After spending two weeks in Phoenix, I'm tempted to conclude that the central city is undergoing its most robust efflorescence in decades. And it is happening below the "red line" of Camelback Road.
This is not based on any single project — the Central Station tower and new arena for the Suns and perhaps Coyotes may or may not happen. Rather, dozens of smaller projects, mostly residential, are completed, under construction or in advanced site work or planning. Lots that have sat vacant for decades are seeing construction. Buildings are being restored — one example is the nice job the Old Spaghetti Factory did with its two former mansions on Central.
Commerce is happening, albeit on a mostly small scale, with startups and a few companies moving jobs into downtown, Midtown and Uptown. The restaurant scene is booming. We're far beyond the days when we struggled to keep Durant's, My Florist, Portland's and Cheuvront in business. Traffic is busy on Central again; more important, so is pedestrian and bicycle activity. Outside the core but in the old city many shopping strips have been given new looks.
This is small potatoes for what should be happening in the core of one of the nation's largest cities. Seattle has about a hundred major projects recently completed or underway, many of them highrises. The skyline is being dramatically remade. But considering the damage done to Phoenix over many decades of civic malpractice, it is verging on a spectacular rebirth.
What's going on? Here are my theories:
Several global and national forces are helping. An abundance of capital has been chasing yields in a slow-growth, virtual zero-interest-rate environment. Apartment ("multifamily") and, in cities with demand, office construction in center cities have been among the biggest beneficiaries. Wealthy Chinese are big investors in American real estate.
Downtowns are in bigger demand than any time since the 1950s. Talented young people want to live in walkable, vibrant urban settings; so do empty nest baby boomers. This "back to the city" movement is real and will continue. Of course, the cities that most benefit have the best bones, not only architecturally but with a substantial mass of headquarters, retail, residential options, transit, and walkability.
Even though so much of old Phoenix was clear-cut, the center city continues to exert a magnetism that is missing in the dull and sterile suburbs. Even though the leasing boyz and Real Estate Industrial Complex continue to place employment centers out on the fringes like it's 1970, central Phoenix has enough bones left — and some new ones added — to defy its destroyers.
Locally, the change doesn't seem to born from any single source but from many.
First we see the culmination of work going back to Terry Goddard's mayorality. The destruction of the core began to be stanched and city government made some reparations in years of major projects. These were not commensurate with the loss of hundreds of businesses, unique commercial buildings, and historic houses. But they began to accumulate a critical mass and the city got better at executing these works as time went on.
Second is the downtown campus of Arizona State University, along with the Biomedical Campus and University of Arizona Medical School and other UA programs. This is one asset that is providing the investment and people that come from corporate headquarters. It's not perfect and not all it could be, yet. But it has been a game changer.
Third is light rail (yep, WBIYB). This efficient transit system has succeeded well, especially in connecting ASU Tempe with the downtown campus. It also makes it possible to do a fair amount of "live/work/play" along the line.
Fourth: decades of work by the Resistance. Among them Beatrice Moore, Wayne Raynie, Greg Esser, Cindy Dasch and Kimber Lanning. Michael Levine led the way in rehabbing historic buildings, especially in the warehouse district. Lanning, especially, worked to quietly insinuate herself into the workings of city hall to get historic reuse and other basic changes at the policy level. The result is the success today on Roosevelt Row, which has attracted significant new investment in construction, apartments, galleries, and restaurants.
Fifth, downtown and even Midtown have achieved a "coolness factor" that draws residents and tourists from throughout the sprawling and boring metropolitan area. Downtown being the center of activities for the Super Bowl was a coup.
Finally, Banner moving its corporate offices from the old Good Samaritan Hospital campus to a highrise at Central and Thomas was a major vote of confidence in Midtown.
Whether this constitutes a definitive tipping point remains to be seen. Construction is mostly stick-built — this is not work for the ages. And in most cases it is moving much slower than in Seattle. It's not clear how solid much of the financing is. And the spec apartments are heavily dependent, too dependent, on ASU students. North of Roosevelt, much of the Central Corridor continues to suffer from dreadful suburban setbacks and the continued throwing down of gravel and planting too may palo verdes and too few shade trees.
And until Phoenix gets serious about prioritizing economic development — especially attracting private-sector jobs and high-wage jobs — in the core, the area will remain a set of commuter neighborhoods where people must largely drive to work and most shopping outside the Central Corridor.
But this is the most we've seen in a very long time. When the Fed starts to raise rates, we will see how much of it has legs. Why? Because metropolitan Phoenix's economy remains deeply wounded from the Great Recession and lacking the assets and competitive power necessary for such a populous region. Without this, only so many restaurants can be sustained, much less a downtown worthy of a big city.