Phoenix Rising: ASU Downtown — burst of sunlight or shadow of the colossus?


The ASU Downtown Phoenix campus has played a large role in reshaping the area over the last 10 years. (Amanda LaCasse/DD)
The ASU Downtown Phoenix campus has played a large role in reshaping the area over the last 10 years. (Amanda LaCasse/DD)

Ten years ago, Arizona State University opened a campus in downtown Phoenix that has transformed the very fabric of the community by both helping restart the development of an urban core and simultaneously making decisions that undermine connectivity throughout our tenure.

How far we’ve come

The story goes back a little further than ten years, as in 2003 the three state universities proposed an Arizona Biomedical Collaborative downtown. This rare show of unity was then backed in March 2006 by 66 percent of Phoenix voters in a bond election that provided the funding for the foundations of the campus.

But in a pattern that is all too familiar today, the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus’ grander designs were struck down by financial woes.

Originally the block between Central Avenue and Polk Street, Van Buren and First streets was supposed to have a project called Central Park East that would include a high-rise with 150 condos and a medium-rise that would have 300,000 square feet of retail space and that most treasured of downtown amenities: a grocery store. But the construction costs for the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication was quickly eating up our bond money, and the plan had to be scrapped, as it even delayed new buildings for the College of Nursing and Healthcare Innovation.

On August 15, 2006, the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus opened its doors at the University Center for the first time with the College of Public Programs, University College and College of Nursing and Healthcare Innovation using local resources like the Ramada Inn at Polk and First Street for housing, the Arizona Center for a student union and the Post Office for office space.

Those pioneering days saw the first tensions in 2007 and 2008. Steve Weiss, then the chair of the Downtown Voices Coalition, expressed concerns to the members of Phoenix’s Parks and Recreation Board about the CityScape redesign of Patriot’s Square Park and noted his concerns on the Downtown Civic Space Park ASU was designing, writing, “A university facility, even one built by Phoenix and maintained by the Parks Department, is still ultimately an ASU facility. It will not be our park, it will be a shared park, and it will not replace the city’s center park.”

Meanwhile, ASU students were concerned about a lack of a campus vibe in early downtown. The Arizona Republic cited students claiming there was nothing to do downtown and that food was scarce when there was no cafeteria or convenience stores.

By 2009, the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus became more firmly established. The first tower of Taylor Place was completed in 2008, giving the campus a permanent dormitory; this publication kicked off; and the Nursing and Health Innovation Building II (now Health Solutions North) opened up after some more suggestions from the DVC.

Having been open for three years, things took a heated turn with the community in 2010. The Ramada Inn, which the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus utilized in its first years in the community, was purchased by the city of Phoenix, as the property went into foreclosure, in order to demolish it for a temporary parking lot until ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor Law School would be built on the plot.

The Arizona Board of Regents purchased the vacant lot on the southwest corner of First Avenue and Fillmore Street in 2016 in order to expand the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus. (Craig Johnson/DD)
The Arizona Board of Regents purchased the vacant lot on the southwest corner of First Avenue and Fillmore Street in 2016 in order to expand the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus. (Craig Johnson/DD)

The DVC responded with opposition to the proposed demolition. After the community was told the plan would not be changed, relations may have hit an all-time low when DVC issued a second statement questioning, “Why is the only land in downtown Phoenix needed to build always under an existing and interesting building?” — suggesting building a law school was inappropriate in the midst of the recession and claiming “ASU Downtown is a moated, gated community, insular and separate from the downtown. All the promises of spreading out the campus through the downtown seem conveniently forgotten.”

The Ramada Inn eventually fell in September 2010, and would be a parking lot until 2014, soon after I got here, and ASU began construction of the Beus Law Center for Law and Society, which was subsidized with money from the lease payments of Government Property Lease Excise Tax agreements.

Since then, things have started to calm down again over time. Downtown Phoenix Alive! was established in September 2010 by Vaughn Hillyard and saw a student organization actively seek to integrate with the community, calling for expanding university dining options to include local businesses, advocating against “helicopter ASU administrators” restricting community involvement and praising the start of TaylorFest in 2011 and the calming of community relations.

By 2012, Gabriel Radley wrote for Downtown Devil on how community relations had never been stronger but that there was still work to be done. Since then, ASU has grown relatively quietly with the completion of the Sun Devil Fitness Center and even expanding into the Westward Ho. A few skirmishes (some of which I was involved in) emerged over parking meters and stickers covering windows, but things have not descended to the dark days of 2010.

ASU’s Impact

The Downtown Phoenix campus was designed to be a professional, urban campus at the heart of one of the nation’s largest cities. It has become that, but its level of engagement with the community has always been called into question.

University and Arizona Board of Regents administrators like to brag about how ASU Downtown revitalized the community. There is evidence that the university had an impact. Crime dropped 10 percent in the downtown area between 2007 and 2008 just after the campus opened. Students do live and work in downtown and we are keeping activity on the streets, which is so vital for urban life.

But our impact is definitely limited. Local businesses didn’t realize how many of us would actually live in the area early on in the process. After that, some businesses benefited from students interested in the night life or in part-time jobs, but the results were still less than the dreams many business owners had. In attempts to attract and retain students who are less adventurous, corporate chains are brought to our campus and often do very well, but also have an impact on their competitors, as Downtown Devil reported in 2013.

RELATED: Local coffee shops compete with Taylor Place Starbucks for student business

So if we’re guilty of anything, it is the sin of being too ambitious. The Downtown Phoenix campus has provided concerts, community lectures, app designers, renters, a few artists themselves and some of the most devoted coffee shop aficionados to the area.

It was never going to be a panacea, but I can tell you that we’re working on it so that one day we may embody the purpose within our charter that “ASU is a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom we exclude, but rather by whom we include and how they succeed; advancing research and discovery of public value; and assuming fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities it serves.”

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