It is both ironic and interesting that the original town site of Phoenix, the parcel surrounding Central Avenue and Washington Street, home to the first commercial buildings in the city, is now the focus of a commercial rebirth downtown.
For most of the past 50 years, those core blocks have been an eyesore, a microcosm of the Phoenix downtown itself: abandoned, lifeless, underutilized, home only to transients. Scores of city officials tried to breathe new energy and purpose into the area. Over the years, countless developers and businesses considered the site where George Luhrs, John Y.T. Smith and Edward Irvine put down roots more than a century ago. And decided not to risk it.
The area deteriorated, then stayed dormant since the 1960s.Until now.
CityScape’s developers and financial backers are putting up to $900 million on this project, the largest of its kind in Phoenix history. They are betting on a future for the downtown no one else – other than the city’s elected officials – has been willing to invest.
Nor was CityScape easy to put together. It involved several owners, multiple partners, painstaking, laborious negotiations to acquire the land and the careful recruitment of solid, serious tenants.
The development is a commercial one, with office space, retail, hotels and upscale (not luxury) residential. It is neither a shopping mall nor a central park.
Nor should it be.
What it is, however, is no less than the most comprehensive commitment to the Phoenix downtown by a private developer. Not world class – we overuse that word anyway – but an exciting, signature project that will infuse new life, new jobs, new activity and new people into an area that has been in desperate need of all of that.
In the past five years, one by one, a new downtown has been forming. Residential condos, apartments and student dormitories are under construction. All have lamented the lack of a downtown grocery. AJ’s Fine Foods will be the most welcome downtown arrival since . . . well . . . the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks.
For decades, city fathers longed for a third large downtown hotel to attract larger national conventions. Alas, in their long frustration, they decided to build one themselves. CityScape holds the promise of two specialized, "boutique" hotels in the next five years, adding 400 rooms.
The core office tenant is Wachovia, the nation’s fourth-largest bank and a giant in securities and investment brokerage, having recently acquired A.G. Edwards. Wachovia will be the signature tenant in a 600,000-square-foot office building on Washington Street between Central and First Street.
Some folks were hoping for a "destination place," unique, distinctive and "world class," a development that would define the Phoenix skyline.
This is not that. In a sense, it probably is something more. It is an affirmation in the city’s future, that the recent energy, growth and investment in the downtown make it ripe for a project of this scope and expense. Not Tempe. Not Scottsdale. Not Desert Ridge. Not the Camelback Corridor. But Downtown.
That in itself is a development worth recognizing and cheering.