(Source: AZCentral): Catherine Reagor – When I moved into the historic Willo neighborhood on the edge of downtown Phoenix in 1994, police helicopters hovering over our alleys wasn’t an uncommon sight.
The exodus of residents to newer Valley suburbs had left the historic neighborhood and central Phoenix a bit neglected and deserted.
Some of my friends and family were concerned about my move downtown. My brother bought me a cellphone — and that was back when they still cost a lot.
The closest store to my house was a Circle K, and the few restaurants nearby were closed early in the evenings and on the weekends when the office crowd from central Phoenix was home in the suburbs.
But downtown Phoenix was beginning its comeback.
From scary to cool
As Jessica Boehm, Rachel Leingang and I started working on a project looking at downtown Phoenix’s evolution, I began thinking about how it had unfolded in front of me over the past 25 years.
It was exciting to get a new grocery store, Einstein Bros. and Starbucks at Seventh Street and McDowell in 1997. Seriously, it was. Before that, the closest new grocery was several miles away.
It’s taken more than 20 years, but a new Fry’s will open smack in the middle of downtown next year.
The first new condominiums to go up in central Phoenix in decades went up across the street from my house. Now, almost 8,000 new apartments have recently opened up, are underway or planned in downtown.
Light rail construction closed my street and changed my commute. It’s also changed the streets of downtown Phoenix.
Arizona State University’s moves downtown have brought more people to the area and filled many of the long-vacant lots with restaurants and bars. And the school has more growth plans for the area.
Home prices in Willo and other historic neighborhoods in and around downtown Phoenix have soared as people flock back to the area, and police helicopter sightings have become rarer.
Downtown’s comeback story
But it was harder to put numbers to downtown’s comeback.
As one real estate analyst told me when I asked him about job and population numbers for the area from the mid-1990s, “Nothing was really happening there then, and no one was really interested in investing there.”
Thankfully, the area had Downtown Phoenix Partnership (now Downtown Phoenix Inc.) to track its growth.
I wrote a story in 1997 that said downtown Phoenix’s employment had climbed to 24,000. That was big news then. Now, more 66,000 work in the city’s core.
Downtown Phoenix had few places to live and few residents in the 1990s. It took slicing and dicing census tracts to show the area’s population has boomed from about 2,000 then to more than 13,000 now.
We blew up an aerial map of downtown Phoenix from the late 1990s and compared it with a new one to count how many of the area’s vacant lots have filled up. The answer: more than 100.
Downtown Phoenix’s comeback isn’t just an anecdotal one about construction cranes. The numbers show it.
And I have been lucky enough to watch it happen.