Downtown Phoenix is, if nothing else, a consistent rallying point.
The point of that rallying, however, has flip-flopped over the years. Many once aligned with Robrt Pela, a gallery owner and Phoenix New Times reporter who for years made a career off criticizing Phoenix and its downtown.
However, in the light of the development of arts districts such as Roosevelt Row, slowly increasing transportation alternatives and density and a growing sense of collaboration in Phoenix, his mind began to change.
It took the departure of one of downtown Phoenix’s cheerleaders, Taz Loomans, to fully turn him around.
“There are some really profound things happening here at long last, just as I was about to leave,” Pela said. “I no longer believe that this is a craphole.”
Yet questions and issues remain. Perhaps the most important is one of the most difficult: Does that “craphole” have a realized identity?
Four panelists and dozens of downtown Phoenix artists, entrepreneurs, community leaders and students gathered Wednesday night at the final Downtown Devil Discussion of this semester to tackle that very question.
The large audience was in part due to the discussion being one of final events of Phoenix Urban Design Week. It was also a collaboration with the ASU School of Geographical Sciences & Urban Planning and Aaron Kimberlin, founder of downtown Phoenix start-up Dapper + Dash.
Phoenix’s game-changing accomplishments and individuals were a common theme throughout the night.
“Now you bring up Phoenix and there’s a lot more pride,” said Charlie Levy, founder of Stateside Presents and owner of the Crescent Ballroom. “If people are positive about their city they’re going to want to make it better.”
Phoenix’s urban sprawl has and still contributes to its image and many of its problems. But all four of the panelists agreed that much of the new pride and fledgling identity has emerged from the success of arts districts such as Grand Avenue and Roosevelt Row.
“It takes one really great street to make a memorable city,” said Will Bruder, principal of Will Bruder Architects and a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. He also said he was impressed by the light rail and the rise in bicycling as alternative forms of transport.
Kim Larkin, operations director for Urban Affair and owner of Larkin Arts Consulting & Management, said that despite their success she doesn’t believe there’s any competition between the art galleries or the districts.
“If there’s a community, it’s not about the competition,” Larkin said.
Levy agreed, saying that Crescent Ballroom has succeeded in part due to its vicinity to the galleries and restaurants on Rooosevelt Row.
According to Larkin, this sense of community and collaboration plays a huge role in Roosevelt Row, which hopes to transcend the Roosevelt area to improve all surrounding areas as well.
“All of our successes are intertwined,” Larkin said.
Bruder said he believes that downtown Phoenix can build off these accomplishments by taking the present achievements in public transportation and collaboration one step forward.
According to Bruder, creating a loop connecting Grand Avenue, Margaret T. Hance Park and Roosevelt Row will not only allow the areas to keep growing, but will help to solve one of downtown’s largest problems: density.
Linking these key locations could lead to more housing in currently empty lots, bringing in more downtown residents.
Larkin and Bruder both made requests to the downtown students in the audience.
“It’s such a lost opportunity when students don’t explore,” Larkin said. “There’s amazing and incredible movements and artistic culture and things taking place, but you have to know where they are.”
Bruder put a special emphasis on a certain sort of exploration: culinary and dining.
“Students of ASU Downtown need to boycott the food around Cronkite,” he said.
Above all else, the panelists agreed that more Phoenix locals had to believe their city has the potential to grow — but not just into a copy of an older, more established one.
“We’re not consistently saying, ‘We are the desert, we are a unique city in the world,’” Pela said. “I hear more often, ‘Why aren’t we more like Eugene, Oregon, or why aren’t we like Cleveland or San Fran or L.A. yet?’”
Pela said that even when visiting an area of downtown Phoenix bustling with foot and light rail traffic, he couldn’t bring himself to fully believe it was a downtown.
“We have to individually believe in that vision of the city,” Pela said, encouraging the optimism he didn’t have in that moment. “This is the desert. We need to stop looking for the snowflakes!”
Bruder said he considers this push for something different to be Phoenix’s asset.
“The unique attribute of wanting to be unique is a major positive force for the future of Phoenix,” Bruder said.
Bruder’s comment that “everyone’s interested in the conversation” was proven by the very interactive audience, but so were signs of this Phoenix individuality and positive force. Audience suggestions for a better downtown ranged from promoting charter schools to creating a television program set in downtown.
These suggestions and stories weren’t based in negativity, but rather positivity, for a place that Bruder described as “one where you can see the horizon.”
Correction: April 11, 2013
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Kim Larkin as the owner of Urban Affair. Larkin is the operations director for Urban Affair.
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