Tag Archives: urban planning

Phoenix Revitalization via Central City South


Could Central City South be Phoenix’s version of Chicago’s Humboldt Park?

Learn more about CCS through the PRC web site

Learn more about CCS through the PRC web site


Central City South’s Phoenix Revitalization Corporation is one of a handful of Valley neighborhoods helping to reinvent PHX. It’s in the process of cleaning up some of its blight and polishing some respect for the culturally diverse and historical community. At least this is what I gleaned from going on two tours there. The neighborhood, between 16th Street and 19th Avenue, lies immediately below downtown Phoenix and extends south to the Maricopa Freeway (The 10). The PRC, earnest in its seeking economic development desires– and hoping not to get swallowed by high-rise developers when the economy regains energy– seems at a loss for a simple, cost-effective, overarching strategy.

By the Numbers

AEC industry participants such as city planner Joshua Bednarek and Leslie Lindo and Ben Montclair of Ikoloji Sustainability Collaborative were in attendance as the PRC gave them the numbers. Central City South has

  • 12,000 residents, most of whom have lived there for generations
  • Unemployment of 12%
  • Car ownership of 20%
  • 66% of Phoenix’s public housing
  • average education levels no higher than the ninth-grade and income levels of $21,000.

Despite the lack of common amenities such as cafes, pharmacies, and even ice cream shops, many of CCS’s residents have lived there for generations. PRC is giving them good reason: it’s provided several manicured public parks– nine of which exemplify urban agriculture practices; a public swimming pool; and the Maricopa Skill Center, a successful vocational school. Here’s an abbreviated list of places discussed on the PRC’s biannual tour for the public:

  • American Legion Post #41 (for Hispanic WWII veterans not allowed to participate in traditional Legion posts)
  • Silvestre Herrera Elementary School (named after the Mexican-American military hero)
  • Chicanos por La Causa
  • Carver Museum within a lovely new Phoenix Public Library branch
  • the Darrell Duppa House.

Englishman Phillip “Lord” Darrell Duppa, built the house in 1870 and supposedly gave Phoenix and Tempe their names. The first house in the area, it has been partially restored, though driving past it, even with darkly tinted windows, raises the question of what was restored. This was not one of the aesthetic highlights of the trip. It did, however, bring to light some of the historical value of this community of 13 barrios.


Revitalization can’t be a city mandate. That’s called eminent domain (which comes up in discussions about Mesa). It must include input from the citizens. In the case of CCS, that was clearly shown as we toured the community by van. We saw neighbors outside working on their lawns. Very little litter. New solar panels blanketing sunshades over an elementary school’s playground. Then came the wrap on the bus before Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church offering free pregnancy tests. (I’ll skip further comment on that.)

There were vacant lots, sure, but several new two-story single-family residences also grew on streets with some rather neglected houses. In fact, there are currently 298 low-income housing units (of which 187 are occupied). Residences strictly kept “affordable” number in the thousands. Combined with newly constructed senior housing and community centers visible through the neighborhood, we can see HUD’s Hope VI, a national program to “eradicate severely distressed public housing”, at work.

Meanwhile, the PRC will continue to work on the golden threads for the community’s revitalization: beauty, fostering neighborly connections, safety, pride, recreation, health, community services, individual development, economic development, and better housing.

So What?

The light rail may wind its way down to CCS by 2018. Now that makes me think:

Will that somehow entice downtown workers who currently visit the community for lunch at Lolo’s or Pete’s Fish & Chips to return after work? Would it help to place banners or other signage at the community’s entrances, fostering awareness of its cultural diversity and history? That simple measure might beckon people there if there’s something to do, something like enjoy cultural holiday celebrations and festivals, vendors or actual stores selling crafts, foods, clothing, etc.

On the other hand, perhaps the citizens feel their efforts are wasted. Take those vibrant, artful highway overpasses on the 10. Neighborhoods wanted to sparkle them up after decades of traffic and pedestrian dirt. The state government declined to do so. The denizens then offered to do it themselves. Again the government refused. Catch 22 anyone?

I’m hoping the vacant lots don’t become an impetus for gentrification and that CCS residents and the PRC can help prevent a likely tide of forthcoming downtown developer encroachment. Perhaps the city will include CCS’s cultural diversity into its Reinvent PHX, or #Phoeinvention, as I call it. As Jeff Speck said in his presentation to the AIA in April: “You can’t fake a Little Italy or Chinatown. If you have these legitimate cultural areas, embrace them.”



A Reality Check on China & Architecture


It’s a rewarding day when a prominent online name in architecture gives a reality check on China and its Western starchitecture explosion.


“While China‚Äôs raging economic success has attracted throngs of first-class architects and spurred what is arguably the largest urban construction movement in human history, many Chinese are now reevaluating the burst of shiny new buildings designed by reckless Pritzker Prize winners and the like, many of whom view China as ‘a perfect blank canvas,’ in the words of Zaha Hadid,” the Architizer blog post reads. Having lived in north- and southeast China between 2009 and 2010, I covered the architecture this post refers to.


Now I’m going to preface the rest of my own blog post. Admittedly, I’m a hard sell when it comes to high praise. This could be the result of calling Chicago, the grandfather of architecture, home. This could also be because I’ve covered space design since 2003. Nonetheless, it’s simply bad form to automatically grant credence to projects simply because they bear a starchitect’s signature.


Photo credit of Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House

In Spring 2010 I asked the editor of Perspective, a magazine where I blog and regularly contribute articles, if I could write honestly about the buildings I was covering. She politely refused, of course. It wasn’t something to take to heart; half the pages of major architecture magazines around the world rave about works that I think should never have made it past the model stage.


Some of the buildings I was writing about at the time include the Vanke Center and the Pearl River Tower in Southeast China’s Guangdong Province. The Vanke Center, in an effort to write between the lines, I labeled “an exercise in irony.” In that article was also able to squeeze in other subtle elements of the realities of life in China, which I won’t go in to here. What I wasn’t able to do, however, was bluntly state that the project’s architect, Steven Holl, was overusing the moniker “horizontal skyscraper.” (Is this how we’re supposed to refer to vertically sprawling low-rise projects now?)


Photo Credit for the Vanke Center

Rather than deceptively conveying an aesthetic appreciation for an actual vertical skyscraper, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s Pearl River Tower, I merely wrote, “The Pearl River Tower looks like a silvery cigarette.” A Dutch’s architect’s Guangzhou TV & Sightseeing Tower, I called a “bondage queen.”


When exchanging opinions with my architect friends in Shenzhen, these comments elicited laughs. None disagreed, and I don’t recall a single architect describing any of these projects as even “pretty.” Instead the conversation always came back around to the fact that China and the Western starchitects abusing its unending streams of money weren’t looking to make the world’s most beautiful architecture. They were/are instead seeking to accrue a list of superlatives: world’s greenest this, world’s highest that, world’s tallest the other. The only time I think that was relevant was in the 1920s in the competition between the Empire State and the Chrysler buildings. It’s as if these starchitects were getting back at every professor who ever honestly criticized their student work.


Photo Credit of the Pearl River Tower

Fortunately, the Architizer blog post could go further than I regarding Chinese projects. It did so more journalistically than I have the temperance to do.


“Foreign architects have enjoyed creative and financial free reign to execute their projects in China,” the post cites Peng Peikeng, a senior commentator at Tsinghua University, as saying. “Largely unconcerned with visual or historical continuity, architects like Norman Foster and Herzog and de Muron have had an open stage to realize designs that would never have been accepted back home due to site-specific restrictions and tighter budgets.”


Peikeng failed to mention, though, that these projects would also not have been accepted because of the vast differences between Eastern and Western aesthetics. He also failed to mention that Foster works primarily in Hong Kong, a notoriously difficult city to design in because of the culture’s infatuation with feng shui. The stringent, sometimes strident implementation of feng shui can be seen in not only its buildings but also its urban planning. And, from my discussions with European architects trained in feng shui in the West and my research into the design style (including conversations with Chinese non-architects), feng shui is based on the encapsulation of luck (AKA money)– not aesthetics. (Read more about feng shui and the Chinese sense of design here.)

Photo Credit of the Guangzhou Telecommunications Tower


Reading between the lines is an important part of critical thinking– and of reading and writing well. What I read into these Chinese critics’ comments is that their country is finished with Western architects. As I witnessed on countless occasions, and as has been reported in as many different ways by Western media, China hires you, steals your ideas, then deserts you when it’s ready to implement what you’ve inadvertently taught it. This is not a criticism but a fact: In Communism, there is no such thing as copyright. Additionally, notice these comments weren’t given directly to the writer; they were written by Chinese people in a Chinese newspaper, in which censors (as I experienced first-hand) would never allow to freely express dissent.


I’m not entirely negative about Chinese architecture, though. Read my article about an phenomenal urban planning project in Hua Qiang Bei. This Shenzhen project did not glean nearly as much publicity as it should have. I also appreciated the Grand Hyatt Shenzhen (though wanted to rail against its interior navigability), which again didn’t garner much ink in major magazines.


Wu Xuefu, a professor of design at the Communications University of China, said in the China Daily article from the Architizer post extracts, “We believe it is time for China to stop worshipping foreign things and to ‘export’ the best we have to the world. But first, we need to know ourselves better.”


Now let’s look at that statement. First, it calls for ditching the Western architects now that we (think we) know all they do. Then it says we need to export our own culture– though we have no idea what that is. It’s not difficult to see this as governmental propaganda, especially considering it comes from a university professor. Nonetheless, it is poignant commentary, and shouldn’t be dismissed as representing at least partial truth of the population’s mentality.


One thing that disappointed me about China was its lack of attention to its own history of thousands of years. It almost hurt me that the people so willingly let Western architects have their way, falsely aligning their designs with some or other vague notion of Chinese culture. I saw it repeatedly. But too many other elements of the culture revealed China as changing too fast to be able to both retain its own identity and adopt that of the West’s which they so desperately wanted to rival.


I’m curious to see how China forges its own identity over the next 20 years. Meanwhile I’ll await the final results when the Pritzker Architecture Prize Ceremony is held in Beijing next year.

A Good Day of Writing, Architecture, Construction and Urbanism


The day can’t be bad when you start with three interviews on your calendar. All three are for different journalistic pieces I’ve sold. One is architecture, another is urban design, and the third is on construction safety for an energy company. Diversification requires focus!