Feb 09, 2023, 06:27AM

Super Bowl LVII and the Loss of Downtown Phoenix

The consequences of an enormous phenomenon descending upon my city.

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Super Bowl LVII arrives in Phoenix and I watch as my city’s transformed. It coincides with the spring conference season where companies from around the country frequent the Phoenix Convention Center and Scottsdale resorts to take advantage of our favorable weather. The game itself is held at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, but much of the official entertainment takes place in Downtown Phoenix, drawing crowds from around the Greater Metropolitan Phoenix Area, which continues to expand outward in size as half a dozen states negotiate to secure future water rights from the Colorado River.

I’m suspicious of the effect such large-scale sporting and entertainment events have on a city that’s undergone massive change for years. The game is expected to generate around $600 million in revenue, which will ripple throughout the local economy. Hotel rooms are in short supply, partnerships with Qwick provide short-term hires to meet the demand for hospitality workers, and a select few local artists receive commissions from the NFL for their work.

There are economic benefits, undoubtedly, but also consequences to building a city in order to meet the criteria of major sports franchises, out-of-state developers, and “force [multipliers] for economic development”, as former Gov. Doug Doucey described the Super Bowl. The character of the city, the quality of life for actual residents feels sacrificed in an appeal to a transitory student body and investors.

One of the more conspicuous examples is the Lincoln Family Downtown YMCA, first established in 1892 and moved to its current building in 1952. Half of the gym is reserved exclusively for ASU students. A line arbitrarily placed on the ground demarcates the half of the facility washed in natural light with new equipment and large street-facing windows for students, and the other half in the basement. Downtown Phoenix appears unrecognizable from what it was eight years ago in 2015 when we last hosted the game, and much of the change can be attributed to the state’s largest university expansion into the area.

Arizona State University, whose main campus is in Tempe, began shifting to Downtown Phoenix nearly 20 years ago with the state’s other two public universities following behind. The New American University model championed by ASU President Michael Crowe promotes the public research institution as a driver for economic development. The dizzying number of admissions attracts a student body from around the world, all in need of housing and amenities, which they find in luxury modern high-rises whose one-bedroom apartments can be had for around $2000/month. Nearby, encampments of over 1000 unsheltered people continue to grow in an area referred to as “the zone,” and are often subjected to police sweeps and increased enforcement leading up to high-profile events.

Electric scooters and bicycles litter the sidewalks, abandoned by users mid-journey while autonomous vehicles drive in circles around city blocks. Private public partnerships between Lime, Spin, and Google’s Waymo present Phoenix as a rising hub of the tech sector and alternative to the prohibitive costs of California. They serve as replacements for more meaningful pedestrian or bicycle infrastructure as we stand among the highest in the nation for pedestrian fatalities.

In the center of Downtown, the Saturday farmer’s market ended its 17-year run last August when the lot was sold for another high-rise apartment and the 1946 building situated on it slated for demolition. Historic preservation and advocacy groups submitted letters and voiced their concerns, but the city rarely denies demolition requests based on the narrow and arbitrary criteria of the Historic Preservation Office and Commission, whose mission is at odds with appearing “business friendly” to attract investment, granting every tax break, demolition request, and variance.

Defenders of the demolition may claim that all’s not lost, since the farmer’s market has continued only a few blocks away, although smaller, in the parking lot of the Bioscience Core, one of ASU’s many campuses for biomedical research. I’d argue it’s not the same.

Several months ago, I was speaking with an architect of commercial developments in Phoenix and mentioned that I attended meetings for the Downtown Voices Coalition, which has been working since 2004 to advocate for smart, intentional growth that utilizes existing infrastructure and seeks to preserve the character of the area. The architect was unfamiliar, but after I lamented the lack of historic preservation in favor of large-scale developments, he seemed confused, claiming that in his view, the city’s too afraid to touch anything historic, which hinders development projects.

This is Downtown Phoenix outside of the Super Bowl and its arrival only exacerbates already existing problems. Increased traffic and street closures create gridlock for weeks leading up to the event. Local restaurants post on social media that the city will not allow them to validate the exorbitant prices at their usual parking garages. The two-lane, 25 mph road on which I live along the Roosevelt Row District is the area’s main cultural attraction, and also one of the primary arterial roads for accessing the official events around the bars and clubs that’ve turned an arts district and historic neighborhoods into nightlife attractions.

Who is a city for? I wonder how it’d be to live in a city that’s designed and intended for its residents, for people who live and work within its primary core radius. I spent years attending Neighborhood Association Meetings and working with advocacy groups to address many of these issues, but ultimately grew dispirited and gave it up. The architect’s view represents the general outlook, from not only the city and developers, but also the general populace that economic growth is the altar at which we should kneel.

The story of Downtown Phoenix is not dissimilar to the story of most downtowns—neglected and stigmatized until suburbanization proved inadequate to our need for greater connection and community. So much of what attracts us to urban life is romanticized and exaggerated, ignoring a long and complex history of redlining, white flight, disinvestment and special interests that render the idea of the “walkable city” an impossible dream in most of the country. Still, to live in close proximity to others and encourage the best aspects of humanity by doing so is an idea that I hope won’t be discarded.

The expansion of public universities and policies of the city to attract developers is also what attracts the NFL. It’s what permanently erodes the unique character of Downtown Phoenix. I’m not against growth and don’t want it to come to a standstill. What I want are alternative visions of living in Arizona’s most densely populated communities, and I fear a climate that fails to consider that any alternatives exist.


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