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Panel Reviews Downtown PHX Resurgence

By Roland Murphy for Arizona Builder’s Exchange

For years, it was a given among Valley residents that activity in downtown Phoenix died every night at six. The rise of the downtown from the ashes of under-investment and disuse shows that with incentives, planning and vision, no negative must remain permanent.

Such was the general tone Oct. 19 as nearly 120 people filled a presentation space at the Children’s Museum of Phoenix for the latest SmithGroup JJR “Perspectives” event entitled, “Downtown Ingredients.”

In opening remarks, Phoenix Community and Economic Development Director Christine Mackay talked about the how the city’s investments of time, planning and capital, along with its efforts to brand and distinguish downtown as a destination for both residents and the business community, resulted in structured improvements, impressive growth and a sense of place.

She cited the fact that 168,000 people now work in the downtown area, and that residential development cannot keep pace with demand. There are currently 2,000 residential units under construction downtown, with another 1,600 in pre-development stages.

Institutional encouragement overcomes inertia, provides stability

In the evening’s main event, moderator Dan Kinkead, SmithGroup JJR Principal and Urban Design National Practice Leader, led a panel of experts passionate about the downtown resurgence through a series of mini-discussions on how it happened and where it’s going next.

Responding to questions about the role of institutions in reawakening the area, Rick Naimark, Associate VP for Program Development Planning at Arizona State University, referred to educational and civic institutions as anchors that can initialize development and then provide a long-term sense of presence and stability.

A key component of that initial contribution is the ability and need for the public sector to provide incentivization. He flatly asserted that ASU would never have opened spaces downtown without incentives, but pointed out that Arizona’s three major universities are now cornerstones of the downtown identity. Those incentives continue to generate benefit, he added, stating ASU’s initial public incentives package provided for 1MSF of development, but that the university’s presence is now approaching 2MSF in total.

Another benefit of institutions, particularly education leaders, is their ability to organically draw in and expand intellectual, cultural and economic development simultaneously. Panelist Lawrence Mandes, co-founder of galvanize, cited that vibrancy and intellectual fervor as key reasons his learning community set up its Phoenix operation in the warehouse district.

Mandes praised the area’s success in utilizing the ubiquity and portability of technology in association with empowering the collaborative nature of the “creative class” to create what he called, “An urban entrepreneurial renaissance.”

Disruption and collaboration hand-in-hand

Regarding infrastructure, particularly such areas as the establishment of the light rail system and an emphasis on walkability and mixed-use in development, Steve Thompson, Uber’s Phoenix general manager, said that while his company has been an innovative disrupter in traditional transportation, it has also become a collaborative partner in urban transformation, particularly in Phoenix, which has become the company’s 20th largest global market.

Thompson said his service, along with active lifestyle methods like bicycling and walking, help solve the so-called “last mile problem” in public transit utilization. Particularly in Phoenix, a city that grew around the personal automobile, a key opposition factor in people’s willingness to use public transportation was getting to their destination after arriving at the nearest bus or rail stop.

He mentioned employers have begun to see the value in paying for some ride share costs for employees, as it’s often less expensive that providing parking, and that Uber’s culture and brand tie in well with other amenity and benefits programs offered by innovative companies.

Martha dePlazaola Abbott, SmithGroup JJR Vice President and Workplace Studio Leader, concurred, saying the expanded focus on amenities, both within companies and in the regions they occupy, has been a key shift in how development has evolved.

“We’re starting to look at work environments from a hospitality mindset,” she said, adding that the burden is on planners and developers to create spaces that satisfy today’s needs while being structured to enable future adaptability.

That adaptability will be key in continuing the area’s progress from an eight-to-five city to an 18- and, ultimately, 24-hour city, she said.

Preserving history and culture in balance with growth

Long before the current revitalization began to take shape, the downtown area had been a refuge for artists and associated creative types. According to panelist Kim Moody, the Alwun House Foundation’s founding executive director and one of the originators the First Fridays Art Walk, the disuse of the area made it affordable for the artistic community to live and work there.

While appreciative of the panel’s acknowledgment of the arts community’s foundational contributions to the area’s newfound appeal, Moody warned the community has now become endangered due to being priced out of the region by new development and rising costs of living there.

Both he and Naimark, who worked as Phoenix’s deputy city manager before joining ASU, talked about how the artistic community and the city initially conflicted but came together to develop plans for artistic neighborhood planning and adaptive reuse. All the panelists agreed efforts to support and encourage the artistic community in downtown are vital to the region’s continued growth and cultural value.

Build for all ages, plan for the children

As the event drew to a close, Naimark summed up the group’s view on the downtown revitalization by saying, “We have good foundations and we’re building on expanding choices and building a diversity of experiences. Who lives here and who’s going to live here is a diverse group, from old to young; so we’ve got to have it all to serve them all.”

In her closing remarks, Children’s Museum of Phoenix CEO Kate Wells agreed, saying that cities and neighborhoods need to be created for all people, but the needs of children must be a key consideration in development and growth planning. “The children you’re designing for today will be the users of tomorrow.”

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