Grand could suffer the fate of Roosevelt Row if we aren’t careful
Part One of Two
Most Valley residents know Grand Avenue as the diagonal street standing out from the metropolitan grid like an arrow pointing to downtown Phoenix. But they may not be as familiar with the most interesting neighborhood in the city, Historic Grand Avenue, the southernmost mile of this fifty-mile road.
Historic Grand hit a low point in the 1980s and 90s, but bounced back through the efforts of hardy artists and entrepreneurs looking for affordable rents and inspiration. That success could now be its downfall, as real estate investors look for the next trendy area to redevelop. Will the hard-fought gains of the last twenty years be lost?
The last few years of changes on Roosevelt Row (known to downtowners as RoRo), a neighborhood with a similar history just a mile away, have amplified this concern. Redevelopment of RoRo kicked into high gear in 2016. Down came many little old buildings and up went five-story, full-block urban residential developments. Rents have risen, driving out small local coffee houses, boutiques, and galleries. It’s a pattern seen over and over in America’s gentrifying urban centers. What can Historic Grand learn from RoRo? And most importantly, is gentrification the inevitable fate of every Bohemian neighborhood, or can we do better?
What’s so special about Historic Grand
Historic Grand is a neighborhood like no other – a rich stew with a flavor that transcends its ingredients. If the object is to save it from predatory development and its side effects, it’s important to understand what it is about Historic Grand that merits saving.
The diagonal of the street itself, forming angled intersections and pie-shaped building lots, is the canvas of the neighborhood. Such a street is a stark contrast in a city of right angles. When you drive on Grand, you know where you are.
Homes and businesses grew within this cockeyed framework over the first seventy years of the 20th Century. In the same block, you will find some historic buildings and some “vintage” buildings – but very few new buildings. As Grand developed, things were constantly churning – buildings being built, others being torn down, some being remodeled – until about 1970, when highway traffic started to be diverted onto the Interstates. Then nothing happened, for a long time.
If location is important, you couldn’t do much better. Grand Avenue’s front door, historically known as Five Points, lies at one corner of the downtown central business district. That provides excellent access to all the services downtown, as well as potential shoppers and clients.
One of the most important qualities of the historic environment is its fine-grained texture. Blocks on Grand average about 500 feet long, but the average building or lot has a frontage of only about 100 feet. From a pedestrian’s perspective, you are encountering something different every 20 seconds or so. Contrast that with typical full-block developments that bore you for two minutes at a brisk walk.
In 2012-13, the “Greening Lower Grand Avenue” plan created Phoenix’s first “complete street” along Historic Grand by reducing traffic lanes to one in each direction and adding bicycle lanes, curbside parking, and raised planters in the street that have been decorated by local artists. While the street looks more inviting and colorful than it did before, this configuration has also slowed and reduced traffic on the street, contributing to walkability. Landscape enhancements to the plan are still being developed.
So the street, the buildings, and the other improvements offer something unique to Phoenix. But what really makes Grand special are the people.
Historic Grand is a model of economic and ethnic diversity. It is home to artists, merchants, beauticians, wholesalers, professionals, brewers, landscapers, musicians, restaurateurs, luthiers, and mechanics, to name a few. Grand together with its adjacent residential areas represent an affordable place to live and work close to downtown. This kind of diversity is important to the life of the city.
Much has been made about the impact arts and artists have on any community or neighborhood. In Historic Grand, art is found not only indoors within the galleries that have made Grand their home, but also in murals, planters, crosswalks, and yarn-bombed trees and street improvements.
It’s the people who make the art. They also make wonderful events. The area pulses on First and Third Fridays and ArtWalk, and hosts a significant crowd during the Grand Avenue Festival in the fall. If you lose the people, you lose these events.
All of the properties along Historic Grand are privately held by a wide variety of owners and investors. These properties can and will be bought and sold, and some buyers may only be interested in the neighborhood assets to the extent that they improve their own property value. Very few buildings have any level of historical protection, and it’s always easier to tear down and build new.
Can this development be controlled, or at least shaped? Can we keep the street welcoming to pedestrians? Can we keep the funky buildings, historic and otherwise? And can we keep rents affordable for homes, art space, and small businesses?
I think we can. I’ll share my ideas in Part 2 of this article.
Robert Graham is President of the Grand Avenue Members Association and the Grand Avenue Rail Project, but the views represented in this article are strictly his own and do not reflect the official position of these organizations.