'Fun' Is New Mortar Of a Rebuilt Phoenix
A shapeless central city redefines itself as entertainment mecca - in fewer than 15 years.
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Mr. Wilder, who used to criticize local officials for establishing no meaningful public space, now applauds them. "Phoenix is now separating itself from the other boom cities of the West and is stepping into the world class in terms of a civil urbanity," he says.Skip to next paragraph
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After the officials nailed down millions in federal funds and city commitments in 1988, consultants were called in, and open meetings were held. Suggestions were literally drawn on blackboards, compiled, and resubmitted to participants until consensus was reached.
"We had CEOs, cultural types, and neighborhood citizens all jammed in the same rooms, trying to hash out what they wanted," recalls Mullen. "It was clear that many had never been in such a process."
One by one, chief concerns were addressed - from making cleaner, quieter streets to landscaping that includes benches, streetlights, and trash cans. Meanwhile, renovations and projects came to fruition: The 1929 Orpheum Theater was renovated, a convention center was expanded, and new stadiums were built for the city's basketball and baseball clubs.
The turning point, however, may have been opening of the Science Center in 1995. It paved the way for children and families to penetrate an urban landscape that many felt was too scary just years before.
"On any given night, the place is jammed with people going to symphonies, ball games, conventions," says Karam Jabbar, co-owner of Indian World Trading, a store in the centerpiece retail plaza known as Arizona Center. "It's bustling."
But some merchants whose stores are just off the main pedestrian drag have not shared in the city's success.
"We have not yet seen the prosperity city officials keep telling us about," says Janice Ortega of Ortega Arts and Crafts, who has spent eight years in a failed mall space known as the Mercado - an abandoned real-estate venture begun by former Gov. Fyfe Symington.
Too many cars, too few homes?
Although city officials say about 90 percent of residents are in favor of the new renaissance, there are a number of remaining concerns. First is the need for mass transit to and from downtown. Two efforts to raise the sales tax to support transit have failed in recent years, leaving the automobile as the only way to crisscross the massive, 9,000-square-mile valley.
Other potential problems are offices and housing, which are lagging other downtown development. City administrators say businesses prefer the cheaper, campus-type settings in the suburbs, but several plans for new office buildings are in the works.
Plans are also afoot for several thousand homes and apartments, ranging from low-income units to tony penthouses, but no one yet knows how an entertainment mecca will jive with day-to-day living.
"Sometimes you can't even move around here anymore," says Eugene Grigsby, who has lived in Phoenix since 1955.
A resident of a low-income neighborhood known as Garfield Heights, Dr. Grigsby wonders whether the benefits the good times will spill over in jobs for blacks and Hispanics. He says more low-income housing should be made available, as well as loft space for artists.
Some officials worry, too, about what soaring real-estate prices will mean for the average resident. For instance, warehouse space across from Bank One Ballpark, the new baseball stadium, sold for $5 per square foot in 1991. It now goes for $84 a foot.
"I worry that speculators have begun to spend so much money for land down here that they may not be able to generate enough income to support themselves," says Mullen.
Recalling the bad economic times of the 1980s, which was capped with the savings and loan crisis, she adds: "The last thing this renaissance needs is a return to the economics of business failures we saw then."