In a rational world, real estate development follows economic development follows organic regeneration; not the other way around.
—Roberta Brandes Gratz, The Living City, p. 229
The above quotation is something that Phoenix still does not understand.
Our current economic situation is not the result of some unavoidable perfect storm of national and global forces, but rather the predictable outcome of local decisions that placed most of our economic eggs in one basket—the real estate industrial complex. The region’s growth for much of the past fifty years has been a false economy based on speculation and greed, not fundamental economic principles.
Rather than acknowledge this and look to start regenerating our economy based on our innate assets and local talent, the city and state are trying to revive the economy by returning to real estate development and speculation as a proxy for sustainable economic development. This is seen in such projects as CityScape and even downtown ASU’s continued expansion.
While a lack of permanent residents and a paucity of day time office workers remains a challenge in and around downtown, it isn’t the biggest obstacle to success. The true challenge is a lack of authenticity. CityScape, like the Arizona and Collier Centers, before it, fail to offer a unique experience to visitors residents alike. These developments do not reflect either the history of the city or what remains of the surrounding areas urban fabric. To extend the metaphor, these developments are not only an obvious patch applied to downtown’s existing fabric, but made of synthetic fabric that are found in countless other locations throughout the Valley and country.
We need to start building on our past and history; and yes Phoenix does has a long and fascinating history. This way we’ll not only attract businesses and resident who want to be here to add to the evolving story that is Phoenix, rather than those who are only here for the incentives, and will move on when the incentives dry up or another place offers then a better deal.
We only need to look a short distance east to see the faults with this synthetic approach. On the surface, Mill Ave would seem to posses they type of fabric that urbanites would drool over: a densely woven combination of retail, restaurants, cafés, cinemas, workplaces, and housing. With 60,000 students, staff and faculty a within a short walk of Mill Ave and dozens of condo and office complexes with in a short walk, Tempe has both the requisite residential and office population for a successful urban hub. Yet the district has struggled to thrive since evicting the small-scale businesses and night clubs almost 20 years ago. In an article for Shade Magazine a few years back, Dr. Nan Ellin explained why:
…the businesses are predominantly large corporate enterprises with exact clones around the country, if not the globe. Their headquarters are elsewhere, like the urban design, not from this place. Partly resulting from the lack of retail diversity is a lack of social diversity on the street, preponderantly representing a narrow demographic of the white middle class from the teens through 30s.
Authenticity is not about trying to be like the cool kids—the “world-class” cities like New York, or the exceptional cases like Portland, Oregon. It’s about building on our cities’ history and their essential nature. To renew our cities, we have to build on what they are, not what they aren’t.
Instead of tearing down our past and building new boxes to contain what we WANT to be, we should be doing the opposite.