mad men in midtown
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Mad Men in Midtown
November, 2011, Page 123
Like any great party, midtown eventually fizzled out. Ironically, many of the factors behind the area’s rise ultimately led to its decline. Just as developers and residents had abandoned Downtown for midtown, the lure of the open desert and the lack of natural growth barriers drew new development farther away from the central city. The straw that broke midtown’s back was a zoning change that allowed high-rise development to spread beyond the city’s Central Avenue core.
“There was a tremendous shift in the 1980s,” Jim Pederson says, “starting with a major change in zoning when Fife Symington, who was a developer and not the governor at the time, succeeded in getting the Esplanade built at 24th Street and Camelback.” The then-controversial 11-story development hatched a flurry of high-density development in the Biltmore area and beyond, further fragmenting the Valley’s far-flung centers of influence.
Midtown was also staggered by the effects of the I-10 extension and the creation of the Deck Park Tunnel, which led to the bulldozing of acre after acre of historic ’hoods before it was completed in 1990. In a town so dominated by cars, it was easy for midtown residents to pack up and drive to newer, more remote suburban neighborhoods.
In Midtown Memories, Phoenix City Councilman Tom Simplot describes moving to midtown in 1988: “Very few people lived down here... especially on weekends, when it seemed like everybody left and we had this big, huge shell of a city all to ourselves.”
menu from the Islands tiki bar
Back to the Future
Today, midtown and uptown Phoenix are heating up once again, as new generations tire of endless commutes and cookie-cutter cul-de-sacs in the new neighborhoods that have dominated the Valley’s suburbs and exurbs – the sort of places where “all you see is the torso and head of your neighbor as they drive by, and you don’t even know if they have legs,” says longtime local Realtor Walt Danley.
And it’s not just a local trend, says architect Will Bruder, who recently moved into a bank-turned-condominium tower in midtown. “Cities all across America are inverting, from Portland to San Francisco to Boston, and now people are realizing, ‘Why not us?’” Especially, he says, as the inevitable speeding up of modern life makes our time ever more valuable. “What’s the real cost of that one- to two-hour daily commute?” he asks.
Unlike Downtown Phoenix – which, despite decades of revitalization efforts and a world-class collection of warehouses waiting to be converted into lofts, remains mostly a ghost town after dark – midtown has always maintained a significant residential population. According to architect Eddie Jones, who offices in an Al Beadle-designed midtown building, it’s the unique combination of skyscrapers and historic single-family homes that’s really fueling midtown’s revival.
“The built-in contrast between the older and the newer makes both parts more appealing,” Jones says. “Plus, zoning wasn’t as fascist as it is now. So you’ll find schools, museums, single-family homes and repair shops all next to a 15-story building. The only thing missing is a corner grocery store.”
Advertisement for Southern Arizona Bank, designed by Ed Lane
The main obstacles blocking midtown’s full revival are the area’s vacant lots, including large stretches of open space lining several of the city’s most highly trafficked streets. Often tucked behind fences or concrete pylons, these barren parcels aren’t solely victims of the real estate crash. Many have been vacant for decades. It’s hard to call a ’hood a hotspot when three-quarters of the landowners at an intersection as critical as Central Avenue and Indian School Road would rather own a dirt lot than put up a storefront.
So why does this supposedly trendy neighborhood sport so many “empty teeth in the row,” as Will Bruder calls these dead spots? The hold-up goes back to the fact that so much of midtown is zoned for massive skyscrapers, Bruder says. “If you own a lot next to a high-rise, no matter how low the odds are, you’re always going to be holding out hope for that multi-million dollar payday.”
All of which has transformed Phoenix into “the largest uncompleted city in the nation,” says Bryan Cassidy of CCBG Architects. Furthermore, he says, “most national chains are not serving central Phoenix and have abandoned the area altogether.”
Which might not be such a bad thing, says Kimber Lanning, who owns the independent record shop Stinkweeds and founded Local First Arizona, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting locally owned business: “When I first relocated from Tempe to Central and Camelback several years back, people thought I was crazy. But now I feel like we are in the middle of the most vibrant collection of mom-and-pop shops and independent restaurants in the Valley.”
Considering that Stinkweeds’ neighbors are the super-trendy clothing boutique Frances and the Valley’s best retro sweets shop, Smeeks, maybe Lanning’s idea has stock. And just around the corner, forward-thinking restaurateurs such as Kris and Craig DeMarco (Postino Central, Windsor and Churn) and Aaron Chamberlin (St. Francis) are bringing new life to this once-moribund section of Central Phoenix.
True, there’s no Playboy Club. And no smoke-filled lounges – because, after all, who smokes in lounges anymore? But midtown’s swinging heyday seems closer than it has in years. And it offers plenty of free parking. Just the way we like it.
Take a tour of midtown/uptown’s drinking and dining hotspots.
This classic, clubby chophouse was founded in 1950 by the former Las Vegas casino man Jack Durant and serves up a mean martini. 2611 N. Central Ave., 602-264-5967,
This stylish neighborhood café in the Clarendon Hotel features a bold, ever-changing menu crafted by chef and Mexico City native Doug Robson. 401 W. Clarendon Ave., 602-274-4774,
Founded by chef Michael DeMaria, this farm-fresh breakfast and lunch hotspot has brought new sizzle to Park Central’s long-moribund dining scene. 2909 N. Central Ave., 602-266-0565,
Overseen by Chris Bianco’s BFF, chef Claudio Urciuoli, this former takeout counter is adding a sit-down dining room this fall. 4404 N. Central Ave., 602-234-2100,
Housed inside a former architect’s 1950s office, this sleek, food-forward eatery is christened after the original name of its uptown neighborhood lining Camelback Road east of Central Avenue. 111 E. Camelback Rd., 602-200-8111,
This charming restaurant and wine bar owned by ex-State Sen. Ken Cheuvront tempts with scrumptious sandwiches and cheese plates. 1326 N. Central Ave., 602-307-0022,
Clarendon Hotel’s Skydeck
Soak in stunning 360-degree views of the Phoenix skyline from the rooftop lounge overlooking this revamped boutique hotel. 401 W. Clarendon Ave., 602-252-7363,
Midtown’s original hipster hangout coffee shop recently expanded into a larger, eclectically-decorated space next door. 4400 N. Central Ave., 602-696-9976,
MacAlpine’s Soda Fountain
Established in 1928, this former drug store is home to a delightful soda counter serving up old-timey drinks such as shakes, malts and even egg creams and phosphates. 2303 N. Seventh St., 602-262-5545,
This spinoff of the Arcadia original is tucked inside a handsome indoor-outdoor space carved out of a 1950s deli. 5144 N. Central Ave., 602-274-5144,
This trendy gastropub from the owners of Postino features cozy, leather-upholstered booths designed as an homage Durant’s. 5223 N. Central Ave., 602-279-1111,
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