Midtown Phoenix runs from Fillmore Street north to Indian School and from Seventh Avenue to Seventh Street. It's a big, diverse district that contains some of the city's finest assets: The Roosevelt, Willo and Alvarado historic districts; central library, Phoenix Art Museum and Heard Museum; the deck park and the boundary with Steele Indian School Park; a dozen skyscrapers, and the spine of the Metro light rail. And much of it is in trouble.
The Phoenix Corporate Center is facing foreclosure after its anchor tenant, Fennemore Craig, left for new space at 24th Street and Camelback. It was originally the Mayer Central Plaza, then the First Federal Savings Building, the tallest in the city when it opened in the early 1960s and featuring an outside elevator. The Midtown office vacancy rate at the end of last year was 28 percent vs. downtown's 15 percent. Most of the towers are now considered less-desirable B-class and C-class office space. Like much of the Central Corridor, it also suffers from large blighted empty lots, such as the northwest corner of McDowell and Central and the east side of Central north of the punch card building and south of McDonald's. Only the mile between McDowell and Thomas is filled in, and shows it as an appealing urban space. What should be a prime location, the northwest corner of Central and Thomas, is a billboard behind which the homeless camp (much like the astoundingly empty space on the southwest corner of Central and Camelback).
This is not just another story of the ongoing linear slum-ization of the nation's sixth-largest city. For one thing, it's happening in the heart of the city. Second, it is the prime example of the failure of light rail transit-oriented development. Finally, it shows how City Hall is not paying attention to jobs and private investment, both of which are moving to the suburbs.
All this came crashing down with the real-estate collapse of 1990-91. Many of the financial institutions that anchored towers along Central went away. And the building was heavily driven by speculation, rather than real demand from a growing corporate sector. When Wall Street destroyed Dial as a major corporation and caused the Viad breakup, as well as the loss of a major civic steward, Midtown never recovered. Mountain Bell became Qwest became Century Link, and with each merger more Phoenix jobs were clearcut. Park Central closed and was converted to offices. Acres had been upzoned and cleared — and the promised towers never came. Even where building happened, much of the area's charm was lost, such as the flagship Bob's Big Boy, the heart of cruising Central. That glorious activity was banned.
To be sure, the Phoenix Art Museum and the Heard built beautiful additions. The historic districts revived and the ghastly Papago Freeway was buried under a park. A handful of residential developments wheezed to completion, including One Lexington where I have a very nice condo with a great view — if one can ignore all the superblock parking garages and parking lagoons. Mister Joe's has continued to expand, becoming the one large employer in Midtown doing well. Light rail was successfully completed (WBIYB). Recently, Arizona Opera built a rehearsal/office space next to the Flinn Foundation. But much of Midtown entered the Phoenix Depression in bad shape and, unlike downtown, no revival is on the horizon.
Midtown is a testament to Phoenix's lack of serious planning or economic-development strategy. Those Midtown towers should have been built downtown and nothing north of McDowell should have been rezoned for skyscrapers. Ironically, the same power of the developers triumphed in turning the low-rise district around 24th and Camelback into a highrise cluster. It's newer and closer to Scottsdale and Paradise Valley. Even Arizona's senators have their offices there. This move, which began with the Esplanade, hastened Midtown's demise. It also destroyed the democratic views of the mountains that once distinguished the city and began the decline of the neighborhoods south of the Esplanade and Ritz-Carlton — patronizingly called "the Sonoran Biltmore" by the wealthy Anglos.
Another big problem is lack of data. I couldn't find anyone in City Hall who was tracking the number of jobs being lost in the Central Corridor when I was working at the Arizona Republic in the 2000s. I'm not sure that's changed. There's a telling lack of curiosity. There's also no strategy to deal with economic development or quality place-making in Midtown. I see that the Phoenix Community Alliance, the 501(c)3 organized by Jerry Colangelo for downtown and Central Corridor economic development still has a Web site. If it's doing anything to address this issue, I'm not aware of it. "PCA's Executive Committee has just completed our re-visioning process. Our updated plan will establish a new dynamic for the next five years." Great.
I've already written about how I would focus on this area if I were a billionaire. In the real world, it faces multiple headwinds. Among them are a lack of headquarters companies, champions in the Real Estate Industrial Complex, land banking and "economic freedom/property rights" state laws vomited out of the Kookocracy that would prevent downzoning. This latter, along with heavy taxes on empty land, would encourage scalable development. An economic strategy must include recruiting companies and developers who could build-to-suit for the kinds of back offices the metro area attracts is important.
As for the towers, that kind of relatively inexpensive B- and C-class space would be ideal for entrepreneurs and startups. And much more attention to walkability, streetscapes and shade are essential. Some might be converted to condos or apartments, but that requires an expertise lacking among Phoenix developers and an economy generating higher-paid jobs. In addition, if the hemorrhage of jobs from the core isn't reversed, the promise of light rail to allow people to use it to travel for work and play is negated. Living along Central is great; less great if one must get in a car and drive to north Scottsdale every day for work.
City Hall can't do this alone. The hostility of the Legislature to cities and urban issues is a huge impediment. But as places such as Tempe, Chandler and Glendale keep announcing these big new employers, I keep wondering what's going on with Phoenix's leadership, such as it is. Desert Ridge, the sprawl along Black Canyon around USAA and 24th and Camelback aren't an answer. They're part of the problem. I don't have the data yet, but I get the sense Phoenix is losing serious ground to the suburbs. It may please some in north Scottsdale for the city to become "the Mexican Detroit" — and let's go after those dastardly public pensions! — but the city's ills are actually bad for the entire state. With downtown at least out of intensive care, Job No. 1 should be fixing Midtown.