A rendering of Phoenix Central Station, the oval-shaped tower that would be built at Central and Van Buren.
This year, Seattle's core has seen 100 buildings permitted, under construction or recently completed. In central Phoenix, by my count, there's the proposed skyscraper above, the University of Arizona's 10-story research building on the Phoenix Biosciences Campus, the ASU college of law, and a 368-unit Lennar apartment complex in lower Midtown.
It's better than nothing, right?
Phoenix Central Station by Smith Partners would be the most interesting, rising 34 stories with 475 apartments, 30,000 square feet of commercial space and, of course, a parking garage.
The tower would rise above the homely central transit station, which nobody will miss, but retain the use as a transit hub. It has its virtues: more apartments for downtown residents, close proximity to ASU and a shape that would provide a bit of variety from the mostly dreary boxes that make up the skyline of the nation's sixth-largest city.
One big question that dogs all Phoenix projects is whether the financing will materialize and the thing will actually be built. The city owns the land and has given Smith a property tax abatement. But that's not the same as getting financing. Let's look on the bright side.
Along with the glass sheet of the Freeport McMoRan building on the northeast corner, the apartment skyscraper would cut off the view south of the Chase Tower, built as Valley Center, the headquarters of the state's largest bank, Valley National.
This is unfortunate. When then VNB President Walter Bimson overruled his board in the late 1960s — which preferred a new headquarters at Osborn and Central — he wanted to revive downtown with an architectural gift. The building is dead at street level — contrast it with the Professional Building that had served as the bank's main offices for decades. But its vaulting prisms were vastly more interesting than the boxes built by First National and Arizona Bank.
Valley Center's breathtaking feature consisted of facets on the edges of the prisms that caught the sunrise and sunset. At the right angle, the result was a natural color show. A better-planned city would have preserved view corridors for that skyscraper. But no one ever accused Phoenix of that. (And, by the way, what happened to the comments from "Phx Planner"?).
Speaking of which... Why is it that plans to turn the beautiful old VNB headquarters into a boutique hotel are yet again on hold? Apparently the Minneapolis developer can't get its share of tax breaks. It says much about the distorting force of sprawl that downtown can only be built on subsidies. And, in this case, for a Hilton Garden Inn (!). Why not something on the level of the Kimpton's Hotel Palomar? Kimpton has four hotels in downtown Seattle. Phoenix is supposed to be a huge tourist town with a major convention center, albeit damaged by the bad odor internationally of Kook politics. Also note none of these developers is headquartered in Phoenix, supposedly real-estate central but actually merely the end of the extraction-economy food chain.
In what healthy American city, where money from around the world is fueling a massive downtown building boom, would a structure with the appeal of the Professional Building remain vacant — or the priceless Westward Ho be consigned to Section 8 housing?
Downtown's skyline remains flat, squat, boring. The excuse on heights is the FAA's height limits, or more precisely the city's worry about antagonizing airlines with what they would claim would be more costly takeoff vectors. There's no excuse for height limits north of Van Buren. But nothing seems to change.
Regular readers are familiar with the big challenges: lack of major headquarters or a substantial cluster of private employers, moneyed stewards who can knock heads and write checks, and real-estate players with a passion and skills for the urban core. Those kind of players would build a world-class skyline and much more. Alas, the entire metro area is built on spec, and the spec boyz hate the Central Corridor.
The city still refuses to focus a real economic-development organization on the core. The Legislature remains hostile to cities and urban solutions, such as tax increment financing.
The "low taxes and light regulations (and we hate brown people and gays)" of the Kookocracy have left the economy a shambles. So have decades of real-estate hustles finally based on thin air. Metro Phoenix, even with the growthgasms about the "Price Corridor," has by far the weakest office market among major cities in America.
Phoenix barely merits a shrug in the industry's most consequential and respected forecast, the latest Emerging Trends in Real Estate, released last week. The leaders for 2015 are Houston, Austin, San Francisco, Denver, Dallas, Los Angeles, Charlotte, Seattle, Boston and Raleigh-Durham. Cities with real economies — and downtowns. Cities against which Phoenix is competing for talent and capital, whether it wishes to or not.
The report states:
No longer is it accepted that only the great coastal cities can be alive around the clock and on weekends. Downtown transformations have combined the key ingredients of housing, retail, dining, and walk-to-work offices to regenerate urban cores, spurring investment and development and raising the quality of life for a roster of cities.
So let’s call these reemergent downtowns “18-hour markets.” Though they quiet down noticeably in the wee hours, deep into the evening the mix of shops, restaurants, and entertainment truly generates excitement. This is catalyzed by walk-to-work housing that encourages employers in the knowledge and talent industries to keep their offices downtown
It delved into the cool-downtown tastes of millennials, but also said (ominously for The Sun Corridor) that boomer tastes are changing from the Sunbelt "retirement communities" that lured their parents or older siblings. Many of today's retiring boomers want to live in great downtowns.
And this is using the metrics of real estate, the god before which all bow in "the Valley" — not software or nanotechnology or world health or finance or actually building something productive. The game is up, even with championship golf. The game is up and the elites won't admit it.
As for the Lennar project, it is better than the vacant lots that have uglied up what should be one of the premier locations in the city. Much will depend on whether the apartments get shade trees and oasis landscaping — or palo verdes and gravel. But what a comedown from the many ambitious mixed-use developments floated there over the years.
One fact buried in a Business Journal story was telling. Lennar bought the land from Africa-Israel Investments, or AFI Group, headquartered in Tel Aviv. Who knows how many times this property has been flipped since the old AT&T offices were torn down and then the grand plans for Central evaporated after the 1990 crash.
Here's a project for Phoenix journalists: map every parcel of empty land in the Central Corridor, name the owner, trace the previous owners, and show us what once stood there, whether a useful commercial building, classic hacienda or lovely bungalow. Now it's all sun-blasted nothing being held as a tax write-off by land bankers from places around the world.
Talk about "hating Phoenix" and "being negative." These land bankers are among the champs. The answer? Tax empty land at a higher rate and fight the Legislature to make it happen. Oh, and hire the meanest and best lawyers in the country to defend down-zoning parcels that will never see a skyscraper.
Towers do not make a livable city. Abundant and unique street-level shops, shade, human-scale, architectural variety and yet walkable unity...all things old Phoenix had here.
So in this amazing city moment nationally, when young talent and boomers are helping drive the "back to the city" movement and corporations are returning to vibrant cores in order to attract employees. When even red Texas has some impressive downtowns. Phoenix has four-ish projects. Yeah, yeah, plenty of restaurants and bars cannibalizing each other, too.
But it's better than nothing, right?
[UPDATE] Michael Levine sends the photo below, where the 1914 commercial building at Madison and Central is being demolished. Perhaps for a hotel, perhaps a parking lot. Human-scaled and historic, this building would have been an ideal location for start-ups. When I was young, it was filled with useful businesses. Now, gone.
Want to learn more about what's going on in America's downtowns and the best practices of city building? Check out Rogue's City Desk.