Living in Seattle during the wettest year on record – 82 straight days of rain – I decided that if I didn’t see the sun soon, I was going to start throwing fish at people in Pike Place Market.
I booked a room in what I surmised was the “center” of Phoenix (laughable, I know), checked in and headed for downtown.
Except there wasn’t any downtown. After walking the blocks surrounding the hotel a few times, I asked a woman on the street: “I’m here from Seattle to catch some sun. Where’s the center of town?”
Perplexed, she paused, looked off into space and mused: “Oh, yeah, Seattle, I’ve been there. . . . There are shops and people walking around and restaurants. No, we don’t have that here.”
Well, it was 75 and sunny, and if I had to drive to Biltmore Square or Scottsdale, so be it. I could still eat out in mid-February (try that in Seattle).
Here in Tucson, it’s a local pastime to bash Phoenix and its uncontrollable growth.
We’ve gotten away with it for years as the Phoenix area has spread like some unchecked melanoma.
But today, Phoenix has turned inward. Whatever mammoth mistakes it made in irresponsible growth outward, the current development of its center is a lesson in both civic planning and cooperation between public and private sectors.
Unlike Tucson, Phoenix is committed to giving people a reason to live in its burgeoning downtown.
For example, recent plans call for establishing an entertainment district with comedy clubs, restaurants, live-music clubs and art galleries.
The impressive growth of Phoenix’s biomedical campus – a rare coalition between the University of Arizona and Arizona State University – has seen some 20 years worth of growth accomplished in about two years.
That’s the Looking-Glass version of what has happened in Tucson, where two years of growth takes at least 20 years, thanks in great part to an abysmal lack of vision and that most dreaded of all enemies on local, state and national levels – politics.
What we can learn from the planned development of Phoenix’s center and its commitment to residential inner-city growth is that there is no either/or about bringing money and high-end living into a dilapidated downtown.
Doing so not only attracts people with money who live, shop and eat in town, but it also supports the small businesses and historic attractions that need to be saved and nurtured.
Most important, it provides countless jobs for people of all incomes.
Pick up a copy of a magazine like Desert Living and peruse the ads for Phoenix.
“Urban living,” once an oxymoron in the desert, is the dominant catchphrase for residential developments ranging from high-rise condos to brownstones and lofts, all advertised “close to light rail” or “near Phoenix’s art district.”
That arts district – and the artists who work and show there – will thrive because of the proximity of an increased number of residents who can afford their art, just as Phoenix’s coveted Heard Museum can only benefit from the inner-city growth now surrounding it.
Our museums with their singular holdings, our excellent midtown restaurants and our historic attractions deserve an appealing and supportive economic environment where people want to live and start businesses – not a plethora of decrepit and empty buildings.
Tucson has more natural beauty, a more genuine heart and a better climate for walking than Phoenix.
Still, when it comes to developing our downtown, maybe somebody needs to drive up to Phoenix and – gasp – take notes.
About the author
Mark Mussari, Ph.D., is a freelance writer and educator living in Tucson.