For more than 25 years, artists helped transform the blighted Roosevelt neighborhood in Downtown Phoenix into a thriving cultural hub. But has the long-dreaded day when developers drive them away arrived? And where will they go next?
The giant jackrabbit was there last September, eating prickly pear tacos and lounging on a hammock made of cactuses, looking all attitudinal behind a crude wooden white sign that read “Welcome to downtown.”
Downtown Phoenix, that is. The huge hare was part of a mural on the backside of a building, painted by Jesse Perry, who lives on Roosevelt just a few blocks west of this spot. Back in the fall, this wedge-shaped lot on the northeast corner of Third and Roosevelt streets was jabbing into the intersection like a tattooed elbow, dotted with color – exterior murals by notable local artists including Perry, Thomas “Breeze” Marcus, Angel Diaz and Lalo Cota; vintage bicycles welded into sculptures and painted pastel shades of orange, green and blue; Euro pop and electronic music mixed with the chatter of crowded patios; and the savory smell of street tacos drifting from PAZ Cantina.
Now the lot is empty, surrounded by a fence.
Perry’s colorful cactus-punk jackrabbit mural was located nearly halfway down what’s known as “Roosevelt Row,” the city’s core arts district. The arts scene that started there in the mid-1990s – when the area was mostly vacant lots and historical homes in disrepair – has grown into a nationally known community and culture destination, lauded by Travel + Leisure magazine (“one of the best secret neighborhoods” in the U.S.), USA Today (one of the “10 Best Neighborhoods” in the country) and by the American Planning Association, which named Roosevelt Row one of the “Great Places in America.” It is the colorful gateway to two other highly developed Downtown hubs – the educational epicenter Phoenix Biomedical Campus that includes TGen and the University of Arizona College of Medicine, and the nearby ASU Downtown campus; and the sports/nightlife hotbed of Downtown proper, home of megaliths Chase Field, Talking Stick Resort Arena and CityScape. After decades of development and redevelopment, this stretch of Roosevelt Street is ready for another close-up. But not everyone in the neighborhood is preening for the picture.
The Roosevelt neighborhood has experienced some growing pains as it blossoms and the surrounding parts of Downtown swell as well: As more people live and work and go to school and attend events Downtown, the higher rent rates and property values climb (and the more low-income artists are pushed out), and the higher the demand for more multi-unit housing. The dozens of small businesses, restaurants, art galleries and studios that make up the Roosevelt Row arts district will have to coexist alongside several new high-rise housing developments ranging from upscale apartments at Roosevelt Point to market-rate units with ground-floor local retail like Union @ Roosevelt. Some of the new buildings will occupy formerly vacant lots. Others will sit on the site of a beloved, late local gallery or store. The question of if – and how – artists and developers can coexist is more pressing than ever.
“I believe the Downtown Phoenix art scene may be in a state of jeopardy. It has already shown signs of shifting to other areas of Phoenix, and with nearly 80 sites being constructed in the Downtown area, most of which are from out-of-state investors, [there’s] a slew of possibilities for the future. New buildings and new businesses means more people, more walls and more opportunity,” Perry says. “Conversely, the gentrification of Phoenix could force artists and scene advocates out of Downtown, which weakens the cultural structure of the Downtown Phoenix art scene which, ironically, is one of the main reasons behind the rebirth of Phoenix.”
In December 2015, crews began demolishing the former PAZ Cantina building to make way for a new high-rise housing complex from national developer Alliance Residential Company. The back wall, adorned with Perry’s jackrabbit mural, was left partially standing – the sole surviving piece of the structure – for a week. Upon hearing his art was rubble-pile-bound, Perry jumped the construction fence and posed for a photo next to the wall, a chunk of bricks knocked from the upper right corner of the mural behind him like teeth from a grinning mouth.
Up with Downtown
“This is the biggest housing boom in my lifetime,” Matthew Seaman says, taking long strides down Roosevelt Street from his favorite neighborhood java spot, Lola Coffee, toward the construction site of Union @ Roosevelt on the corner of First Avenue.
It’s a beautiful but brisk Friday morning in January, and Seaman’s taking a walking tour of the residential properties his company, Metrowest Development, has underway in the Roosevelt neighborhood. They include Union and Townhomes on 3rd, and are just a few in the glut of construction projects in the area (see sidebar). At present, all of Roosevelt from Seventh Street to Seventh Avenue looks like a building boneyard, with skeletons of structures rising in giant steel beams and gray concrete from dirt piles, and girded with chain-link fences and bright orange construction flags.
“We’re growing up. The city is growing up,” says Seaman, who has lived in Downtown Phoenix since 1996. “I moved down here and said, ‘This is what I love.’ It was a transitional neighborhood at the time.” He’s happy to see and participate in activity on the district’s barren plots; just 10 years ago, more than 40 percent of this neighborhood was vacant lots. “The worst thing for a neighborhood is to have half a block of vacant lots with fences around them,” he says, emphasizing that Metrowest focuses on infill development, adaptive reuse and new builds on vacant spaces, all on a boutique scale. “I think this next cycle is going to be an opportunity for those who recognize that a lot of the larger parcels are being developed, and there’s an opportunity for us to stitch together these neighborhoods with some of the smaller vacant lots that have been vacant for, in some cases, 60 years.”
West of Union, roughly from Third to Fifth streets, Alliance Residential Company developments sprawl across multiple parcels. Razed to make way for the Alliance projects: the building at 420 E. Roosevelt St. (formerly Infinitas Gallery, and Bodega 420) and the PAZ Cantina building (formerly a gallery called Canvas). Three shipping containers painted with murals by local artists were moved behind Modified Arts across the street. Abutting the Alliance development is an impending housing project by Colorado-based Baron Properties. Razed to make way for it: the GreenHAUS boutique (which contained rare murals by Ted DeGrazia and an iconic exterior mural by local painter Lauren Lee, all destroyed), and an office building that was the former site of the Church of Scientology’s Arizona headquarters.
The loss of the Lee and DeGrazia murals was especially upsetting to local artists, many of whom have been Downtown for decades. Wayne Michael Reich, who sometimes writes about art for PHOENIX magazine and has long commented on the local scene in his controversial blog ARTbitch, has been a part of the Phoenix arts scene since 1991. “When you look at something like the Lauren Lee mural on GreenHAUS, I would bet you dollars to doughnuts that the new condo or office or whatever they’re putting up over there, they’re not going to put a mural on it,” Reich says. “It was public outcry that made them go, ‘We’ll put a brand new piece of art on it.’”
When Reich puts himself in developers’ shoes, he sees an all-business view. “I, as a private developer, I don’t care about your art community. I don’t care about your coffee shop. That’s not my job,” he says. “That’s not the reason I’m here. I’m there to put something up that’s a profit-making entity. I need to put it up there in time, and on budget.”
Alliance Residential Company and Baron Properties did not respond to PHOENIX magazine’s interview requests. But Catrina Kahler, president of Artlink – which puts on the city’s largest artwalk and open studio extravaganza, Art Detour, every year in March – says the big developers have shown some cooperation with the arts community, and cites GreenHAUS as an example. She says the Artlink board negotiated with Baron Properties to ensure the boutique – and its interior DeGrazia murals – remained intact for the 2015 Art Detour event, “so we weren’t all touring a pile of rubble,” Kahler says. “When we talked with them, they were very open and honest with us, and wanted to do what was best, and we worked with them to make sure the space was open and [welcoming] for people.”
Kahler also names Seaman as an example of a developer who breaks the stereotype of the all-business builder, and he’s not the only one. Other developers – like Ken Cook, who owns the renovated DeSoto Central Market building across the street from Union – plan their projects with a primary focus on public spaces and community utility. There is a new bridge between arts and development now, Kahler says, where before there was a philosophical canyon. “If this was 20 years ago, and these developers were coming in, would they give a [crap] about the artists? No. No,” she says. “But now, we have people like Matt – who’s a resident, and who cares, and who gets it to the nth degree.”
Seaman stresses the importance of public areas on the ground floor of residential complexes – retail, restaurants, work spaces – and gives priority to local businesses. But he says “the arts community is one piece” of Downtown’s growth, and the area’s vitality doesn’t hinge on it alone. “The success of Downtown is not because of one thing, one baseball stadium, or one hotel – it’s everything. It’s ASU. It’s the planning department recognizing that all of these things have to come together. And that’s the great thing about what’s happening,” Seaman says. “You’re seeing success with small businesses, with the arts community, with culture and museums, and the housing is the piece we’ve been missing that’s finally coming together.”
The economic importance of a thriving creative community can’t be understated to someone like Steven Pedigo. Pedigo is an economic analyst for the Creative Class Group, founded by Toronto-based social scientist Richard Florida, whose theories posit that creative communities are the main impetus for economic development in post-industrial U.S. cities. Back in October 2003, Florida told Phoenix New Times that Phoenix had the potential for a creative economy. “You have all the ingredients,” he said. “You just need a great recipe and a great chef.”
Twelve years later, Phoenix has indeed cooked up a cultural casserole. “Phoenix is becoming more educated, more cosmopolitan… there is this attraction of the quote-unquote ‘knowledge base’ of the creative class, and in turn, we know [mixed-use housing near public transportation] are the types of amenities those folks are looking for, so there’s a demand for it,” Pedigo says. “Who would have ever thought that people would live in Downtown Phoenix?”
People have lived in Downtown Phoenix for decades. But until the arts community started to sprout after the new millennium, it wasn’t a destination for much of anything besides drug deals and maybe a rendezvous with a hooker. “The art community built Downtown and gave it its soul. Downtown was always here, but developers weren’t coming,” says artist Hugo Medina, who has resided in the area since 1998. “So the artists came in because it was cheap, and made it a destination, made it a place to go, made it happen. Then as soon as people started coming to see the arts, restaurant [owners] said, ‘Oh, there’s people down there,’ and they started opening restaurants. And developers said, ‘They need somewhere to live,’ so the developers started coming in – and that’s, unfortunately, going to raise the prices and move the artists out. That’s just the natural transition of the neighborhood.”
Medina and Pedigo agree that’s been the typical trajectory for most artist-refurbished neighborhoods around the U.S. Medina cites the Los Angeles Arts District and SoHo in New York City as examples. The L.A. Arts District, Medina says, “was an old, run-down neighborhood. Artists came in, started building it up, it became hip, people started moving in and fixing it up, and all the artists had to move out because they couldn’t afford it. That happened in SoHo. SoHo was basically an empty warehouse district that was in danger of being turned into a freeway. A couple artists fought it, got their studios in there and galleries, and now it is what it became today.”
Pedigo cites San Francisco as an example-in-action. “In San Francisco and the East Bay, there are a lot of people saying artists and culture people are being pushed out for tech folks,” he says, adding, “Artists and entertainers in San Francisco have been pushed out to places like Oakland. Now Oakland is becoming more expensive.”
The challenge is finding a balance between maintaining a creative community, and allowing for population growth and new infrastructures. Going back to San Francisco as an example, Pedigo poses the question, “If you are mayor or a city official, what part of the creative economy do you value? Do you value the technology, innovation and science piece of the creative economy, or do you value the arts and culture piece? And if you value both, how do you develop a balance that offers amenities – maybe high-end development for folks who have those resources – but also protect that creative core, the creative soul of a community, which makes a place kind of interesting and funky, and frankly, the reason the techies and entrepreneurs want to live there.”
Medina predicts a shift for Downtown Phoenix. “The arts in Downtown is going to change. Prices are going to go up, artists are not going to be able to afford to live there, and they’ll have to go to the next place that’s liveable and affordable.”
That “next place,” Medina thinks, will be the south Phoenix warehouse district, though it’s already ripe with development potential. “There’s a lot of events happening and a lot of businesses going into the warehouse district,” he says. “And their employees are going to be buying houses and fixing up the houses and raising the prices, just general gentrification. That just happens, unfortunately.”
Grand Avenue could be another migration mecca. The diagonal street that cuts a sharp line to Roosevelt at 15th Avenue has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, including the addition of Spanish/English bookstore Palabras, an outpost of Barrio Cafe, a slew of new art spaces including Chartreuse and Unexpected galleries, local mattress makers Tuft & Needle, and Containers on Grand (apartments constructed from shipping containers). Unlike on Roosevelt Street, current zoning laws prevent the construction of high-rise buildings on Grand. That, and the presence of artist Beatrice Moore – who owns numerous properties along the avenue – have thus far prevented the gentrification artists rage against.
In a post on her Facebook page, Moore addressed “the pace of gentrification on Roosevelt,” writing, in part, “The City thinks the arts uses are nice, even wonderful perhaps, but ultimately they see ASU, U of A, the Biomedical [Campus] and density as higher and best uses… the city will not hesitate if given a choice between arts preservation and expansion of these kinds of infrastructure.”
Moore moved Downtown in 1986, and says she’s “not so naive” as to say what’s happening on Roosevelt can’t happen on Grand. “I will resist any height along Grand, that I have a say-so in, that could lead to the destruction of the vintage and historic infrastructure along the street,” she wrote. “However, some of the neighborhoods flanking Grand have their own over-entitlements and we are going to be seeing 3- and 4-story apartments and condos adjacent to Grand (although hopefully smaller scale infill projects and not massive apartment/condo complexes). However, it doesn’t matter if vintage and historic fabric is torn out for a new 2-story or 7-story project; you have still lost what’s unique about the area. Do we have control over many of those things? No. Mainly, I suggest, we all have our ‘back-up plans.’”
The Long Division
“I’m a Downtown girl,” Catrina Kahler says proudly. Over coffee at DeSoto Central Market, she enthuses about her impending move to Portland on the Park, one of the new residential builds in the neighborhood.
And she enthuses about what she describes as support for the arts community from city officials. Gail Browne from the City of Phoenix Arts & Culture office hosts a series of meetings where the arts districts come together, and Kahler says city staff and police and the fire department are there. “It’s not just enforcement issues [we discuss], but how can we continue to communicate and educate how all this works together? – which is invaluable, to get people in the same room talking about this,” she says. “There’s an understanding that things can improve… what that triggers, in terms of conversation and reaching out to people and not assuming, it’s been very positive.”
Artists, developers and city officials working together is the ideal scenario for everyone. “If developers are smart, they need to make friends with the artists,” Reich says. “If the artists are smart, we need to start applying the same tactics the developers do… you have to show that the arts can be financially viable, and that they’re worth backing. The artists also have to understand that without development, you’re on deck.”
But there’s not likely to be a campfire round of “Kumbaya” among the parties anytime soon. Even the art scene itself is divided – a hallmark of a creative city, Pedigo says. “If you think about all the creative economies, all the success stories, they’re all very, very divided cities,” he says. “They’re all cities with haves and have-nots.”
“That’s a big part of the Phoenix arts scene – fractions,” Reich concurs. “And the fractions can’t come together… Every battle that artists lose, they should be walking away smarter. We should have a voting bloc.”
Whatever the future face of Downtown Phoenix, it should keep splashes of color, Pedigo says. “Jane Jacobs was a great urbanist, and she said, ‘When a place becomes boring, even the rich people will leave,’” he says. “You don’t want to create a Downtown vibe that’s stale, that doesn’t have character. Could you take Downtown Phoenix and place it anywhere else in the country and no one would know it’s Downtown Phoenix? That’s not the type of Downtown that you want to have.”
Here’s just a handful of the residential developments exploding around Downtown Phoenix in the current construction boom.
Location: First Avenue near Central Avenue
and McDowell Road
Living situation: 25 units with various floor plans, located a paint brush’s throw from the Phoenix Art Museum
ETA: May 2016
Containers on Grand
Location: 12th and Grand avenues
Living situation: 16 decommissioned shipping containers, stylishly recycled into eight apartments by Scottsdale architecture firm StarkJames (The Clever Koi, Lisa Sette Gallery)
ETA: Completed November 2015
Location: Third and Roosevelt streets
Living situation: Multi-family high-rise housing from Baron Properties in the heart of Roosevelt Row; plan features 111 units for Illuminate and 104 apartments at Linear
ETA: Mid-late 2016
Location: Northwest corner of Central Avenue and McDowell Road
Living situation: 367 market-rate apartments by Lennar, erected on a long-vacant lot in a prime spot near museums and restaurants, with local retail (including, rumor has it, Press Coffee) on the ground floor
ETA: March 2017
Portland on the Park
Location: Portland Street, between Central and Third avenues
Living situation: Portland Place developer Habitat Metro is building 149 luxury condos with 21 different floor plans.
Union @ Roosevelt
Location: First Avenue and Roosevelt Street
Living situation: Metrowest Development’s market-rate units (80 of them) are directly across the street from a light rail station, with spaces for local restaurants and retail on the ground floor.
ETA: Fall 2016
Townhomes on 3rd
Location: Third Avenue, between Fillmore and Roosevelt streets
Living situation: These 10 townhomes from Metrowest Development – each featuring a private patio – sold out prior to completion of construction.
ETA: Opened fall 2015