Gangplank in Downtown Phoenix

People often ask why we didn’t locate in downtown Phoenix when we moved Gangplank. I always try to be polite with my response (or usually I do). However, the truth is because we feel that downtown Phoenix is dead. It has been for a long time. Twenty years of pouring money into it hasn’t changed much. Now before you go and label me a hater (which I am), I will say that I worked for nearly ten years at the heart of downtown.

While I remain in love the the concept of a vibrant downtown, those ten years taught me that our downtown is a lost hope. It is bustling with people from 7am to 4pm, Monday through Friday, but then it turns into the proverbial ghost town. Light rail or billions of dollars in cash infusions won’t change this. Adding skyscrapers and professional sports arenas certainly hasn’t.

The problem is Phoenix is where people from high rent places like Chicago, California, etc come to own a piece of the American dream (land/home ownership) or from the mid-west where rural (space) is a way of life. The people dwell by choice in our suburbs. In order for downtown Phoenix to not be dead, it has be inhabited by the people currently choosing the edges. I don’t see this happening on a scale large enough to make an immediate difference.

So back to Gangplank, there is a myth that if you centrally locate you attract a large base of the greater community. The problem is downtown Phoenix has NO PEOPLE, making it effectively the center of “bullshit and nowhere”. West or East side residents have little interest in driving 30 to 50 miles nor do North or South residents, when the destination is nowhere. Metro Phoenix is now big enough that picking a side actually yields better results than picking the uninhabited middle. Yes, I’m sure I have pissed several people I respect off by now, but signs that the current movement is failing yet again are written all over the wall. This economy is not helping. Both the USA Today : “Pain on Main Street: Timing proves bad for Phoenix” and Arizona Republic : “Developers scale back $900 million CityScape project in Phoenix” ran articles on the subject lately.

While there are many locals that remain hopeful like Sam : “Deserted After Dark” and Tyler : “The State of Downtown Phoenix…“. Let’s face it, when a downtown ambassador employed by merchants to assist visitors, says he often sends tourists to Scottsdale and Tempe when they ask about night life. Then states, “It’s a ghost town.“. That’s a pretty strong sign that there are serious problems with the current formula. I love metro Phoenix (including its downtown) and I hope that I am wrong, but as of now I’m not willing to gamble my money on it.

Before you respond.. Do you live in downtown Phoenix? If not, why? If so, do you have a spouse and kids? For now I would classify downtown approx. 19th Ave to 24th Street between Thomas and Buckeye (16 or so square miles).

6 Comments

  1. I totally agree. To be centrally located then you locate yourself somewhere in the suburbs. It is still the biggest problem with city planning in the Phoenix area. Most of the suburbs were designed and planned exclusively for housing or with very little industry in mind.

    I live in East Mesa about 35 miles from Downtown, am married and have two children.

  2. The problem isn’t just the lack of people living in downtown Phoenix, it’s the fact the entire damn Valley is far, far too spread out.

    You opened Gangplank where the majority of people, ESPECIALLY those with kids, live. While the area in which Gangplank is located certainly isn’t a hive of activity day OR night, at least most of the people who’d stop by don’t have to drive across the entire Valley to get to it.

    I don’t know if Phoenix will ever have the urban atmosphere we’re all hoping it will, and even if it does, that won’t happen for 15-20 years. Perhaps we’ll have satellite co-workspaces in Glendale, Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale, etc. by then.

  3. Derek,

    For starters, I do not live downtown. I relocated here from CA in 2003 without a job and quickly bought a house in SE Gilbert without knowing too much about where my wife and I were likely to work. If I had it to do over again, I would’ve strongly considered downtown PHX or a more central location and sacrificed convenience for a newly-built house.

    You make a lot of good points in your take on the problems that affect downtown PHX today, but I have to disagree with your forecast.

    My wife works downtown (Central & Thomas) and has participated in the light rail implementation and other downtown redevelopment efforts. It’s going to take some time, but downtown PHX is turning the corner. You can see signs already – light rail, lofts, additional shopping/dining, commercial space, etc… and there is much more planned. The present economic downturn is a speed bump, but redevelopment will continue.

    I don’t agree with your the assertion that people aren’t willing to drive. People are crisscrossing the Valley all the time. It’s the natural side effect of all this sprawl combined with shortsighted decisions to move major attractions out of downtown.

    Which brings me to my last point. At some point, people will be forced back to urban living. Suburban sprawl simply isn’t sustainable.

    Downtown PHX’s best days are to come – the result of redevelopment and necessity/affordability. It’s just a matter of when, but I think it will be sooner than you might think. (~10 years)

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  4. The part you mentioned about people choosing to live in the suburbs is the biggest factor.

    Government lead urban planning, and zoning in general, ignores the free market and tries to get people to live, work and shop in certain areas.

    For some reason local governments keep trying to get people to live in dense communities where they walk/bike/”green” commute to work or the grocery store. If people wanted that, they’d move downtown (or to New York). Out here people want to live in large homes close (but not too close) to a major freeway.

    I personally don’t think the lightrail is going to help at all. People were already very capable of getting downtown, what’s missing is a reason to be downtown.

  5. As pretty much everyone knows, I live downtown. Would I live downtown if I had kids? Maybe if I was rich enough to send them to a private school, cause the schools here are scary. Do I like downtown Phoenix? Not really; but then again, I don’t like Glendale, Avondale, Chandler, Gilbert, Queen Creek… I don’t like Arizona (most of the time, some of the people make it worth it though).

    I fall into a different category of people who have moved here from someplace else – I work here. If I lost my job tomorrow, I’d be gone. I chose downtown because it was the closest thing to my work that was within my budget. In my dream world, I would be as far away from the city as possible on at least 5 acres in a place where it actually rained and grass grew naturally.

    I agree with you about the current state of downtown, I disagree with your prediction. If you ever go to Lux on a Saturday afternoon, you’d be lucky to find a place to sit;it’s usually packed to the gills. There are a number of those places that us downtowners like to start listing to defend our chosen lots, but the reality is there aren’t as many places here as there are in the major urban cities. However, not competing with San Fransisco does not equate to “bullshit and nowhere”. I would even venture to say that downtown is on par with most of the suburbs as far as what there is to do here…which is why it isn’t a real downtown (yet).

    I also don’t think there are “no people” downtown, they’re just ‘different’ people. The demographic here is very different that what you get in the suburbs. There are a lot of artists, immigrants, and (surprisingly) rich people who chose downtown. But there is definitely a community here that is thriving for connections, which is what co-working spaces (in my opinion) are about. It’s not about getting the most people, or being centrally located even. There should be places for people to connect no matter where they live – chandler, peoria, downtown. I mean, that’s why Twitter is so successful, right?

    If no one takes action, and everyone concedes to the idea that there is nothing here, then nothing will happen. As you said in your post, people are fighting for a downtown. That’s the first step, even if it leads to failure the first, second, or even third time. Time will not change downtown Phoenix – people will and the people are fighting.

    Jesse Jackson gave a great quote, which I think is fitting, “Time is neutral and does not change things. With courage and initiative, leaders change things”. When the right leader comes along, Phoenix will change.

    Does any of that mean I think Gangplank should be downtown? No. Gangplank is in the right place for its community, its demographic, its target. The goals of Gangplank, the people of Gangplank, work just fine where it is. Being successful is not tied to location, and just as Gangplank is successful, I think other co-working spaces could be successful downtown.

  6. Lately I’ve been saying that if you could take the area of downtown between 19th Ave and 7th Ave on Grand, squeeze it together with Roosevelt between 7th Avenue and 15th Avenue, then grab numerous streets like 5th between Roosevelt and Garfield and some others similar, push them all together, you’d have one helluva downtown.

    Trouble is all the empty space, places where things could have really grown but were flattened for speculation, ASU’s big plans, etc.

    I disagree that downtown dies after dark. BUT you do have to be adventurous. The question is what do you seek? Scottsdale type clubs? There’s a row of them next to Marjlies on Washington or farther up Central. Quiet coffee house? Paisley on Grand, Conspire on 5th St, Firehouse N of Roosevelt. Food? Geez, what ethnic or would you prefer serious American cooking? Music? 5th St in Phoenix has one of the few clubs in the Valley that can play jazz without a girl singing standards…actually two, either Lost Leaf or Carlys Bistro Sunday and Monday night. How about a real diner experience at McAlpines or with less of a menu, the Welcome Diner?

    My only difficulty is having the money to be able to visit all these places frequently, not because they’re expensive, but because they are so numerous. And the neat thing is I see my friends there. It becomes a social thing. Always. I never feel the chill I do in Mesa or Scottsdale or for that matter, Central PHX.

    I live just at the edge of the area you mentioned, actually catty-cornered from your Thomas demarcation. I wish I lived closer, but those homes are long gone from my price point.

    Gangplank could be in Ajo if there was a T-1 line. You know that. And I can’t say another web creation group would add any zest to the downtown. An Internet cafe, maybe, with good coffee and maybe hookahs…if Gangplank was a used bookstore I’d urge you to move down here, but since you aren’t…enjoy the view. I LOVE mine!

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