In the past, I’ve been critical of former Republic columnist John Talton’s loose cannon, anti-automobile ranting. I haven’t seen much from him lately, but his older piece, Phoenix 101: What killed downtown, Part II, recently came to my attention, and contains a nugget worth noting. Hey, even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while:
Then came the high-rises. In the late 1950s, a number of skyscrapers were begun north of Thomas. The first completed was the Guaranty Bank Building, which was finished in nine months and for a time was the tallest tower west of Dallas. Soon Harry and Newton Rosenzweig, downtown merchant princes and political bosses, began work on Rosenzweig Center, which included Del Webb’s Towne House Hotel. Soon, the Mayer Central Plaza, across from Park Central, would become the tallest building in the city.
All these events badly wounded downtown, as well as the neighborhoods along Central. City Council nearly always said yes when a property owner wanted his or her land “up-zoned” to accommodate a potential skyscraper. Allowing high-rises outside of downtown was an Olympian blunder, perhaps the worst policy decision in city history. Why did it happen? Powerful land owners lobbied for it. Land ownership in parts of downtown was complicated and large parcels more difficult to assemble. Phoenix lacked large downtown headquarters or moneyed advocates to keep it viable, as happened in a city such as Chicago. In addition, at this moment of history, many wondered what a downtown was for? Was it even necessary?
It’s a long read, in the style of an aspiring novelist looking to get paid by the page. But, some good historical photos illustrate a timeline of the ebbs and flows of Downtown Phoenix, a history that Scottsdale seems to be repeating, albeit on a smaller scale.
The bottom line is that density–via unwise and unchecked crony upzoning that thwarts the very purpose of zoning–is what killed downtown Phoenix.
To be fair to Talton, what he appears to be saying is that density OUTSIDE of downtown Phoenix is what killed downtown Phoenix. But, of course, density in downtown Phoenix is what drove the creep of density to surrounding areas.