'Fun' Is New Mortar Of a Rebuilt Phoenix

A shapeless central city redefines itself as entertainment mecca - in fewer than 15 years.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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."

Ten-year makeover

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.

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.

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."

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