I haven’t mentioned downtown Phoenix for a while. This is mainly because I’ve been busy re-discovering Vancouver and haven’t had much time to reflect on my old stomping ground. However, last week, I received an email from an old acquaintance that I haven’t been able to ignore.
Life in the Urban Desert
One of my biggest frustrations living in Phoenix was the sheer number of empty lots and vacant building in the downtown core. No matter how much we tried to make a foothold in the desolation, we were simply overwhelmed by the scale of our task; if not outright rejected.
Based on a ‘back of the napkin’ tally, over 40% of Phoenix’s core is either vacant or a surface parking lot. This is more than most Rust Belt cities, including Detroit. Indeed the entire city of Detroit could fit into just the vacant lots in Phoenix! Yet while the decay of the Rust Belt is a national tragedy, the decay of downtown Phoenix is business as usual.
Making matters worse, the picture below was once a neighbourhood filled with historic—if rundown—homes. But instead of promoting their restoration and rehabilitation, the city cleared the area. The are was first cleared to make room for a fool hardy idea attract a NFL football stadium. The stadium eventually ended up in suburban Glendale. More recently, they have promised a ‘Bio-science Campus that has failed to gain much traction. In the meantime, downtown Phoenix is left with one of the biggest urban scars in North America.
Just south of this picture sits yet another parking lot. It was recently created by the City of Phoenix and Arizona State University on the site of a vintage mid-century hotel. Despite a concerted effort—and even a lawsuit—the powers than be decided that Phoenix needed yet more parking, leaving community members literally stewing on the dusty asphalt.
In cities like Detroit, people are taking advantage of the depressed real estate prices to incubate small businesses. In Phoenix—the epicenter of the real estate industrial complex—property owners, including the city, are sitting on their lots. They are waiting for the real estate market to rebound enough to cover their investment. They’d be better of waiting for Godot. if there is any hope for downtown Phoenix to rise again, they need to cut their losses and move on.
I hate to see downtown Phoenix criticized. Especially because so many people are working diligently to make it their oasis in a urban desert. But sometimes a city needs a slap in the face to wake up and realize their dire straights. Perhaps this dubious distinction from The Fiscal Times is it:
9 Worst Recession Ghost Towns in America: Downtown Phoenix, AZ
Before the housing market crash, an acre in downtown Phoenix was selling for about $90 a square foot. Today, it sells for $9 a square foot. Empty dirt lots checker the area, where developers once dreamed of high-rise condos and office buildings, and many businesses have closed their doors.
Residents hope building will happen again once the market recovers, but in the meantime neighborhood organizers push for temporary fixes to the eyesore, like planting sunflowers and projecting movies onto the side of existing buildings.