Park Central’s Modern Renaissance

Jill SchildhouseSeptember 1, 2023
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Park Central entrance; Photo courtesy Park Central
Park Central entrance; Photo courtesy Park Central

Arizona’s first open-air mall is in the midst of a modern renaissance.

Longtime residents of Phoenix fondly remember Arizona’s first open-air mall, Park Central. Opened in 1957, on 46 acres that used to be a dairy farm, it was a marvel of midcentury-modern design that became a hub along Central Avenue. Seminal retailer Goldwater’s Department Store and Diamonds was the anchor tenant.

But the past few decades have not been kind to the property, which fell into disrepair as the former owners’ partnership dissolved in 2017. Businesses moved out and patrons moved on – until Sharon Harper, chairperson and CEO of real estate firm Plaza Companies and co-owner and co-developer of Park Central, decided to revamp it in 2018. 

“It took a group to be able to crack the code here,” she says of the joint venture between Plaza Companies and real estate investment firm Holualoa Companies. “It’s been transformed dramatically.”

In two phases, from 2017-2020, the team renovated the original 450,000 square feet of midcentury-modern buildings to create workspaces along with retail and restaurants facing Central Avenue. This was accompanied by approximately 1 million square feet of new development, including the Aspire Park Central apartments. They anticipate 750,000 to 1 million square feet of additional development in the future.

This mixed-use space is now home to high-tech businesses (WCUI School of Medical Imaging), educational institutions (University of Jamestown and the Creighton University Health Sciences Campus-Phoenix), retail shops, fitness spots and casual dining (including Poolboy Taco and The Green Woodpecker). There are also two Hilton Hotels under construction, with an expected completion in the third quarter of 2024. 

“The leasing has been very vibrant,” Harper says, noting that biosciences and health-care education businesses have begun to cluster there. In April, Mayor Kate Gallego announced that Park Central and Midtown Phoenix have been designated as the third Bioscience Hub of Greater Phoenix. 

Far from all work and no play, there’s an on-site pavilion for performances, a splash pad and putting greens. Park Central has partnered with ArtLink for a curated gallery with rotating exhibits and $350 million worth of public art featured throughout. 

“Honestly, when we bought it, our aspirations were grand, but not nearly as grand and as significant as what has transpired,” Harper says.

Future development will likely include more housing, an entertainment venue, a high-rise office building, a Bioscience Institute as part of Park Central’s designation as part of the Phoenix Medical Quarter, and a new parking deck.