I made my semi-annual trek to Phoenix over Spring Break to see family and friends. Phoenix is one of those love-hate kinds of places for me. My 14 year old daughter probably said it best when I asked her if she would like to move here. After only a moment’s hesitation she said, ‘I don’t think so…it all looks the same and is just soooo beige’.
But beyond the monotony of taupe and tile, the desert was in bloom and its colors, textures and incredible play of light and shadow reminded me of this region’s very powerful and unique visual expression. I’ve often commented that 90% of what makes Phoenix Phoenix is unfortunately not very good. But the remaining 10% is truly remarkable, provocative, inspiring and unlike anywhere else in the world.
One example of this conundrum is retail. Phoenix has the highest rate of retail GLA per capita of any major metro region in the U.S. The endless strip-center-framed arterials are testament to this fact. And because these dated models of commodity real estate are no longer in vogue, new centers sprout up on the edge of towns and communities with all the best retail artifice local and national architects can muster. But the early retail innovators such as Wescor with el Pedregal and The Borgatta demonstrated a level of creativity and willingness to break corporate retail formulas. Recent projects such as Kierland Commons and Scottsdale Quarter have continued this legacy of innovation.
But it is not the new retail centers that fascinate me in Phoenix. Rather it’s the incremental, ‘suburban acupuncture’ of a few creative curators of retail that caught my eye.
My favorite go to place when in Phoenix is LaGrande Orange. This former Circle K and Laundromat are now the epitome of a ‘third place’ – amidst a banal 1970’s neighborhood. In the early 1990’s I lived three blocks from this struggling ‘B’ location strip center. Its three stores were marginal, and the building was constantly devolving. But a few years ago two brilliant entrepreneurs introduced LaGrande Orange – a café, food purveyor, third place, community experience. This place never ceases to amaze me. We went for breakfast on a Sunday morning and it was crawling with people of all ages. The carefully curated interior was neither fussy nor pretentious, but spoke of great food and community, had the utility of a grocery store with the thoughtful merchandising of a high design store and the friendly energy of a neighborhood block party. The owners use every square foot efficiently – even the exterior ‘detention basin’ hosts picnic tables, making it a desired location under the shade trees. The carefully arranged sound track lays down a great vibe – just loud enough to set the correct energy – but still low enough to carry on a conversation. The afternoon and evening Pizzeria provides valuable overflow seating during the morning breakfast crush. People were gathered around four tops or at the community table, many in conversation and others just checking email and sipping coffee. Rumor has it that this B location former Circle-K-come-third-place generates close to $20m in revenue per year. By counting ceiling titles I figured its 4,000 s.f. of total space. You do the math.
The success of LaGrande Orange led one of the founders – Craig and Kris DeMarco – to go on to found Upward Projects with a commitment to regenerating small strip centers with great food and community. As they say ‘pairing delicious food with local ingredients, boutique beverage programs and a warm, friendly culture that brings everyone together’. We had dinner at one of their newest ventures on Monday – Federal Pizza, which is right across the street from another venture – Windsor. These two venues exhibited the same level of creativity and sensitivity to design. Craig rescued a 70’s modernist building by local icon Al Beadle and put his office and Federal Pizza into the flexible, clear span structure – keeping the purity of its original form while updating its feel for this decade.
Urban infill is cool and certainly environmentally responsible. Fixing suburban sprawl is a lot less sexy and a lot harder – partly because of nimby’s and the difficulty in land assembly. And many times it may just seem daunting that one can actually make a difference in a sea of strip banality. But Craig and his partners seemed to have found one model of success that I think others can learn much from.