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'It was nothing like what it is now': Phoenix residents business, owners reflect on downtown's growth

Tom O'Connell remembers downtown Phoenix in the 1990s when it was seemingly deserted. There were few people perusing the streets, nearly no high-rise buildings and no grocery store. O’Connell characterizes it in one word: “empty.”

O’Connell has worked at the Phoenix Public Library for over 30 years after moving to the Valley in 1986. 

O’Connell said he considers the ‘beginning’ of downtown Phoenix, the way it is today, to be the establishment of Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus in 2006. With the new campus’ arrival came many new restaurants and bars on Roosevelt Row. 

“Ever since the present-day Roosevelt Row was created and the Roosevelt neighborhood was revitalized, a lot more younger people started coming Downtown,” O’Connell said.

Phoenix’s downtown, unlike other locations in the country, did not have residential high rises before the last decade. Until ASU  started occupying spaces, residents near the area had few options for recreational activities, and the streets were far from busy.  

“It was nothing like what it is now,” O’Connell said. “Walking through the city, there’d be a lot of empty lots and almost all of the tall buildings you see today didn’t exist.” 

What a difference a few decades can make. 

In 2023 alone, there have been 19 construction projects in downtown Phoenix, according to

The majority of these projects are new apartment buildings, many of them including commercial space. Over 3,700 apartment units will be added to Downtown, according to Five of these apartment buildings are scheduled  to be completed by the end of the year. 

The city’s boom  can be largely attributed to companies moving to the Valley and bringing more job opportunities to Phoenix. According to W.P. Carey News, Maricopa County is leading the country in population growth. Research professor of economics and the director of JPMorgan Chase Economic Outlook Center Lee McPheters  projects there will be about 44,000 new jobs created in Phoenix during 2024. 

While Daniel Marburger, a clinical professor of economics at ASU, acknowledges this growth and the potential positive impact it has on Phoenix’s economy, he emphasized the need for infrastructure improvements to allow for this economic growth. 

“More people coming here and working is good, but you also need to have an infrastructure to accommodate that,” Marburger said. 

Marburger said additional affordable housing and expansion in public transportation are critically important factors in downtown Phoenix’s progressing development. 

Historically, Downtown’s growth has been steady in comparison with other U.S. cities, due largely to the city’s ability to expand over a long stretch of land. 

Rather than building more residential and commercial property closer together in one, centralized area, downtown Phoenix has been using this land to expand outward. This has led to the common idea of downtown Phoenix being ‘unwalkable’. 

This low population density has been reflected in downtown Phoenix for years, with its population of nearly 30,000 accounting for only a near 2% portion of Phoenix’s total population of over 1.6 million. 

Downtown Phoenix’s low population, however, leaves room for future growth.  

Carla and John Logan, the owners of Carly’s Bistro on Roosevelt St., told The Arizona Republic that when they opened their restaurant on Roosevelt Row in 2005, they were one of the only restaurants in the Roosevelt area. 

The Roosevelt neighborhood was the first designated neighborhood in the city of Phoenix. Multiple family homes were built in the 1920s, and the construction of the Roosevelt District was one of the first projects to begin Phoenix’s northward pattern of suburban development.   

According to, the halt of Downtown Phoenix’s growth was a direct result of the Wilbur & Smith freeway plan in 1960, which would have allowed easier access to other locations  in the greater Phoenix area. Instead of further developing Phoenix’s downtown area, people began to move to these suburban areas, and according to, this would be the migration trend for decades to follow. 

Lora Martens, Urban Tree Program Manager at the City of Phoenix, believes downtown Phoenix is quickly moving toward being a fully walkable urban area with copious job opportunities and housing. These factors, according to Martens, will turn Downtown into a hub of activity. 

Martens, like O’Connell, sees the potential of downtown Phoenix’s growth with the population influx of younger residents, such as students. With ASU recently announcing the new construction of a future medical school on its Downtown campus, the University  can also expect an increase of students living near the Downtown Phoenix campus. 

Martens said that with the high demand for housing, Downtown should expect to face pressure from residents to build more housing, allowing for the area to reach its full potential. 

“There are a lot of different cities we look at as inspiration for the design of downtown,” Martens said. “This might seem unrealistic, but designers, planners, we all look at cities like Chicago and even New York City where no one needs a car and everything is centrally located.” 

Two of the 19 current construction projects in downtown Phoenix are apartment buildings within a one-minute walking distance of ASU’s campus, allowing for housing opportunities for  students. 

According to Martens, some of the laws passed in recent years are also playing a role in revitalizing the area.

“Downtown, they’re pushing for a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly area, especially now with the new code requiring that outdoor spaces outside of new buildings are 75% shaded,” Martens said. 

Martens, who is from San Francisco and started her career there as a landscape architect, said she compares the growth patterns of Phoenix to San Francisco. 

“It’s very similar. Companies move in, more people come for jobs, and you see the demand rise. That’s why they’re doing what they’re doing in the Downtown area specifically,” Martens said. “Like any other city, it should naturally become more dense, but with that density comes a need for walkability and accessibility.” 

“As an urban landscaper you get to solve a lot of puzzles,” Martens said. “There are a lot of obstacles that you run into, but ultimately the goal is to make the quality of peoples’ lives better.”

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