Councilman has vision of transforming First Street into pedestrian walkway

Phoenix City Councilman Michael Nowakowski has big plans for the future of First Street. His developing idea includes closing off a section of First Street downtown to traffic and repurposing the street as a pedestrian walkway with themed sections. (Madeline Pado/DD)

A pedestrian-only First Street featuring grassy walkways, cultural centers like a Little Italy and an area devoted to sports legends? Such a vision for downtown Phoenix is on one man’s mind.

Phoenix City Councilman Michael Nowakowski has been visiting neighborhood groups such as the Central City Village Planning Committee with an idea: giving First Street a new purpose by shutting down traffic from Margaret T. Hance Park to the U.S. Airways Center and redeveloping the area into themed sections.

In his vision, First Street from Jefferson to Adams streets would be a sports-legends area, with an athletic theme throughout. The street from Adams to Van Buren Street would have a “Little Italy” vibe — and so on, up to Hance Park. Nowakowski also envisions pedestrian malls and shade structures along First Street. Such structures would allow the implementation of multiple layers: solar panels on the top of the structures, grass on the street and data centers underground.

“Our city has not — historically at least — had big visions,” said Will Novak, a community activist and president-elect of the Phoenix Historic Neighborhoods Coalition. “Small visions would be good in Tucson and Albuquerque, but we are the sixth-largest city (in the country), and we often forget that.”

Nowakowski’s plan is still in an early stage. His visit to a recent CCVPC meeting was an effort to start a conversation and get responses from community leaders. Responses were mixed among those who learned of his vision.

“When an elected official sticks his head out, that takes guts. I commend him for his leadership,” said John Glenn, chairman of the CCVPC and an architect for CCBG Architects Inc. “It’s an idea that’s still in its infancy, but it has the right direction, to be pedestrian-friendly and utilize space.”

Novak, however, worried about Nowakowski’s knowledge of urbanism.

“He may not know the nitty-gritty stuff on how cities work,” Novak said. “You have to be well read on the topic; things can go awry.”

Glenn echoed these concerns, acknowledging the difficulty that comes when plans like Nowakowski’s try to fit into the downtown zoning code and city policies.

Novak’s two other primary concerns were the installation of pedestrian malls and cultural centers like a Chinatown or Little Italy.

“In order to make pedestrian mall work, you need high density nearby. There’s not nearly enough density on First Street,” he said.

Novak said a Chinatown or Little Italy would be a confusing addition to the city.

“Phoenix has a really interesting history, and to create a fake one is really disrespectful to the real one, in my opinion,” he said.

Bob Graham, vice chairman of the CCVPC and owner of Motley Design Group, primarily worried about the representation of the people in Nowakowski’s vision.

“I’m concerned mainly because the things he included are things people wouldn’t like,” Graham said. ”A lot of people downtown have become sort of ‘urbanistas.’ What we want to do is capitalize on the brain power in our city.”

He also said Nowakowski’s approach echoes past failed attempts to improve downtown with one big project, like the Arizona Center.

Nowakowski could not be reached for an interview.

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