July 18, 2011

Phoenix’s Need for New Public Squares

by: Will Novak


Today’s post is by contributing writer Will Novak:

Phoenix’s park system is something of an enigma: part of it is breathtakingly wonderful, the other part embarrassing. The City’s desert and mountain preserve system is world class and a jewel all Phoenicians should be proud of.  However, Phoenix’s “traditional” parks and squares are poorly designed and often don’t even exist where you’d expect to find them.

Phoenix has four areas that are either urban or semi-urban (Downtown, Midtown, Uptown & Biltmore), and not a single one of them has a well-designed urban park at their heart. In order for each area to become a thriving urban node, it must have a strong heart — a public space. Environmentalist Lester Brown has said, “the ratio of parks to parking lots may be the best indicator of the livability of the City,” and by that measure, urban Phoenix is a failure.  Today I’d like to look at current parking areas in Phoenix’s urban hubs that could be reborn as public spaces.

“What about the Civic Space Park?” you may already be thinking, as it indeed is a quality urban park in Downtown. In fact, I think Civic Space is the best traditional park in the Valley, and if I had to take a visitor to one park, it would be my choice. However, Civic Space’s location makes it a less than ideal park for most workers and visitors in the Central Business District (CBD). Civic Space already seems to be growing more into ASU’s park than Downtown’s, and this will be more and more true as ASU Downtown grows. Within the next few years when the Post Office is converted to a Student Union and a new Rec Center is built East of 1st Avenue, the Civic Space Park will be surrounded on three sides by ASU.

When Phoenix lost Patriots Square to the retail at CityScape we lost a park that was horribly designed but in an ideal location.  The idea to incorporate commerce into a new public square wasn’t a bad idea; one of the Nation’s best new parks, Houston’s Discovery Green, has retail incorporated, but Cityscape’s design is a failure. What’s done is done however, and we need to find a new place for an urban square in the heart of the CBD.

In my opinion, the best place in Downtown for a new space would be the square block bounded by Washington, Jefferson, 3rd and 4th Avenues. Currently there’s a City owned parking structure that holds about 1,350 cars on that parcel. If it were demolished, it would open up the land to be converted to a park.  That parcel is surrounded on all sides by Courthouses (the Federal, Municipal, Historic County and New County) and would be the traditional spot to put a public square. American Courthouse Squares are often the hearts of communities as we see at our State’s best urban park, Prescott’s Courthouse Square.  The loss of the parking garage would be negligible as study after study shows a vast surplus of parking downtown, and because the Government workers near the parcel receive subsidized transit access anyhow.

This parcel, we’ll call it “Courthouse Square”, would also connect City Hall, the Dodge Theater, CityScape and any future development of Union Station. Once the Light Rail is run westward on Jefferson, a stop at 4th Avenue will be necessary to connect LRT to future Commuter Rail at Union Station. Fourth Avenue could become an indoor linear terminal connecting Union Station to the Light Rail system. Third Avenue between Washington and Jefferson could be converted to park space, connecting the new “Courthouse Square” to Chavez Square, the Historic Courthouse and the Haver & Nunn-designed City Hall.  A world-class public square on this parcel would spur new development, give Downtown back its heart, and make for an amazing entry into the City for those entering Downtown via rail.

“Courthouse Square” and potential future developments around it, a new heart for Downtown

The next three urban-ish areas we’ll discuss (Midtown, Uptown & Biltmore), like Downtown, have an excess of parking, though most of it is privately held. Trying to convert privately held parking space to public places would, of course, be tricky but certainly not impossible.

Midtown, Phoenix’s second largest employment hub, is entirely lacking any center or public place. Park Central Mall opened in 1957, but has been languishing since the early 90’s.  Today its large surface lot facing Central Avenue could be converted into the park that “Park” Central Mall and Midtown have always lacked. Outdoor shopping malls like Park Central are now coming back into vogue (Desert Ridge, Tempe Marketplace, CityNorth, Kierland, Scottsdale Quarter, etc.), and a new public square fronting Central Avenue could be the key to redeveloping the Mall into the hub of large scale retail that Central Phoenix so desperately needs.

“Park Central Square” and a redeveloped Park Central Mall area.

Everyone seems to agree that Uptown Phoenix is indeed a place, but no one seems to agree exactly where it is, where its center is, or where it ends.  An urban square anchoring Uptown and giving it a heart would go along way to giving the area an identity and sense of place.

The parking lot at “Uptown Plaza” –which tortuously lacks an actual plaza– would make an excellent place for a public plaza. That surface parking is counter intuitive to creating an urban area, and could be replaced either underground or as a podium in a small office tower. Uptown between Camelback and Missouri has already been undergoing a renaissance in the last five years or so, and a great public square in the area would surely speed up that process even further.

“Uptown Plaza” with an actual plaza and space for new midrise development.

Since the 1990’s the Biltmore area has slowly been growing into a quasi-urban neighborhood. The Midrise hotel and condo towers, along with the shopping at Biltmore Fashion, make for a walkable area that has not yet matured into what one could truly call “urban.” The huge surface lot facing Camelback Rd. is a huge waste of space and serves as a moat, cutting off the shopping center from the residents and hotel guests south of Camelback (though the underground pedestrian crossing has helped).

Of all the parking areas I’ve highlighted today, the surface lot in front of Biltmore Fashion is the most highly used, and thus, would likely be the most difficult to convert to a public space. However, the City of Phoenix has shown with its CityNorth scheme that it’s not entirely opposed to cooperating with private companies to build parking structures. If the Goldwater Institute’s lawsuit against the City fails, and the City is found to be within the law, perhaps a similar public- private partnership could be devised at Biltmore Fashion to build a new parking garage north of the mall, allowing the surface lot to be redeveloped.

Biltmore Fashion Park (also ironically lacking a park) has been losing status and cache to Scottsdale Fashion in recent years, and a quality urban space in the area could go a long way to stemming the flood of high-end retail to Scottsdale. Bloomingdales Department store had been looking at opening in the Valley for some time before the economy (and CityNorth) tanked, and perhaps a strong vision for the Biltmore area could lure them, or another high- end anchor, to build at Biltmore Fashion.

“Biltmore Park” providing an urban heart for the Camelback Corridor

Obviously the City of Phoenix can barely sustain its current parks during our economic crisis, but that only means now should be the time we plan, dream and scheme.  Too often the conservative Phoenix government and business community waits until the middle of an economic boom to act, and by the time they start a project the bubble has burst.

Seemingly every other major city in the country has multiple quality urban squares; Phoenix only has the Civic Space. Recently new world-class public squares have been built all over the Country to not only give cities a focal point, but also to spur development, and Phoenix should follow suit. The success of Civic Space locally as well as the success of Discovery Green in Houston, CityGarden in St. Louis, and Campus Martius in Detroit should show the wisdom of investing in new, great public spaces.

Boston’s “Copley Square,” Houston’s “Discovery Green,” Detroit’s “Campus Martius Park,” and  St. Louis’ “CityGarden,” great American urban squares, something Phoenix needs more of.

Image Credit: All images by the author.

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6 Responses

  1. Donna says:


    You make some interesting points, but fail to consider places like Encanto Park, Coronado Park, University Park, Verde Park, Country Club Park and even the tiny Virginia Park near 15th St. & Virginia. These are indeed good parks & I believe are where they should be…serving neighborhoods.

    I certainly agree with the concerns over Civic Space & voiced those in the beginning. It is NOT ASU’s park, nor is the Post Office ASU’s. Both belong to the city & therefore to all the residents of Phoenix. I remember telling someone that the AE England building was not part of ASU after he had told people it was. Gee whiz…don’t these people know anything? Oops, sorry on another soapbox there.

  2. Will Novak says:

    Donna, those other parks you are listed are nice, but none are really “urban”. I guess what I crave for Phoenix to have is more urban squares as opposed to parks.

    Civic Space is close to being that, and could be once all areas around it are built up and developed. Those other parks are all surrounded by single family homes and definitely serve a purpose, but they’re not the high intensity urban squares that have that “big city” feel that I wish Phoenix could have.

    Also note, I’m not saying Civic Space IS ASUs park, it just sort of feels that way be default. If more office towers are built North of Van Buren along with more residential it may take on a feel of being more of the entire City’s park. 🙂 Thanks for reading.

  3. Wayne Murray says:

    Great post Will. I am with you on the urban square difference. As you point out that will only come when the residential density comes to Phoenix, rather than the visit to downtown. We are close with the educational influx and on our way. The Historic neighborhoods need to learn to live and co-exist with new urban density projects side by side. There will be the day that new leadership will see this through and the people will live in environmentaly friendly buidlings that will eventually rise from the dirt lots that have created. I will contonue to beat that drum, until those dusty lots are gone and I am socializing with the people who live on them. PS Coronado has a great historic Traffic Circle at 12th and Oak, with a store and the Tuck Shop resturant, is is a small urban square but people are coming and going day and into the evening…..we even decorate for holidays….

  4. Will Novak says:

    I love the little corner on 12th and Oak! I think it could grow into a less fancy version of the 40th St and Campbell intersection. I wish that some of the parking near the quicky mart and the YSA building could be filled in though, it would be awesome if there were a few other dining or shopping options complimenting the Tuck Shop.

  5. Will Novak says:

    I meant to write this earlier but forgot:

    I also think in an ideal world Encanto Park needs a pretty big overhaul. The truth of the matter is, its actually a small to mid sized community park with a huge adjacent golf course.

    Golf is getting less and less popular with young people and fewer people are taking up golf as they mature (I for instance at 27 don’t know a single person who plays & I have very sporty friends). I think such a huge investment in golf at that location is a misallocation of the space.

    I’d like to see the Encanto golf course reduced to just a driving range and a 9 hole course. This would allow Encanto Park great room for expansion. Instead of just golf we could have soccer and football fields, more baseball/softball fields, an enhanced lagoon, vastly more trees, perhaps a desert garden, etc.

    Additionally the State Fairgrounds are directly South of the current Encanto 9 course and could/should be integrated into Encanto park. The Fairgrounds sits fallow most of the year and it would be amazing to replace that asphalt with green space. Incorporating the Fairgrounds into Encanto Park would greatly increase the size of the park and provide space for a large skate park, something Central PHX desperately needs.

  6. Bill Mc says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention Steele Indian School Park. It’s a great park with a lot of potential, but in my opinion, very underutilized.

    It’s Uptown, has access to light rail and busses. Lots of open space, water front, although not enough shade. There is space for large outdoor events, or smaller events in the Indian School buildings.

    I would love to see a calendar of events in SISP as full as that of Tempe Town Lake, as well as more arts and culture events you’d expect in a city our size.

    A Saturday evening with the Phoenix Symphony by the water and events like that would be wonderful. I do recall Phoenix Ballet giving a free, small performance in conjunction with some other children’s ballet or something similar a couple years ago.

    Another large park area with a lot of potential is Hance Deck Park. Very underutilized as well. Location is a little tough; it’s just far enough from the Downtown core to be inconvenient to use.

    But again, there is a lot of space, close to public transportation, that could be much better utilized.

    While I agree the big parking lots facing the main streets take away from what could be better used spaces, (I really like your examples) working with the Uptown and Downtown parks we already have is a lot more cost effective, and could provide results a lot sooner than trying to raze private lots to put in these spaces.

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