Phoenix Rising: Placemaking requires a compromise between developers and activists

(Nicole Neri/DD)


Placemaking is a pretty popular development and planning term to describe the creation of livable spaces, but whose place are we making in downtown Phoenix?

For a lot of downtown Phoenicians, the answer is not them. This dangerous condition threatens to derail the growth of our city, and needs to be legitimately addressed by developers but also not utilized to simply stop all change by community advocates.

Placemaking is a complicated term to define. The Project for Public Spaces defines placemaking as “a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value” which “facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.”

While Fifth Street empties out the Blocks of Roosevelt Row development fences off several bungalows to protect against threats from burglars and others. The Lot: What Should Go Here has recently become the center of attention of some activists criticizing the placement of a Stella Artois commissioned piece of artwork near Brian Boner’s piece on the MonOrchid wall honoring those who have are homeless as another sign of corporate entities discrediting and disrupting the authenticity of the neighborhood.

However, debates over downtown Phoenix development rarely contest these core, urban focuses which are outlined in many of downtown Phoenix’s strategic plans.

(Related Article: Phoenix Rising: Downtown should be a Connected Oasis)

Instead, zoning variance requests and neighborhood association presentations pit developers who defend their work as for the greater good of these goals against activists who decry the changes as destructive and incompatible with the plans the community has put forth.

Developers often invoke the idea of future residents being a major driver of downtown goals and say these residents will require amenities not offered by downtown’s comprehensive sets of plans. Some may shake their head at this defense, but it is not necessarily strange to be walking down the street and hear a group of people remark how shockingly interesting downtown is after not having been here for long in the last three years.

This dichotomy between the future and current residents of any place is a constant struggle and was examined in 2015 during the Downtown Phoenix Journal’s placemaking series with the American Institute of Architects Phoenix Metro Chapter. Bob Graham, President of the Grand Avenue Members Association, wrote that placemaking is hard often because of the top-down approach by small groups of developers without consultation of neighborhoods.

Great progress should be made in providing opportunities to consult with neighborhood associations early on in projects in order to avoid the issues in which developers do not take resident concerns into consideration due to the costs associated with restarting the design of a project.

But this also requires a constant and willing engagement by the community. The rigid battle lines of the debate around the Empire-proposed Stewart project are indicative of a project that will likely be forever scarred as exclusive. Community organizations are divided on the project with organizations such as the Roosevelt Action Association and Urban Phoenix Project conditionally supporting it and others such as Downtown Voices Coalition and the Evans Churchill Community Association opposing it.

For any progress to be made, these lines of opposition must remain principled. Claims that Roosevelt Row is dead and that these changes are irredeemable doom us to only the mediocre-built environment we have now or bad development that gets through despite steadfast community opposition to changes.

The interests of the current community can not be discounted, however, let us not cut ourselves off from future friends and neighbors solely because of fear, especially in a political environment so heavily defined by its walls and divisions.

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