Center, downtown regained the potential for some critical mass.
Alas, the Mercado proved a disaster and soon closed. Arizona Center was initially popular. But it was too inward-facing, not dramatically different from what one could find in the suburbs. It didn't provide the dense, up-on-the-sidewalk authenticity and energy of real downtown shopping. In a city where most of the population with disposable income lived ever farther out and lacked an urban sensibility, Arizona Center began a long swoon. Also, Goddard's success in creating an all-district system for City Council left downtown with potentially only one champion — the council member who represented that district. At the least, a mix of district and at-large representation could have provided more incentive to look after the central core.
A new city hall was a lost opportunity. With the Municipal Building outmoded, Phoenix set an international competition for a new city hall. It attracted proposals from some of the leading architects in the world, some of which would have been masterpieces. As with so much else, the 1990 crash dashed it. A mediocre tower was built instead — it would have fit in any suburban Dallas office "park" — with the only flourish being a "crown" that inadvertently (?) gives the finger to south Phoenix. A happier outcome was a new main library, designed by my friend Will Bruder. Although it was delayed by the downturn, opening in 1995, it provided a distinctive new building to help reclaim the dead zone between downtown proper and Midtown. The Papago Freeway had been completed in 1990, placed in an underground tunnel with a park overhead, instead of the 100-foot flyover originally planned.
A new downtown steward emerged in Jerry Colangelo, managing partner of the Phoenix Suns. He led the relocation of the team from the Veterans Memorial Coliseum to a new arena downtown opening in 1992. It was a homely affair until new glass facing was added in the early 2000s, but it brought people downtown. Colangelo would lead the building of a downtown ballpark for the expansion Diamondbacks (1998) next door. Although Colangelo himself was not rich at this point, he could assemble capital and persuade the city to invest in these arenas. He became downtown's foremost champion, yet was widely villified (and that's another column). Assessing the net gains or losses is difficult. It would have been a huge blunder to put the arenas out on the freeways (e.g. Glendale). They added to the appeal and prestige of downtown, helping draw the Collier Tower. They also displaced artists, some longtime residents and destroyed some historic buildings. I'm unconvinced that if the arenas had never happened, downtown somehow would have organically arisen. There wasn't the capital or employment base anymore. The artists didn't have the capital, for all their passion. A middle ground to preserve more buildings, as with Denver's LoDo, was impeded by a lack of stewards with means and skills. And Denver still has a major private employment base downtown as well as close-in neighborhoods with affluent residents.
City Hall caused much destruction during the years I was gone. It failed to put in place policies to prevent massive tear-downs and penalize land banking. Thus, vast tracts of downtown, including most of the last territorial-era buildings were turned into parking lots or vacant, blighted expanses. Hundreds of historic houses were demolished in the "capitol mall," adding to the 3,000 lost for the Papago Freeway, many irreplacable bungalows, Victorians and territorial and early 20th century apartments with distinctive sleeping porches. Imagine the quality urban neighborhoods these could have made. The city didn't get serious about reforming its suburban-centric zoning code to include, for example, mixed use and historic reuse, until the late 2000s.
The state did no better, even before the current anti-urban bunch had taken over. Astonishingly, it refused to partner with the Southern Pacific Railroad to improve the rail line between Phoenix and Welton. As a result, Amtrak service was halted in 1996 making Phoenix by far the largest American city without intercity passenger rail service. As of this writing, beautiful Union Station remains, privately owned and housing telecom equipment. But it could be torn down tomorrow. In a healthy city, every effort would be made to acquire it and use it as a center for multimodal transportation, including commuter rail service and the return of Amtrak.
There was also a conscious effort to push the working poor out, the people that still rode buses to shop, the better to keep them away from the swanky new downtown assets. Later, when an effort was being made to bring a new county hospital to the downtown biosciences campus, a leading player from the 1980s and 1990s told me, "They're not going to allow those people near their billion dollars in investments." The trouble, of course, was that most of the investments were heavily subsidized by taxpayers, including those people. The last stores closed in the 1980s and the historic block on Washington with its wonderful mix of architecture, was wiped clean. By the time I returned in 2000, the Greyhound bus depot was located out by Sky Harbor. I can think of no other major city that did this.
As the 1990s came to a close, downtown was, to most people, still "dead." One lost opportunity came when USAA chose the Valley for a massive back-office complex. Although Mayor Skip Rimza tried to get the company to move downtown, it wanted a "greenfield" site for a sprawling office "park." Rather than lose it to burgeoning north Scottsdale, where most of what was left of corporate Arizona was relocating, Rimsza settled on a site at I-17 and Happy Valley Road (so much for the vow that Bell Road would mark the end of Phoenix annexation). With the completion of the Central Arizona Project canal in 1993, massive, industrial-scale sprawl began, creating huge suburbs that would become serious rivals to Phoenix. Here is a great counterfactual: What if more creative thinking and incentives could have brought USAA to a low-rise office "campus" in or near the abundant empty land in downtown? The same is true of Nordstrom, which didn't want to be downtown. Margaret Mullen, head of the Downtown Phoenix Partners, graciously sent it to Scottsdale instead. What, again, if some different approach could have landed it at Arizona Center, as a unique draw? Rimsza had better luck with Phelps-Dodge (now Freeport-McMoRan), the first major headquarters win for downtown in decades. But, revealingly, it was poached from Midtown, not brought in from elsewhere thanks to an economic-development strategy or effective eco-devo organization for the core.
Phoenix still didn't understand quality urban placemaking, how to make downtown different from the suburbs in a good way. Thus, the new City Hall was built on another superblock, connected to the Orpheum by a park. But it's a concrete/desert "park," blazingly unapproachable even on a mildly sunny day. The longtime oasis around the old City-County Building was ripped out in favor of dirt and palo verdes. Patriots Square set the pace with a bleak, hostile expanse. Walkability, shade and the constant surprise of dense, unique storefronts on regular-sized blocks eluded downtown. Meanwhile, teardowns continued. The county kept expanding the jails, demolishing irreplaceable historic buildings in the warehouse district. Each step forward seemed marked by two steps back. Still, a variety of leaders and entrepreneurs refused to give up, accomplishments accumulated, Rimsza maintained a pro-downtown consensus on Council, ASU arrived — and in the 2000s downtown finally rebounded, after a fashion.
Today, a walk around displays a remarkable change from even a decade ago. The two new buildings of the rechristened Phoenix Convention Center are much more appealing than the old brutalist Civic Plaza. Although too limited and too slow out of the blocks, the Phoenix Biosciences Campus with T-Gen, the University of Arizona medical school and other operations has at least established a beachhead of research and a quality economy in the core. CityScape is too suburban and lacks architectural inspiration, but it is the most promising mixed-use project yet. ASU's downtown campus has created the greatest sea change for the central core with thousands of students and more growth ahead. And light rail — yes, We Built It, You Bastards and it's a massive success. Downtown faces daunting challenges which we discuss in depth on this blog. It is not where it should be, where it must be, for a city Phoenix's size to be competitive. But it is not dead. In many ways, it came through the Great Recession better than much of the metropolitan area. I can't think of another major city downtown that came back from such a deep hole.
Sometimes, when I am on Second Street it's as if I'm living a dream of the future from, say, 1970. Where once was the gritty, disorganized heart of the Deuce, is now a sparkling new avenue with its impressive though mostly sterile modern buildings and futuristic, arty streetlamps. It is undoubtedly an improvement, indeed an achievement that took decades to complete. What's lacking are the consistent pulse of life that was still there even in the 1960s and the uniquely urban vibe that comes from a sense of history, authenticity and human-scale shops. It can't be master-planned. It can't be an echo of suburbia. I am one of the relative few of my generation of Phoenicians who even remembers the wonderful downtown that was and mourns the losses and missed opportunities. Yes, Phoenix had a downtown. It does again. Bad fortune, worse policy, poor timing, civic vandalism and indifference did their best to kill it. They failed.
Learn more about the intriguing, inspiring, maddening history of Phoenix with Rogue Columnist's Phoenix 101 archive.
Follow the best practices of American and international downtowns and urban issues on Rogue's City Desk.