May 28, 2012

The Good and Bad of 7th Avenue and McDowell

by: Will Novak


Today’s post is by contributing writer Will Novak:

As a new resident of the Willo neighborhood I’ve been closely following the new developments on the corner of 7th Avenue and McDowell Rd.  A few years back the corner was mostly dead with the only sign of life being My Florist Café and a few other shops barely hanging on. Today, the corner is being revitalized but not without much outcry from certain sections of the community. So lets look at what is good and bad about the corner.

The Good

The corner is undoubtedly more alive than it’s been in anyone’s recent memory. Every time I go to the corner there are people dining outdoors with friends and family. Even more exciting, outside of ZoYo frozen yogurt I often see families with children! The importance of this cannot be over stated. Our historic neighborhoods were once much higher density as the homes were filled with families who had children. Today they’re often filled with empty nesters or young childless couples like my girlfriend and me. The fact that Central Phoenix may be starting to attract more families with children is a great sign our center city is again being seen as a viable, and more importantly, safe, place for families. Any corner that’s safe and convenient enough for a family to walk/bike there with their kids gets points in my book.

The notion that the corner is merely a “Fast Food Dump” with only national chains has been dramatically overblown. In fact, when one stops to count the retail establishment currently at the corner or opening soon you’ll find almost an exact 50/50 split between locally owned business and regional/national chains.  Often times folks in Central Phoenix seem to have the bizarre belief that 100% of businesses should be some kind of super chic local boutique that appeals only to bohemian types. Great urban areas have something for everyone, from urban hipsters to suburban grandparents.

When I lived in Boston the nearest urban retail center to me was “Cleveland Circle” (which is not a circle, nor in Cleveland) and it had a similar split between local and national businesses. Cleveland Circle had an Applebee’s, a Starbucks, a Verizon Store, CVS and a Chipotle. But it also had two nearly identical local pizza places (so lets not worry about two burger joints, please), a frozen yogurt place, a local bar, et cetera. The insinuation that a neighborhood center isn’t good if it has an equal blend of national and local outlets rings empty to anyone who’s travelled the country. In fact, the national chains at 7th Ave and McDowell will likely serve as anchors for the local shops (ask CityNorth and the Galleria how anchor-less shopping areas work).  I, for one, long for the day when more national chains call Central Phoenix home, wouldn’t it be nice to have a REI, Kohl’s, Target, etc. within biking distance?

Another positive is that the urban form of the corner has also improved, mostly thanks to the developers and not the City. The weird off street diagonal parking that once lined the corner has been done away with and today pedestrians can enjoy wide sidewalks, new trees and street side dining.

The Bad

The corner, like many burgeoning neighborhood centers throughout the Valley lacks an identity in part because it lacks a name. Saying “7th Avenue and McDowell” every time one wants to refer to the corner is a bit soulless; too many places in Phoenix are reduced to their intersection. Though the name “Cleveland Circle” may have seemed unbefitting my polygonal neighborhood in Boston at least it had a name and thus an identity. The City of Phoenix should work with the developers and neighborhoods to more properly brand and identify this corner. The corner doesn’t need to be named anything fancy or complicated, “McDowell Square” or something of the like would be just fine.

The corner is a place where four great historic neighborhoods meet but one passing by would never know it. While the corner isn’t ‘in’ any of the historic ‘hoods, it is where they meet and that should be noted. Each corner would benefit from a vertical/obelisk shaped piece of public art that proudly boasted the names of the individual neighborhoods.

The buildings along the southeast side of the corner have rightfully upset a lot of folks.  While the north side proudly boasts its original brick exterior, the developers of the southern side of the street slathered stucco on their buildings, greatly harming their historic integrity.  The loss of the brick façade was disappointing, but at least some of the tenants have kept their exposed beam ceilings. In the future, the City needs to come up with a Facade Restoration program like Tucson has and we as citizens need to push even more for maintaining buildings charm and character. Additionally, the trees planted on the South side of the road are too few and of a minimally shade bearing type. Hopefully, if the businesses succeed the landlords will pony up the cash to improve the shade in the area or it’ll be a blistering walk in the summer.

While the developers have improved the urban form of the corner the City and its car loving traffic engineers have done it no favors. 7th Avenue remains a mini highway with cars barreling off the I-10 at 50 MPH+. McDowell Road could also stand to be narrowed, slowed and have bike lanes added to it. Unfortunately, that sort of thing is out of the developer’s hands and is a topic for another day.

Summing Up

Are there disappointing things about the new development at 7th Ave and McDowell? Sure. Is the corner a lot better off than it was five years ago? Absolutely.  Would it be nice if there were a few more local, unique places to shop and dine? Yes, but there’s still empty spaces on each side of the road, so there is hope. I hope Central Phoenicians won’t just write the corner off because it’s not perfect, because if that’s our attitude, we might as well just write off the whole City.

Photo Credit: Photo and image by the author.

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10 Responses

  1. west says:

    Without the mix of larger chain, these redevelopments never would have happened. There is a practical financial aspect that many seem to miss. I’m less more concerned that the intersection is oversaturated with eateries without the practical retail residents need close by. I am happy that the corners have some life, but I was hoping for businesses that would have eliminated future car trips like a hardware store or small drug store or even a shoe repair shop. The one business I frequent most is the dry cleaners, which will apparently be closing in favor of a tax prep office. So now I will need to drive to clean my clothes, but I guess I can walk for a burger. While that’s nice, I clean clothes weekly and eat a burger yearly.

  2. josh says:

    I don’t completely understand who, or what drives these ‘local boutique’ revolutionaries, but generally I find them to be typically white middle-class affluent groups. We have ‘local’ restaurants, eg. taco stands, but those don’t seem to meet their tacit criteria. From a pure food perspective, these local shops rarely measure up. The ‘cool’ part is more about the fact that their friends own the place instead of some publicly traded corporation.

    Another point: these historic neighborhoods are not functioning well. They are supposed to be a point of pride for Phoenix, and taxes are structured for people to preserve the look and feel of the neighborhoods. What is actually happening, especially in Oakland and St. Matthews districts is they are being used for low-income SLUM housing. Most of these houses are owned by a handful of investors(slumlords) and they rent it out to anyone who will pay. The result is more like a ghetto and less like a charming historical reference. Instead of being a point of pride for the city, they are a point of shame. Why do we have these areas if they are going to be complete crapholes?

    At the minimum, the special tax rates should be void if the house is not owner-occupied.

  3. Love the idea that the area needs a name! But I think the McDowell part of the crossroads brings to mind too many other areas (McDowell Mountain Ranch in Scottsdale, or the nice area of NE Mesa which is clustered around McDowell and Power). Like maybe South 7th? The small numbered streets always bring to mind CenPho for me.

  4. Lisa says:

    I have to say that I agree with you completely, Will. And as a former Bostonian, I remember Cleveland Circle and also Coolidge Corner. I believe the sign near the parking lot at 7th and McDowell says “Corner on 7th”. Perhaps it will be known now as “The Corner”. That kinda works!

    I’ve very happy to see what is happening at this corner. I love seeing all the people and being able to bike or walk there. This will only bring more people and more businesses (including local business), which is really exciting to see.

  5. I’d put Pei Wei and NYPD Pizza in the right-hand column for chains. Yes, they’rd locally based, but they’re also the same restaurants that can be found in countless shopping centers all over the metropolitan area. Regardless of where the profits flow, they bring a certain level of sameness to the corner. For some that’s a curse; for others, it’s a blessing in the form of comforting familiarity. Regardless, I think you’ve brought some good perspective to this issue.

  6. Will Novak says:

    David I know what you mean about the sameness, but I’m going just on where they based. I think we get into trouble when we start thinking “well this local business is so big that it doesn’t seem local any more.” It kind of reminds me of the people in High School who stopped liking bands when they got too popular or ‘sold out.’

    But even if we did count them more as chains, I don’t think the balance at that corner is so out of whack (as some seem to) that we should consider it a failure.

  7. john couleur says:

    My name is John Couleur and I am the current president of the association for the Roosevelt Historical neighborhood.

    First, id like to thank Will for the positive words, even qualified, for the development on the SE corner. Many of our residents enjoy the restaurants and are thrilled to see them there. It is fabulous to see the energy where before there was none. The initial anger when the leasees were announced reminds me that there are ideologues on every end of the spectrum. FYI, when the leasees were first announced, like many i was disappointed. What i was told was that it was very unlikely local restaurants would be the first at a corner that had been so empty and if the franchises did well, the locals would join. It is wonderful to see that The Tuck Shop has announced a breakfast place.

    The development on the SE corner is in Roosevelt and the NE corner is in Willo. The respective neighborhood associations are responsible for whatever review is required. In the case of the SE corner the only variance required was to serve alcohol outside at one of the restaurants. The parking, which later became the biggest problem, met city standards.

    I would also like to invite Will to tour my neighborhood. Each of the 4 historics around that corner have an identity. Roosevelt, full of pre WWI, larger, family sized homes, has many kids. On the 4 blocks i live in, more than 10 preteens alone. A surprise to me coming from Arcadia, and a real pleasure to see the mix of demographics.

  8. Wayne says:

    It is the people who make up the clients at these places. The regulars who may walk from the historic hoods and see each other and perhaps even meet on a regular basis. This can also happen at a Chipotle. The well financed national chains can anchor a development and provide the necessary confidence of the developer to bring about the change. I frequently walk to this corner and love it. One only needs to look a mile away and see what the historic revolutionaries did to 19th Ave and McDowell in the name of preservation and anti investor thinking to see what kind of corners we would like to see in our historic districts. I meet with 9 retired folks at a McDonalds for coffee and a newspaper exchange and dicussion every morning……they would not, and could not, pay upscale prices for a cup a java…..I don’t see anything wrong with calling it 7th Ave and McDowell….Phoenix is defined by its development around the car, it’s grid pattern is something I respect….easy to locate the place you are talking about with the reference point is a intersection…..lets acept who we are and not try to be something we are not….and develop from that point into something unique and not a Faux example of some other city…..the corner fits. Even Circle K joined in and painted a “color”.

  9. Hi Will, your article was very interesting! I think West makes a good point as well in regards to having space filled up by stores and services that encourage walking instead of driving. Like a small drug store, dry cleaners etc. Also, feel free to follow @SCOTieToolkit for info on western community development case studies too.

  10. Will Novak says:

    Thanks for the kind words. Im glad to hear it sounds like the folks in Roosevelt are generally being supportive of the corner. For a while I heard rumblings about noise, parking, etc. it sounds like maybe most of thats been ironed out.

    I have toured Roosevelt many times of course, I used to live in it 🙂 Well the Roosevelt Square apartments anyhow. Roosevelt is one of the best neighborhoods in Phoenix and really in the entire Southwest.

    There’s no reason if the corner had a name you couldn’t also call it 7th Ave/McDowell. People say “Park Central” or “Central and Osborn” all the time.

    Places are a lot like people, they need identities. Imagine if no one called you Wayne, but instead only described you by your location, “that guy over there.” What fun would that be? Where’s the charm, the identity, etc? You’d lose all your Wayne-ness and that would be a sad thing indeed. To learn from other Cities that do a better job self identifying isn’t copying or doing ‘faux’ anything, its part of our City growing up.

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