'Fun' Is New Mortar Of a Rebuilt Phoenix
A shapeless central city redefines itself as entertainment mecca - in fewer than 15 years.
From his office high above the heart of downtown Phoenix, Mayor Skip Rimsza looks out at 1-1/2 square miles of urban renaissance that has become the envy of city planners from Australia to South Africa.Skip to next paragraph
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Amassed in record speed of about 10 to 15 years, no fewer than 67 public and private projects are visible in the tiny redevelopment area and surrounding blocks. They include two new sports stadiums, science and history museums, and several restaurant and movie complexes.
Although some housing and office space are in the pipeline as well, Mayor Rimsza may already be looking at the future of the American metropolis, say urban historians. In the age of telecommuting, that means a central city landscape jammed with culture and entertainment - but far fewer offices or residences.
"As dispersed employment continues to become the wave of the future - courtesy of computers, modems, and the rest - the need for us to congregate to work in downtowns is vanishing," says Grady Gammage, an architect and professor at Arizona State University School of Architecture in Tempe.
Rattling off a list of American cities that are borrowing from the Phoenix model (Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Kansas City, Houston, and Dallas), he says: "Work is destined to become the last reason masses of people congregate, while socializing, recreating, and enjoying life is becoming the first. That is where the future of urban cores is headed."
In just a decade, Phoenix's once-blighted downtown has gone from ghost town to boomtown - and nearly everyone loves it.
"In 1990 you could fire a cannon down here and hit maybe three people," says Margaret Mullen, executive director of Downtown Phoenix Partnership Inc. (DPP), the nonprofit organization that has masterminded the renaissance. "Now we get 10 million visitors down here a year."
Urban planners call the growing phenomenon "cultural tourism." Other cities, too, are recasting chunks of decayed urban area to provide pockets of like-themed venues, but Phoenix has become a prime model because of the sheer breadth of its vision in creating a core it never had.
"Phoenix has wrestled so successfully with so many of the primary issues of redevelopment that it has become the sought-after example to study," says Doug Peterson, senior analyst at the National League of Cities. In the past year alone, officials from more than 100 cities worldwide have made formal visits to officials of DPP Inc.
"Everyone wants to see how we did what we did, and figure out if they can do it too," says Ms. Mullen. Funded by taxes on all nonresidential property in the area, DDP was formed eight years ago to come up with a cohesive plan that embraced the needs of government, business, residents, and cultural organizations.
"You have to make it clear from the beginning that each of your city's diverse sectors of people are going to have to embrace not just their own concerns, but everyone else's," she says.
Outward , not upward
Phoenix had long before become the prototypical, modern, Western boomtown that expanded outward rather than upward - courtesy of vast cheap land and Rust Belt refugees seeking wide open space. Carving up the surrounding desert at the rate of an acre per hour through much of the 1980s, officials turned around one day to discover that, in the city limits left behind, 40 percent of the lots were vacant. High-crime neighborhoods adjacent to downtown were filled with boarded-up homes, empty fields and warehouses, and abandoned businesses.
"Both city fathers and residents finally awakened to the fact that if your sprawling geography goes nowhere without a heart..., it has no identity," says Joseph Wilder, director of the University of Arizona's Southwest Center in Tucson.