Opinion: The streets for ‘lovers and friends’ aren’t lined with Circle Ks

Circle K has plans to build a large superstation on the Southeast corner of Seventh and Roosevelt Streets. However, community members are concerned with the potential to bring crime and inhibit the growth of a pedestrian-friendly street. (Jessica Zook/DD)

The great urbanist Lewis Mumford once famously wrote, “Forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends!” Far too often in Phoenix, a city that grew up in the age of the car, we ignore Mr. Mumford’s advice. The recent news that Circle K is trying to develop a gigantic new 16-pump superstation at the southeast corner of Seventh and Roosevelt streets is the very sort of thing Lewis Mumford warned against.

For those unfamiliar with the situation, Circle K currently operates a gas station and minimart on the northeast corner of Seventh and Roosevelt streets. They’ve decided it’s more economically profitable for them to build a larger station in the area where they can sell not only more gas, but more food, alcohol, Twizzlers and whatever other high quality ‘grocery’ items they choose to carry.

With that idea in mind, Circle K acquired the property directly across from their current gas station (the southeast corner) with plans to demolish the warehouses that exist there to build the new superstation.

While the existing buildings Circle K hopes to demolish aren’t necessarily historic gems, they do seem to be fine brick buildings that many community members had hoped to see adaptively reused. The neighborhoods from the surrounding historic districts, Garfield and Evans-Churchill, are quite concerned about losing the warehouses for a giant Circle K for multiple reasons.

The biggest concern was that, according to a recent ASU study, crime at Circle K locations is significantly worse that at competing minimarkets. Additional concerns from the nearby residents included increased noise, automobile traffic, light pollution, dust and the emission of noxious fumes. Finally, the neighbors also pointed out that large gas stations aren’t what help make great, walkable, pedestrian-friendly streets.

For a variety of politically tactical reasons, it became apparent that the best way for the community to fight Circle K was to oppose their “use permit” for liquor. The thinking being that without the use permit to sell liquor opening a giant mega-pump station would be economically unfeasible for Circle K and they’d be unlikely to build the new large gas station.

Today the matter came before the city of Phoenix Zoning Adjustment Hearing Officer, Michael Widener. Nearly 80 people packed the hearing room to discuss the issue.

As is customary, comment cards were filled out in support and in opposition to the use permit. An informal tally brought the ‘for’ Circle K to receive its use permit at six, while those opposed numbered around 50. By the time all the comments had been made the meeting had raged on for over three hours.

But in a somewhat disappointing verdict, Widener decided to “take the issue under advisement,” meaning he’ll have 30 days to think about the issue before making a decision.

So now that you know what happened, why is this important?

It’s important because some streets are special; they deserve to be flanked by the best possible uses. These special streets feel alive, exciting and even romantic at just the right moment. Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix has the potential to become one of those streets.

The city itself has recognized this and is beginning the process of a huge project to improve the street for pedestrians, sidewalk cafes and bicyclists. Sad as it is to say, today there isn’t a single truly special urban street in Phoenix. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi was to the Rebel Alliance, Roosevelt Street is “our only hope.”

What makes a special street special?

Things like shade, public art, wide sidewalks, bike lanes, slow moving automobile traffic, interesting window shopping and unique local destinations all add up to make a great complete street. Great streets also act as gateways and connectors into important neighborhoods and places.

You’ve probably been on a great street in your life — maybe it was Newbury Street in Boston or 16th Street in Denver. I’ll bet if you reimagine that great street in your minds eye you won’t recall a single giant gas station on it.

Of course, people do need gas and minimarkets, and other auto-centric spaces (e.g. drive-thru fast food joints, car dealerships) will always exist. That’s why groups like the Congress for New Urbanism and others recommend dividing streets up by types, “A” streets and “B” streets.

“A” streets are those for pedestrians with street-fronting retail and urban vitality. “B” streets are those that must be saddled with faster moving traffic, minimarts, gas stations and the like. Roosevelt Street in Phoenix, with its art galleries, charming boutiques and live-work spaces, is clearly becoming an “A” street.

Decades of hard work have gone into making Roosevelt Street what it is today. Even more exciting is what Roosevelt might be just around the corner; the urban vitality on Roosevelt is so close, many of us can nearly taste it. It would be folly for the city to shoot itself in the foot and waste the opportunity to have a walkable, complete, safe, special street by impeding the human scale of the street with a giant Circle K. The existing smaller Circle K is far from a great use on Roosevelt, but this is a classic example of having to choose ‘the devil you know.’

Today dozens of people took time out of their busy lives to tell the city they want a special street. If nothing else, the city learned how united the citizenry now is and that we’re all demanding urban vitality and quality urban design. Hopefully after taking the issue ‘under advisement,’ Widener will deny Circle K’s use permit and thus likely keep the crime and traffic emitting super station from being built.

Luckily, nothing is set in stone just yet, and one day Roosevelt Row may truly become Phoenix’s street for ‘lovers and friends.’

Contact the writer at william.novak@gmail.com

Will Novak is a community activist and a native and resident of central Phoenix that believes one day Phoenix will be the greatest Desert City in the World.