Phoenix Rising: Downtown should be a Connected Oasis

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The Fry's Food and Drug store planned for First Street and Jefferson Street showcases progress in creating a Connected Oasis, but distracts from other failings. (Emily Mudge/DD)
The Fry’s Food and Drug store planned for First Street and Jefferson Street showcases progress in creating a Connected Oasis, but distracts from other failings. (Emily Mudge/DD)

As downtown Phoenix leaders begin considering the updating of the Downtown Strategic Vision to guide another wave of development, they are faced with an environment where prominent victories overshadow persistent problems that undermine past plans.

The recent groundbreaking of the Fry’s Food and Drug store at First and Jefferson streets showcases the hope that downtown will end its status as a food desert. The store is expected to be where residents can get “the things they need everywhere — a place that can serve as both their oasis from the world and their connection to it,” as the 2004 Downtown Strategic Vision describes.

However, the achievement of a “Connected Oasis” remains painstakingly slow and is frustrated by development of buildings that are disengaged from the streets and their communities such as Linear Apartments, iLuminate Apartments and Proxy 333 Apartment Homes.

To actually build this Connected Oasis, residents, developers and the Phoenix city government will need to take more comprehensive actions ranging from maintaining the values of the Downtown Code and Walkable Code in planning decisions, to using the city budget to invest in shade and walkable environments.

Downtown Phoenix has been discussing the idea of a Connected Oasis for over a decade, though the term has meant many things to planners and activists over the years.

In 2004, the Downtown Voices Coalition came together in August to create its “Creating a Sustainable Downtown” plan which called for very simple physical connectivity through an Urban Oasis (itself conceived by an earlier Downtown Phoenix Conservancy).

In December of that year, the landmark downtown strategic plan elevated the idea, but recognized that it is a “tricky business” to accomplish and only provided a few basic recommendations to accomplish the goal.

By 2008, the Urban Form Code dedicated an entire chapter to the Connected Oasis, now described as “The Big Idea.” Planners began prescribing detailed policy solutions, which included parks, pedestrian friendly streets, public art and even events and programming to activate the area in much the same way today’s Complete Streets concept aims to do.

RELATED: Phoenix Rising: Complete Streets provide safety for all instead of speed for suburbs

When the time came to redevelop Phoenix’s General Plan, PlanPHX thought the concept so important that it was now the sole focus of its 2014 mid-term report titled “A Blueprint for a Connected Oasis” and the eventual focus of the voter-approved 2015 General Plan. In its current form, the term has evolved to mean a connected social environment that stretches far beyond just the building of walkways and roads.

However, despite its apparent popularity, the concept has only seen haphazard implementation in downtown.

In the 2015 General Plan, the overview rather unfortunately describes the goal of “becoming a more ‘connected’ city, Phoenix residents will benefit with enhanced levels of prosperity, improved health and a thriving natural environment.” A “connected” city doesn’t seem to be well defined if its interpretation has to be provided in quotes.

The point of plans like those over the past decade have been to provide structure for the development of a cohesive, vibrant downtown. Yet, so long as that guidance is left up to the reader’s interpretation, there really isn’t a plan in place.

Strong urban voices in support of a Connected Oasis are required now more than ever as development continues to boom. There are five vacancies on the Central City Village Planning Committee and there is little investment in the City Manager’s Trial Budget for green spaces that would improve connectivity.

Ultimately, plans are only as powerful as the people behind them. Action by all downtowners is required for the future of this community as a Connected Oasis or whatever shared vision this community chooses for itself in the future.

RELATED: Grocery store development breaks ground

Contact the columnist at raboyd2@asu.edu.