Envisioning a hip downtown
Developers propose an entertainment district to liven up Phoenix
Ginger D. Richardson and Erica Sagon
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 8, 2007 12:00 AM
San Diego has the Gaslamp Quarter, Miami has South Beach and Denver has LoDo.
Now, a group of private developers wants to create a hip hangout spot in downtown Phoenix, one that rivals or even surpasses those found in some of the nation's greatest cities.
The proposed Jackson Street Entertainment District would cut a path across the southern end of downtown, stretching from Central Avenue to Chase Field, and could be anchored by the state's first House of Blues music venue.
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The blockbuster proposal is significant because it addresses downtown Phoenix's lack of full-time residents and nightlife, both of which are key to turning the area into a true destination spot. The new district, when complete, could boast comedy clubs, signature restaurants, live-music spots and art galleries, as well as office space, housing units and a hotel.
Dale Jensen, part owner of the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks, is one of Jackson Street's backers. He said he and his business partners decided to move forward with the idea after realizing that there was nothing to keep people downtown after a Suns or Diamondbacks game.
"The thought was, we have these two big boxes in downtown, the arena and the ballpark, but we really have nothing for people to do but go to that box and go home," he said.
Jackson Street marks the second time in recent months that the private sector has turned its attention to downtown Phoenix in a big way.
Late last year, Phoenix officials approved plans for CityScape, a megashopping, residential and retail project that will give the downtown area its first grocery store in 25 years.
CityScape, which will be just north of the proposed Jackson Street Entertainment District, is expected to complement this newest plan by providing residents and urban workers with a variety of shopping and dining options downtown.
It is expected to feature more national retail chains, while Jackson Street will focus heavily on music and entertainment venues.
Much is still unknown about the Jackson Street proposal, including its cost - early estimates have been about $300 million - tenants and effect on the surrounding Warehouse District.
Downtown residents and artists say they like the concept of an entertainment zone but fear developers will sacrifice some of the neighborhood's unique older buildings in their quest to remake the city's core.
"If we lose the Warehouse District to tall high-rises, we lose the integrity of the area," said Steve Weiss, steering committee chairman for the Downtown Voices Coalition. "We don't want to be just another generic city of tall structures."
Filling a void
The idea of a downtown entertainment district is not a new one.
Phoenix leaders identified the need back in 2004, when they adopted their strategic plan for downtown.
But this marks the first time anyone has moved forward on the concept.
In addition to Jensen, the principals behind the project are Bradley Yonover, Jensen's partner in the Arizona Grand Prix, an Indy-car-style street race that will be held in downtown Phoenix in November; Michael Hallmark, a businessman who designed some of downtown's most notable buildings, including the US Airways Center, the Herberger Theater Center and Chase Field; and David Wallach, a Chicago-based developer who is building downtown Phoenix's first high-rise condominium project, the Summit at Copper Square.
The project's developers say they believe that this is the ideal time to proceed with the plan, in part because the city has made such a huge investment in the downtown in recent years. Big-ticket projects include a new Arizona State University campus, a University of Arizona medical school, light rail, a $600 million-plus expansion of the Phoenix Convention Center and a new $350 million Sheraton hotel.
"It's just the perfect storm of events," Jensen said. "We want to make it so that no one ever comes downtown and says, 'I can't find something to do down there.' "
Early plans call for the Jackson Street district to include 300,000 square feet of office space, more than 1,000 housing units, a hotel, courtyards and paseos that are permanently closed to vehicular traffic, and at least 450,000 square feet of entertainment and retail space. That is nearly three times what is available at the Arizona Center, a downtown shopping mall at Third and Van Buren streets.
Developers have been tight-lipped about what tenants they are trying to lure, but people familiar with the project say principals are already in negotiations with the House of Blues.
It would be the chain's first club in the state.
"Obviously, House of Blues . . . are industry leaders in that genre," Hallmark said. "They're someone who we are talking to and are having ongoing conversations with."
House of Blues, based in Los Angeles, did not return calls for comment.
The deal is not definite, but if House of Blues was to locate in the proposed entertainment district, it would likely be one of the project's few nationally recognized tenants, Hallmark said.
Instead, the majority of the restaurants, bars and shops will be "homegrown and one-of-a-kind concepts," Hallmark said. "If you can find it somewhere else in the Valley, we probably don't want it in the district."
The area, for example, could include a comedy club and movie theater, Hallmark said. He added that he has shared his plans with Sundance Cinemas, a fledgling theater chain for independent films.
The Jackson Street project has the potential to completely reshape what has been an underused part of downtown.
Developers, for example, would like to build new retail and residential spaces and literally attach, or "wrap," them around existing buildings, including the US Airways Center and a city-owned parking garage at Third and Jackson streets. The design plan accomplishes several things, including injecting energy into the district, narrowing streets and promoting a pedestrian-friendly environment, proponents say.
But the plan faces some tough political and logistical battles.
First, developers will need the city to OK the proposal. That will likely not happen before April or May because Phoenix first needs to seek bids from anyone interested in creating a downtown entertainment district.
The group behind the Jackson Street project, however, is the front-runner because it already controls most of the land in the area.
In addition, the project's backers will need to persuade downtown artists and historic-preservation groups to buy into the idea. Some already are concerned that the proposal will result in architecturally unique properties being razed.
"If they come in and tear down a bunch of buildings, then what's going to stop somebody else from coming in and doing the same thing?" asked Beatrice Moore, one of the driving voices behind Phoenix's arts community. "I think that would set a very bad example."
Hallmark said he and his partners would go out of their way to integrate historic and unique buildings into plans for the district.
"Our intent is to preserve all of the ones that have character and value," Hallmark said.
If the process goes smoothly, parts of the new entertainment district could be open by 2009.