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February 01, 2019

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I enjoyed your book on Phoenix history and I always enjoy your writing on the subject. Good post. Thanks.

I won't predict success or failure for Block 23 but I would be happy if the Fry's stays in business for at least three years before its inevitable closure. I want to believe downtown has turned a corner, and the thousands of new apartments are certainly a positive sign. Still, the history of downtown retail over the past several decades has not been positive as Arizona Center and the Mercado have demonstrated. As always, parking is the problem. Maybe there are teeming hordes eager to park in an underground garage in order to do their grocery shopping, but I suspect they'll be even happier just to go to the Safeway on McDowell where a surface lot makes it easier to park.

I suspect some of the stories you'll read on AZCentral in the coming years will concern the apartment dwellers and their frustration with the homeless lurking in and around the Fry's. The shoplifting will be intense as it usually is in urban groceries and the owners will deploy uniformed guards to keep the mayhem at bay. Weekday lunch crowds will help in the beginning but after a while even they will shrink as the quality of the fare declines. City officials will monitor the situation but most of their efforts will consist of image management and invocations of jargon, like "synergy". Don't get me wrong: downtown is getting better, with much of the credit going to ASU. But it's still nowhere near being able to survive on its own.


😊 forget it! Cool block no matter how we spin it eating downtown sometimes includes groceries /)

Will diwntiwn Frys have Menudo y Lengua Sandwiches?

soleri, you didn't forecast the inevitable leprosy breakout, sure to originate in the Fry's store. (Jeez, soleri here has set a new benchmark for pessimism.) The proof that the past is past and progress is possible is the fact that progress has already taken place. What is necessary for an "urban scene" is density and density has already occurred and is, in fact, accelerating. Phoenix may never have the core-to-suburbs ratio of a Chicago, but the ratio is growing. And it should be noted that even Chicago or LA (less so NYC) has more population living outside of its downtown than within. What makes a downtown vibrant is the actual number of people working and/or living downtown. The City has nearly 1.7 million people. The metro area has nearly 5 million. It doesn't take a huge percentage to create a lively downtown scene. Chin up, soleri!

Phil Motta, you may well be right - pessimism is my dominant mood. I have dumped on Phoenix since my hippie days wondering why the city was so eager to get rid of the few creative people living downtown (see: Beatrice Moore).

That said, every successful city out there grew organically from a compelling set of facts. Chicago sits on Lake Michigan and at the nexus of several trade routes. There was never any doubt about its reasons for being there, despite the polar vortexes that can now make it seem hellish. The same goes for NYC, which has a world-class harbor and river. Downtown Phoenix, by contrast, is located a mile north of a dry river bed. It sits in the hottest spot in one of the world's hottest deserts.

When Phoenix was a minor city back in the day, it functioned well. The downtown wasn't large but it was both coherent and the region's heartbeat. The post-war boom changed all that. The car became king. Once the Good Life (car + single-family house) defined our urban form, there was no looking back. Phoenix sprawled from one end of nowhere to the other while downtown withered to near death.

The billions we have poured into downtown redevelopment since 1970 have filled up many of its blocks with inert government buildings, their parking garages, a huge convention center plus hotels, and sports palaces. It looked good on postcards but the sidewalks were empty. To this day, no one goes downtown to shop, to stroll past civic monuments, enjoy the visual reminders of a compelling history, or thrill to the crowds taking in its urban scene. There's no scene because it's not really a downtown so much as an agglomeration of set pieces mimicking a downtown.

The residential boom is a good sign but it's occurring in a city where people are used to living anywhere and driving to where they want to go. Freeways matter much more than mass transit because that's still the necessary bargain you strike living in a relentlessly suburbanized city. In the midst of this dubious bargain, a large grocery store is being erected.

I want Fry's to succeed but it won't be serving a large population base. Rather, it's one more example of the build-it-and-they-will-come wishful thinking that has defined Phoenix's urban "renaissance" for decades. As an urban booster, I would gladly drive there, take a ticket at the kiosk, descend into an underground garage to park, take an elevator to the ground floor, shop, and then trundle my goodies back to my car and drive to a parking booth, stop and hand my validated ticket to the attendant in order to leave and reenter the maelstrom of cars that define Phoenix's dominant character. Remember: I am a booster. Most Phoenicians are more practical.

I don't mean to piss all over my hometown. I know how harsh I sound making these judgments. I have even found my way to accepting Phoenix's unfortunate history not as some product of civic incompetence so much as simply bad timing. But the Fry's isn't a market response to a new set of facts. It is instead one more jiggered hope in an ongoing agony of urban place-making. My heart fervently hope it works. My gut tells me something entirely different.

Those of you who giggle when they hear the word Uranus, will giggle at this suggestion. Rather than install Tesla charging stations or scooter parking stations or shared bike stations; a smart downtown should install hundreds and hundreds of poop stations. Phoenix might as well get a head start on those world class outhouses called San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle.

You can scoff at the idea, but in that case, be sure to wear shoes that have soles which are easily rinsed off.

Interesting side note: three families have moved into the neighborhood from Portland, Oregon. I asked, "why would you move to AZ from there?"

Their response, " we want to live somewhere where the homeless don't have more rights than we do."

To quote the movie line, " If that's not a mess, it'll do until the real one gets here".

Chicago could only become what it has become when the people of the area figured out how to connect Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River. That didn't come over night and they did have a rather large fire to overcome in the mid 1800s. But yes, it is the hub of trade in the region.

Phoenix was either a hub or near a hub of international trade in pre Colombian times. Trade was 'far flung' (think: lack of horses) ranging from present day Kansas to Salt Lake to central Mexico. Why can't it be, again?

Oh yeah. We still are considered an extraction state. The mindset seems to be to get as much wealth out of the state as is possible.

Thank you for the histories you provide on this site. I really do appreciate them.

The railroads and the Erie Canal made Chicago. Connection to the Mississippi River was significant but Minneapolis or more likely St Louis would be top dog in the region if access to the Mississippi River was the most important feature.

Phoenix is defined by sprawl not a city center and no amount of lipstick will change it.

Soleri and Jon, et al. -- I recently read an article in Pacific Standard that discussed recent research showing that civic-minded and liberal voters approve measures for funding mass transit but don't actually use mass transit themselves.

It is a case of mass transit for thee but not for me. The research also reveals that those who do use mass transit (those for whom cars are currently out of reach) abandon it as soon as they can get their hands on a automobile.

With mass transit, unfortunately, we are dealing with human nature. One wag I know neatly summarized the divide in political philosophy: Liberals govern according to how people ought to behave; principled conservatives (libertarians?) govern according to how people actually behave.

In any case, with mass transit, good luck on changing human nature.

The automobile offers point-to-point convenience and privacy. It will take you from your front door to your workplace's front door, on your schedule, and you can eat a cheeseburger, fart, and blast opera or metal along the way if you like. No one will object. Mass transit can't compete.

The Pacific Standard article makes the point that you'll never get viable mass transit until you make driving a car really hard, and that, my friends, is a hard sell in America indeed.

Joe, one reason I moved to Portland was to live someplace where I didn't need a car. I've been car-free for five years now and it's been relatively easy. I'm a quarter mile from a light-rail stop and even closer to three bus lines. What makes transit work in Portland is higher density combined with relatively narrow streets. Driving is much less convenient here if you're going to downtown where parking can set you back $25 if you're seeing a show. There are five light rail lines and two streetcar routes that all pass through downtown because it is the center of the metroplex. If you know Portland at all, you'll understand why - it's a real downtown with lots of people on the sidewalk, retail, tourist destinations like Powell's Bookstore, and entertainment. It's also the regional employment hub.

Looking at Phoenix, you can see how difficult it has been - and will continue to be - getting people to use transit. I would walk a half-mile to the light-rail stop in my uptown neighborhood, often through extreme heat, brave the mayhem on board, and proceed at a snail's pace to my destination. I usually went to Tempe and it was more than double the time it took to drive there. Light rail did work well at times, say when the Suns or Diamondbacks were playing, and the middle-class crowds were the evidence.

When I was in Phoenix last month, I mentally toyed with the idea of moving back - where I would live for maximum convenience, e.g. - but I didn't doubt for a second that I would need to buy a car. I weighed the plusses and minuses, but finally realized that there's really no optimal solution. If I wanted to live near a grocery store, I would sacrifice transit accessibility. It wasn't impossible but it would be expensive.

Portland city planners conjured the ideal neighborhood where everything someone would need on a daily basis would be within a 20 minute walk. But even in Portland, that's not easy to do. One reason is that grocery stores tend to be both larger and fewer now. In effect, they reflect the modern bargain where the Good Life is driving someplace to buy lots of stuff to put in your larger-than-necessary house. Phoenix does this well, which is its appeal. But retrofitting its suburban paradigm with effective mass transit would be extremely difficult.

Portland is a great city to walk and bicycle in, which I do a lot of. It's much harder to do this in a city like Phoenix where there's less to look at while being buffeted by cars traveling at freeway-level speeds on its surface streets. Even during the nice months, you don't see many pedestrians, which are the the sine qua non of a decemt city. It's simply not a pleasant experience.

The Fry's downtown, if it endures, will be the linchpin of Phoenix's one great urban neighborhood. Fingers crossed and all that but I'll believe when I see it.


Haven't owned a car for eight years. I live in downtown Seattle (Belltown) with abundant transit and convenient density. My Phoenix condo is on light rail. I could never go back to being car-burdened.

No city will regret building good transit. The future is not the automobile, whatever it seems at the moment.

I live in Mesa, just off of Main Street where they're extending the light rail to Gilbert Rd. I would love the option of using mass transit to go everywhere I need to go but unfortunately the time tables for buses and the light rail are grossly uncoordinated. You can get off the bus/light rail at one intersection and wait almost an hour for a connecting bus. When it's 110 plus in the shade in July it's just not practical. If the routes were coordinated better and the wait was 10-15 minutes instead of almost an hour it'd be a lot more doable. And the homeless population ride the buses to escape the heat. Who wants to sit on the same bus as the guy who's drunk, pissed on himself and has puke in his hair?

Jon, I like how you've worked out a car-free existence in Seattle and in Phoenix, working within the constraints of a rudimentary light rail and bus system here. I have to point out that I've spent quite a bit of time in Seattle and have been out on I-5 in rush hour. It ain't pretty, and metro Seattle is no exemplar of the decline of the automobile.

Americans don't share. What commons they do share they immediately trash. It is going to take a massive cultural shift and a massive redesign of cities like Phoenix. Human nature being what it is, it ain't gonna happen in anybody's lifetime. And the viability of electric private automobiles and of coordinating them via networked intelligence to increase street and freeway capacity will just push the target of car-freeness farther over the horizon.

The future WILL be the automobile, and for a very long time. I'm not saying I like this -- I don't. I am especially disturbed that something on the order of 50 percent of metro Phoenix's land area has been paved for driving and parking. That vast amount of once-living earth has been sealed off from the natural world. There is nothing grimmer nor more dispiriting than a vast asphaltic heat island surrounding a Phoenix mall. But my assertion that car culture will march onward reflects the reality of American attitudes and behavior.

I'd live car-free in a western or northern European city in a heartbeat, but you and I are outliers. Even the Chinese are assuming a car-oriented future for their citizens.

We need to think very carefully before we blow billions on transportation systems most Americans won't use.

By the way, if you're in Phoenix and need a lift to some place off the light rail, give me a shout and I'll give you a ride. You know where to reach me... Good A/C, good sound system, and I keep my car clean and never eat in there. (VBG)

Thanks Joe. You said what i was thinking but didnt know how to put into words.

That said.
I feel at 80 i should not be behind the wheel of a dangerous metal beast so i have 17 months to resolve that isssue.

One thing about getting older is that you really need to think long and hard about what your limitations are, particularly when it comes to driving. This is one reason why America's single person/single car transportation system can be so horrifying. It not only ruins cities, damages the environment, helps wreak catastrophic - and unstoppable - climate change, but costs many more lives than what good trains and streetcars could accomplish at a fraction of the cost. In Phoenix, virtually everyone over age 16 drives because that's what school and work demand. It's insane but as Dick Cheney said, "the American way of life is not negotiable".

I'm skeptical that we'll ever get to some techno-utopian system where electric cars drive themselves partly because we don't even pay the bills for our current system let alone build brand-new infrastructure. Bullet trains are off the table for that reason. We are marooned in a 1950s' daydream about the Big Bright Tomorrow from which there will be no escape. Thank the Koch brothers the next chance you get.

This is an urban blog. If that's not your thing, leave.

This was a history post, and if you can't add value (Soleri does), please don't comment.

Don't elide over climate change and the immense subsidies to keep car culture going. Or where transit is very successful, as in Seattle.

Especially with the Koch brothers and their allies out to kill Phoenix light rail expansions, I will be more wary of trolls or misinformation. It will be deleted.

I think (hope?) the new Fry’s will be the tipping point that makes Downtown Phoenix a place that people want to live. You cannot have a thriving community in a food desert. Fry’s thinks there is enough demand to build their ‘urban supermarket’ and demand will continue to grow as all the new apartments and condos’ being built start to fill up.

My wife and I plan to move to Downtown Phoenix and purchase a condo when I retire (within the next three years). When we told friends of our plans a few years back everyone thought we were crazy. Now we meet many people who are considering making the move to downtown Phoenix too.

We plan on using one car (though I would like to go carless). In downtown Phoenix, we can walk, bike, use the light rail, or buses for shopping, entertainment, dining, and medical services. This is something that cannot be done from our present home, a car dependent community on the Baseline Corridor in South Phoenix.

I haven't had much opportunity to post recently, but still continue to enjoy the stories and comments. I was last in Phoenix in October and downtown is better than I ever remember it. That being said it has a long way to go to create a true downtown neighborhood.

I live in New England and commute to Boston's Seaport District. I only use trains as Boston's little streets are clogged with traffic and are uber confusing. Plus, it's $45 for 1-2 hours in a parking garage: No thanks. I have to commute to New York City about 2 to 3 times a month and I always use the Acela Express. It takes 3 hours from my train station to Penn Station.

I used to drive but traffic through Connecticut is a horror. On a good day it would take 3.5 to 4 hours to get into Manhattan. The usual trip was at least a 5 hour excursion. I just wish the Acela was a true high speed train and the trip would only be 1 hour or less. I can dream.

A few things Joe might find interesting about Seattle …

Seattle seems to be unique among larger US cities in having a significant increase in transit usage over the last decade. Several things appear to be responsible. Seattle has a long tradition of fairly good transit usage for a US city roughly its size. Perhaps even more important, middle-class usage has been fairly significant, though well short of being proportionate to its numbers. Perhaps most important, a transit tunnel was built under downtown Seattle in the late 1980’s. Light rail has been greatly expanded, and it is of high quality. The initial light rail (opened in the 2000’s) was partly surface running (down the middle of a major arterial), partly in the transit tunnel, and partly elevated towards the airport. The huge difference in how well the grade-separated parts functioned versus how the part along the arterial functioned, caused subsequent light rail (now open, being built, or planned) to be completely grade separated – and has been a huge success. This freed buses for use elsewhere. Combining this with a transit tax increase within the City of Seattle has resulted in the establishment of frequent service (15 minutes or less between buses) on most major bus routes in the City all day, until around 10PM or 11PM, on weekdays. Most of these routes have similar service on Saturdays, and many do on Sundays (though sometimes ending slightly earlier). I believe that now over half the population of the City lives within 1/4 mile of one of these frequent buses; King County Metro Transit has plans to make that close to 80% in the future. In addition, the now increasing numbers of transit advocates have had some (and increasing) success in getting the city to provide a number of queue jumps, partly or completely exclusive lanes, and some signal priority for buses. Perhaps most remarkably, a major north-south arterial through downtown (the city is elongated north-south, between Puget Sound and 20-mile-long Lake Washington), Third Avenue is reserved for buses daytime and early evening 7 days a week. For a significant number of residents of the City, transit is now almost as fast, or even faster, than driving (and parking). Among the results ... There is a virtuous circle (opposite of a vicious circle) where King County Metro Transit has trouble meeting increased demand in the City – service improvements can create more demand than they supply. The socio-economic profile of transit usage now looks very much like that of the City as a whole, except for a fairly small bump at the bottom and a dip (though not a zeroing) toward the top. And, more pols in the City are realizing that lots of their voters are using transit, and even that actually riding the bus (and thereby learning about transit as well as talking to constituents) is good politics. Seattle is getting much attention – and visiting pols seem to be universally impressed by the constant rivers of buses flowing on Third Avenue, especially during rush hours (with considerable spillover onto Second, Fourth, and Fifth).

I kept using the word “City” above. It’s not so good in the suburbs outside the City (which, somewhat unlike Phoenix, is where the great majority of the suburbs are), though it is getting better in the closer suburbs and the second city of Bellevue (vaguely – very vaguely – like Mesa). What has been helping is the state’s Growth Management Act (I believe the second somewhat effective one enacted in the US, after Oregon). It’s not as strong as one would hope, but it has had considerable effect. The “suburbs” are filling in, and becoming more transit-friendly, though there’s still a long ways to go. As a result, transit there is much less effective than in the City – though there is gradual improvement. In critical ways, the political situation has helped, and has improved (by fits and starts). Washington has not had a Republican Governor since 1984 (I think the longest streak in the country), and, except for a single 4-year term, not a really conservative Governor since at least the earlier 1950’s. While a number of Governors were not particularly pro-transit, none (outside that single 4-year term) were anti-transit. Most importantly, they have blocked the frantic Republican efforts to repeal or eviscerate Growth Management during the several intervals when they controlled the legislature. King County (where Seattle is) has had a pro-transit majority on its County Council for some time; a 2/3 majority since Bellevue ousted its anti-transit councilperson in favor of possibly the most transit-knowledgeable person now on the Council (helpful since one basically pro-transit member is a bit erratic). The remaining anti-transit members all represent districts with some exurban areas, and are no longer finding it wise to brag loudly about their hostility to transit.

I might also mention that, when Seattle starts patting itself on the back, it need only look north 150 miles to Vancouver, British Columbia, similar in size, which has a vastly better (and more heavily used) transit system (and land use planning).

For what it’s worth, I grew up in Phoenix, close to the same time Jon did, but have lived in Seattle much longer.

Excellent points, Bruce, and glad to see PhxSUNSfan back.

The thing about a train-and-transit life is it moves at a different rhythm than when car-burdened. For one thing, you have time to read and work instead of being stuck in traffic.

I was simply trying to make a point about idealism (how we wish things could be) and realism (how Americans actually think and behave). Yes, I did go off topic, and I am sorry. For the record, I'd live car-free in a heartbeat, but I'm stuck in Phoenix.

Apologies, and, yes, I will leave. Thanks for the good discussions here.

I agree with Joe Schallen that Americans are not the types who want to live car-free in cities, take mass transit, dwell in small apartments, etc. If humanity is going to survive, however, it might be a good idea to talk bluntly about our choices in the future. We're on the tail end of an experiment that is likely to result in mass death if not extinction for our species. We don't have any time to spare if we want to prevent this. It may well be too late already.

https://www.vox.com/2019/2/8/18215774/green-new-deal-high-speed-train-air-travel

The Green New Deal will not, unfortunately, persuade Americans to give up their death-styles. I'm not sure it's even worth making an issue of its various policy aspirations since Republicans will simply exploit the craven stupidity of entitled burghers who cannot imagine living with less, particularly if it means sharing with "others".

I don't think democracy is well-suited for the crisis we're facing. I probably won't be around in 20 years to see the end game but democracy is clearly failing here and abroad. You don't elect someone like Trump unless you've already given up on the future. A military dictatorship might be necessary to keep America from unraveling altogether.

The time may well come in what I call the Great Disruption and what Jim Kunstler calls the Long Emergency when authoritarian measures are taken to decarbonize the nation and the planet.

Until then, we have laboratories in states (California especially) and even localities to make some progress, offer some options, move the needle back.

Sometimes this is happening in places one wouldn't expect. Oklahoma City has saved and revived its downtown and built a successful streetcar. Kansas worked to keep Amtrak's Southwest Chief on its historic route as an important link between rural communities. Deep red Oklahoma subsidizes an Amtrak train linking OKC and Fort Worth on the old Santa Fe Texas Chief route, and plans are under way to link it to Tulsa and Wichita, Kan.

As I wrote before: No place is going to regret its transit investments.

My two cents on the new Fry's & the light rail:

I'm on waiting list for a senior center (ironically built on the same site of an apartment complex that I lived in for 10 years,) so I needed an apartment in the interim. I opted for a building that is situated literally between the eastbound & westbound rail stations at 12th St.

The Fry's site is literally one rail-stop from practically my front door. For now, I have to stay on the train to get to the Fry's on 7th Ave. & Camelback. It's so terrible to have time to get some reading in on those trips.

Sometimes I get an urge to visit a pub, grab a bite somewhere, etc. The varieties of experience in downtown Phoenix are not to be sniffed at.

I'm optimistic about Phoenix. As other downtown areas in larger, more prominent cities in America become too expensive, I can see people coming her to mimic their lives there but on a smaller budget. I was driving down Central a month ago and I was surprised to see the amount of people riding the light rail and waiting at the stops. They ranged from young high school kids, to the homeless, blue collar types, older white collar workers, and young white collar workers. Granted this was around 4-5 PM when most are taking the light rail to get back home, but this is something that you wouldn't have seen years ago.

There are concerns with downtown's future development. I totally get that. It's too hot in Phoenix, which prevents good foot traffic, but I think a lot of that is a result of a lack of things to do there. As things get better with more stores and entertainment options, there will be more people walking around, especially after the sun goes down. I have thought about how a city can work around excessive temperatures and promote more walkable areas. Maybe more shade trees or shade structures around Central Avenue might help? I don't know. All I know is that it's getting better, but what the city really needs is a corporate presence that can take the city to another level. Right now all I see are luxury apartments and condos. How much of this is even based on real demand? Is this another example of the real estate speculation and greed of developers capitalizing on downtown revitalization? While I'm optimistic, until I see a major company setting up shop in downtown, I'm still hesitant to say that downtown's future looks good.

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