Arizona's capital city re-creates itself PHOENIX RISING

January 15, 1995|By David Rosenthal | David Rosenthal,Sun Staff Writer

Phoenix is getting a new image.

Not that there's anything wrong with the city's trademarks: opulent resorts, sunny skies and stark, mountain vistas. They have lured millions of tourists, as well as new residents from the Chicago area and other parts of the Midwest and Canada -- so many, in fact, that a local newspaper carries a full-page, weekly account of "News from Home."

Now, though, Phoenix is rebuilding its long-neglected downtown, bolstering the Valley of the Sun's attractions.

Arizona Center, developed by Columbia-based Rouse Co., has brought shoppers back downtown, to a palm-studded urban oasis. American West Arena, home of the Phoenix Suns, pulls thousands of purple-clad fans to the area during basketball season.

There's more to come. A museum of Arizona history is scheduled to open by the end of 1995. A major expansion to the Arizona Science Center will follow a year later. And the city is aggressively pursuing a major-league baseball expansion team, which would play in a planned downtown stadium modeled after Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

"That would be the crowning jewel for downtown," says Mayor Skip Rimsza, who toured the Orioles' stadium just before Christmas.

Combine those attractions with others already downtown -- the acclaimed Heard Museum and the Phoenix Museum of Art -- and tourists have a new destination.

Downtown Phoenix crumbled, like many other American cities, in the years after World War II.

Businesses and residents sprawled into the suburbs, stretching toward Scottsdale, Squaw Peak and other parts of the valley. The major department stores, including Goldwater's and Sears, soon joined the migration, leaving downtown with an air of desperation.

Margaret Mullen came West in the early 1970s to help redesign the downtown area. As she walked around negotiating with property owners, she was assigned a police lieutenant as an escort. "They didn't think it was safe for a woman to walk around alone," she recalls.

Today, as director of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, she's working to show tourists and local residents that the area has changed. "If you were here five or 10 years ago, you wouldn't want to come back to downtown Phoenix," she says.

Arizona Center started the turnaround in 1990.

The Rouse Co. already was a national leader in crafting the urban marketplace. But Arizona Center was challenging -- it lacked the distinctive landmarks that characterized similar Rouse projects -- historic Faneuil Hall in Boston and the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.

So Rouse created its own landmark -- a soothing garden with fountains -- at the center of the shops and office towers. Today, the tiered garden's brown paths contrast sharply with the bright, light-green grass, while shade from thornless mesquite and palms offers visitors a pleasant break from the desert heat.

Arizona Center, which has more than 40 stores and restaurants, includes many retailers indigenous to American malls: the Gap, Victoria's Secret, Sam Goody and Waldenbooks. But shoppers also will find some interesting native species, such as the Arizona Highways store, which features travel books on the region.

Sometimes, though, the merger of commercial and native cultures can be awkward. One Arizona Center store sells jalapeno-flavored hot fudge sauce; another offers an intricately decorated denim cowgirl shirt made in Madagascar.

A short walk away are two prime performing-arts facilities: Symphony Hall and the Herberger Theater. In these two centers, you'll find performances by the Phoenix Symphony, Arizona Opera, Ballet Arizona and theater companies.

Walk another block south and you'll come to America West Arena, site of the NBA all-star game in February. The arena seats nearly 20,000 fans, but tickets are scarce in this basketball-mad city, where fans long for a championship season.

On downtown's northern edge are the Heard Museum and the Phoenix Art Museum -- both scheduled for major expansions.

The tidy, compact Heard attracts 250,000 visitors annually.

Visitors can steep themselves in Native American culture, learning the subtleties that separate the Navajo, Hopi, Tohono -- O'odham and others who have made their home in the Southwest. The museum also features an impressive display of arts, from pottery to kachina dolls to turquoise jewelry.

The museum is popular with children, who can get a lesson in building a tepee, making Native American designs and playing ceremonial drums. One of the simplest, yet most intriguing, exhibits for children is found just a few feet from the museum entrance -- a large rock used to pound corn kernels into meal. Kids never seem to tire of it.

The Heard is raising money for an $11 million expansion that would nearly double the museum's size, while adding an auditorium and other features. Museum officials hope to break ground in 1996 and complete the project about a year later.

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