Arizona Artbeat: Roosevelt Row

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Roosevelt Row, Phoenix’s downtown art district, became the first location to be designated a Great Place in Phoenix by the American Planning Association. Roosevelt Row co-founder Greg Esser will join us to talk about the honor.

TED SIMONS: Tonight's edition of "Arizona Artbeat" looks at downtown Phoenix's Roosevelt Row, which was recently designated a great place by the American Planning Association. Joining us now is Greg Esser, vice president of the Roosevelt Row Community Development Board of Directors. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon."

GREG ESSER: Thank you so much.

TED SIMONS: Named a great place, this is really -- now, I think Mill Avenue and the courthouse up in Yavapai county, for Phoenix proper, this is the first.

GREG ESSER: It is indeed.

TED SIMONS: Talk to us about this.

GREG ESSER: It's a recognition that more than a decade of really hard collaborative work between city officials, community residents and artists really have transformed a place into an area of downtown where they have national recognition.

TED SIMONS: What kind of work was that? I remember when Roosevelt row was a place you really didn't want to hang out much after the sun went down.

GREG ESSER: It was very much a place that people would drive through on their way somewhere else. Leaving downtown, coming into work in the morning but not a place people would get out and walk in. Now, it's one of the most pedestrian-friendly parts in downtown Phoenix.

TED SIMONS: Why did Roosevelt between central and 7th street in particular, why did that stretch take off?

GREG ESSER: It's been a cumulative process over time but I think one of the key things that really set that area apart is that a number of artists brought property there when it was a much more affordable place and those artists working together sort of realized that together they could help shape the neighborhood with an arts and cultural focus.

TED SIMONS: Was much of this planned or here and there and voilà?

GREG ESSER: It was an unintended consequence. There were artists that were displaced, and artists realized through that process to have a stronger presence they would have to by and that coincided with the time properties were affordable.

TED SIMONS: That's been an arts space for a long time. Why didn't 7th to 16th street take off as opposed to central to 7th?

GREG ESSER: We really considered it as an anchor in the district, as well. They have been there for over 40 years, providing a neighborhood resource as well as a fantastic cultural venue. There are actually other artists that have been in the artist even before that. Dr. Grigsby actually lived in the Garfield neighborhood, as well. There's been a long presence of artists here but it was only when a few more players created a synergy that it helped to catalyze the change.

TED SIMONS: At what point did that change get catalyzed? When did you realize something is happening here?

GREG ESSER: We saw a dramatic change around 2005 when first Fridays began to really take off to the point that it caught the attention of people outside the area saying what's going on here? Why are these teams coming downtown when there's not a sporting event? That was the moment where it began to grow and that era really developed some of the policies that helped the long-term presence of the arts in downtown in that area.

TED SIMONS: And so you've got this place, the sense of place, and yet you're planning, you're changing, how do you keep that sense of place and still change?

GREG ESSER: One of the critical factors for us and that we think about all the time is how we maintain accessible opportunities for new young and emerging artists to continue to have a strong presence in the air, everything from temporary exhibition opportunities, murals, and places to create work. That affordability is changing as we have a lot of new market rate housing coming into the area. We want artists to maintain a presence in the area.

TED SIMONS: How do you do that when you've got big developers going hmm?

GREG ESSER: It's a big challenge and that's a challenge where some of the artist ownership does make a difference.

TED SIMONS: I was going to say, you mentioned this early on, these aren't just artists that happen to be working part time or barely scraping by. These are folks who manage to buy property. That's a big change, isn't it?

GREG ESSER: It's a big commitment.

TED SIMONS: Are we seeing the same kind of commitment on Grand Avenue? Where else?

GREG ESSER: Grand Avenue also has a very strong presence of artist ownership. One of the differences there is that they don't have the same intensity of zoning so our entire area was rezoned in the '70s for highrise infill incentive. Grand avenue has a lower density and lower development potential so it doesn't have the same kind of economic pressures that the Roosevelt row has.

TED SIMONS: For critics who say it's getting, too, commercialized down there, it's getting, too, planned, the crazy has gone out of Roosevelt row.

GREG ESSER: I don't think that the crazy is gone at all. It's one of the unique elements that keeps the area interesting. We have much more people to appreciate it and much more people to express their concern when things do change.

TED SIMONS: You've got shade structures, bike lanes. That again has to be planned. How difficult is it to get a bunch of folks together and say I want this, and not that?

GREG ESSER: It's very challenging, developing consensus in any process. But again, there's been a lot of cooperation, a lot of partnerships, and a lot of evolution. The street scape, that planning started over 13 years ago so it takes a lot of patience and a lot of perseverance.

TED SIMONS: What kind of planning is going on right now for the future?

GREG ESSER: We're beginning to look at what options we have to utilize city-owned land and other undeveloped areas to create new housing that does create opportunities for artists in the long term. That's a key priority for us. We're looking at other resources that artists need in order to be successful in their careers here as individuals in every discipline from visual arts to performing arts, theater, music.

TED SIMONS: Is there -- I remembered the warehouse district where, you know, baseball stadiums and other arenas are right now down by the ice house and that sort of stuff. It seemed like there was a warehouse, you would have 15 different artists in the same spot. Do you really have that much at Roosevelt row?

GREG ESSER: They're much smaller buildings but there's a tremendous number of creatives in it, a new coffee shop, a fantastic new addition to the neighborhood.

TED SIMONS: American planning association, so you're now a great place as they so decree. What is the American planning association?

GREG ESSER: It's a 40,000 membership organization that supports planners who are the policy folks that are trying to determine how communities evolve through policy solutions, through policy development. They're both in the public sector and the private sector, but the ones that help shape the ways our city evolves and grow over time.

TED SIMONS: When they considered Roosevelt row, why did they find that this designation was appropriate?

GREG ESSER: There's several factors they considered in our nomination and selection. One was the presence of light rail. One was the great collaboration between the community and city officials. There's some unique policy tools that actually came out of the last decade to really look at how we from a policy perspective sustain the arts and culture. The presence of the ASU campus has been an important factor but then it's also things like adaptive reuse and a project like the central market, which is in an existing building that 10 years ago people thought the best fate was to be torn down. It's one of the most vibrant spots across the street from a platform. Those are the kinds of things that took a lot of planning to get to the point where that building could be saved and reused.

TED SIMONS: It's almost as if vacant lots, old buildings, they're now community spaces. It's almost as if Roosevelt row was blessed by neglect for so long. I mean, no one cared about it and thus no one bothered to get rid of things that are being re-purposed.

GREG ESSER: That's the silver lining in that storm cloud that some people would look at that area and say it's a hopeless spot. And the vision of artists came in and said this is a potential canvas with great opportunity and possibility.

TED SIMONS: Last question. Roosevelt row, we got that. Are there arterial streets, anything else? Where's the next hub happening along Roosevelt row?

GREG ESSER: Roosevelt row is really now in the process of developing a business improvement district or enhanced municipal services district. Fill more street to the I-10 and from 9th avenue to ninth street, that large swath of area is part of what we consider Roosevelt row.

TED SIMONS: Well, congratulations, Roosevelt row sounds a lot better than copper square I'll give you that much and congratulations.

GREG ESSER: Thank you so much.

TED SIMONS: Thank you. Tuesday on "Arizona Horizon," hear about a new effort to help facilitate communication between local artists and Arizona residents. And we'll hear about a new book designed to help with early literacy. That's at 5:30 and 10:00 on the next "Arizona Horizon." That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you. "Artbeat Nation" is made possible in part by the Flynn foundation, supporting the advancement of arts and culture in Arizona.

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