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Super Bowl Highlights Makeover of Downtown Phoenix; Projects Include New Buildings, Light Rail
PHOENIX (AP) -- Despite being the nation's fifth-largest city, Phoenix used to practically go to sleep after 5 p.m. Commuters deserted downtown high-rises in droves to return to the suburbs. Sidewalks were empty by early evening.
These days, it's a different scene in the central business district: Coffee shops, restaurants and bars are open, filled with customers who have moved into new condos and students from the nearby campuses of the state's two largest universities.
Downtown Phoenix is getting a massive makeover, including scores of new or refurbished buildings and a light-rail system. Cranes tower over the rapidly changing skyline.
"Everyone disparages downtown Phoenix because it's not Manhattan or San Francisco," said Matt Pool, owner of two downtown restaurants. "It's kind of rewarding to see that maybe it does have potential."
The improvements are in the national spotlight this week as the city prepares to host Sunday's Super Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium in suburban Glendale.
The development process began in 2004, when city leaders mapped out the next decade of downtown development.
City Council members wanted to attract shoppers, visitors and residents by making downtown an attractive place to live and work. The centerpiece projects include a $600 million expansion of a convention center and the creation of a downtown campus for Arizona State University.
All the buildings are going up simultaneously and set to be partially or fully completed by the end of this year and in 2009.
"What's happening in downtown Phoenix is truly unlike anything that has occurred in any other major city in the United States in such a short time," Mayor Phil Gordon said. "It's so exciting to see the changes happen literally before your eyes."
The efforts are being funded by various sources, including private investors, the government and taxpayers. For instance, voters approved paying for half of the convention center overhaul in 2001. Lawmakers and Gov. Janet Napolitano approved the rest of the money two years later.
Voters also endorsed paying for ASU's downtown campus with $223 million in bonds. The $1.4 billion light-rail line is being funded by a transit tax and federal money.
"We think that these projects we're making investments in today, they're going to pay long-term dividends," said John Chan, the city's downtown-development director.
Chan said most of the projects should not be affected by the flagging U.S. economy, but that some high-rise condos that do not already have financing likely will have to wait until the slumping housing market recovers.
The renaissance has dotted downtown with high-rises and dormitories on the same blocks that once had only dirt lots and run-down buildings.
A 10-story building that used to loom over its surroundings is now overshadowed by what will be the state's largest hotel -- a 31-story, 1,000-room Sheraton wrapped around two sides of the existing building.
Other improvements include the state's tallest condo tower and a $900 million project known as CityScape, which will add 2.5 million square feet of retail and entertainment venues, as well as apartments and two new hotels.
Phoenix, with 1.5 million residents, stands out for the scale of its efforts, but a national movement toward downtown revitalization has encompassed other cities, including Miami, Portland, Ore., Denver and San Diego.
Urban planners say people are moving away from suburbanization and want the strong sense of place that downtowns offer.
"After 50-some years of suburbanization, people are just getting to the point that there's something missing, and that something missing is that sense of connection and community," said Rhonda Phillips, director of Arizona State University's School of Community Resources & Development.
Gretchen Henson, a 35-year-old dentist who bought a luxury loft in a downtown high-rise a year ago, said the changes are exciting.
"I've lived in Phoenix since 1977, and this seems to be the first time the revitalization we've always talked about is happening," she said.
Deanna Tom, a student from New Mexico who lives in a downtown dorm, said she chose to attend ASU because it has a downtown campus.
"I was excited to see the environment here because most campuses aren't in the downtown area, and I like it," said the 18-year-old engineering student. "It's everything I expected."