It's nice to read that the city of Phoenix is spending $560,000 on a facelift for First Street, including "street improvements, decorative sidewalks, new trees and pedestrian-friendly upgrades."
Unfortunately, my first reaction is that City Hall is about 50 years too late.
Into the 1960s, First Street, like much of downtown, was a thriving commercial avenue. Essential to this was affordable space for shops and a streetscape that meant every few feet you landed at the door to another business.
Let me give you an example. In 1956, between Washington and Monroe streets, two blocks, First was home to Russell Stover Candies, David's Shoes, Goldwater's, Hanny's, Dorris Hayman, Montgomery Ward, Porter Mercantile, Barney's Garage, Cole Home Supply, Morris Athletic Supply, Richards Dean Jewelery, Tony's Shoe Shop, The Normandie Hotel, Thompson's Indian Shop and Phoenix Stamp and Coin. All in two blocks.
That delightful commercial density was killed by "improvements" since then: Brutalist parking structures, hulking hotels that open onto other streets, teardowns and the Valley Center (Chase Tower) skyscraper. These destroyed literally scores of human-scale buildings and helped run retail out of downtown.
The result, as one walks along First, is long blocks of nothing. It is the antithesis of an inviting downtown street, one of which I wrote about on Sunday for the Seattle Times. This happened all over downtown Phoenix and was one of the key reasons why misguided city policy nearly killed the central business district.
Now, the first priority should be to do no harm. That means the trees must be shade trees, not the spindly, useless palo verdes the city has laid down everywhere. And no gravel, please.
From the past, Phoenix structures would benefit from awnings or other shade cover over the sidewalks.
Beyond that, restoring First will be difficult but not impossible. Why, for example, is the former home of the Matador restaurant still empty? (For that matter, why is the food at Hanny's so unappetizing?).
New market tax credits and other tools could be used to address this. Locally owned businesses out in shopping strips should be recruited and subsidized if necessary. And I mean useful businesses, not just restaurants, of which the city has too many already.
Also, develop the lot on the east side of First between Washington and Jefferson, with businesses facing the street. Although CityScape is a welcome addition, it faces inward like a suburban project. Little faces First Street. Part of the pleasure of the urban experience is that everything is different from what one finds in the suburbs.
With some private investment — downtown Phoenix's great deficiency — First could be narrowed to a pleasant two lanes and the space gained could be used to build street-facing storefronts in front of such monstrosities as the backside of the Hyatt and the Chase parking garage.
In general, city leaders are unwilling to do two things I have been writing about since the early 2000s: Make the central city the cheapest and easiest place in the city to do business, and do aggressive economic development. Thus, it continues to lose out to Scottsdale and now Chandler.
Finally, I hope the plan to close part of Adams and turn it into a "pedestrian mall" is dead. This was a fad in the 1970s and in almost every case came to grief.