"Superblocks," with one project, be it an office, apartment, or parking garage, taking up an entire block, are one of the biggest enemies of a vibrant downtown. Think of old Civic Plaza (right) or the Chase Tower and its parking hulk. Even CityScape, which has many shops, offices, and restaurants (unfortunately facing inward), consists of superblocks that once held dozens of individual buildings, each with distinctive architecture and attitude to the street.
This is not a problem confined to central Phoenix — superblocks are profitable for developers. But this is a Phoenix-centric blog and no other major city lost more of its good urban bones to teardowns and, in many cases after decades, rebuilding into massive projects that are nearly dead at street level.
It's important to recall what Phoenix had. Not for nostalgia, but for lessons in how good cities really work (which is usually the opposite of what urban planners want) and because so few Phoenicians even know what once existed.
So thanks to the new digital archive of the McCulloch Brothers collection at ASU and other shots archived by Brad Hall, let's examine the energetic, walkable, full-of-life-and-commerce Phoenix:
Here is First Street and Washington, looking west in the 1940s. It's now entirely covered by the former Phelps Dodge tower built in the late 1990s.
Newberry's and Kress set off this block at First Avenue and Washington, graced by Art Deco architecture and awnings in the 1950s. It's all gone now, taken up by the two towers of Renaissance Square.
Busy Washington Street near Central in the 1930s. These buildings were lost to empty lots and finally the former Phelps Dodge tower.
Central and Adams, looking southwest and featuring Vic Hanny's men's store. This was another set of commercial buildings replaced by Renaissance Square.
This is another view of Baker's Shoes and the Studio Theater with a wider angle, in 1940. Lerner Shops's neon was a downtown beacon at night. Note the different styles of buildings. Every few steps, a new store welcomes the stroller. Awnings keep shoppers cool.
The famous Saratoga Cafe, Rialto Theater and numerous other buildings occupied this block between Central and First Avenue, Washington and Jefferson — all were torn down to make the wasteland of Patriot's Square. Now it's part of CityScape.
This expansive view shows buildings torn down for the superblocks of Valley Center, the 1970s-era Hotel Adams (Renaissance), Hyatt Regency, Civic Plaza (today's Convention Center) and more. Many blocks laid empty with teardowns in the 1980s.
Central Avenue looking north from Monroe in the 1940s. Note the intact streetscape. The low-rise commercial buildings were lost to Valley Center (now Chase Tower) in the early 1970s. The Standard Oil office building on the northeast corner of Van Buren was razed and remained a parking lot for decades.
It's 1972 and the car dealerships and offices running on the west side of Central between Van Buren and Fillmore are still complete. All would be lost except for one commercial building that's part of the ASU park. The ugly central transit station site closer, on Van Buren. But the cohesiveness of the block was lost.
While not exactly lost to a superblock, this is the east side of Central Avenue, across from the Post Office and Hotel Westward Ho. It hosted a variety of uses, from the small "auto court" at lower right to Central Methodist Church in the top. For decades, much of this land sat vacant.
Here's the iconic Fox Theater on the southeast corner of Washington and Second Street in 1950s. This and the other blocks are full of businesses and activity. The Fox was demolished in 1975 for a Maryvale-style building meant to be the city bus terminal. Planned in the 1990s as the site of twin towers, Block 23 of the original townsite is now the dead at street-level, a surface parking lot between CityScape and Collier Center. The 1953 Penney's underground garage is still there.
The Fleming Building was tucked amid busy shops, offices, and theaters at First Avenue and Washington. This valuable example of territorial architecture was torn down for the off-the-shelf box of the First National Bank of Arizona (now Wells Fargo) tower and garage.
Another view of the Fleming Building, framed between the City Hall-County Courthouse and Arizona Title Building. Close inspection shows that only the courthouse took up an entire block, and this included a lush park around the handsome building.
We're on First Avenue looking north toward the Title and Trust Building at Adams. Another set of buildings lost for the Wells Fargo superblock. Buildings such as these were saved to make Denver's Lower Downtown Larimer Square.
My book, A Brief History of Phoenix, is available to buy or order at your local independent bookstore, or from Amazon.
Read more Phoenix history in Rogue's Phoenix 101 archive.