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Roosevelt Row CDC is a 501(c) 3 non-profit community development corporation established to further the unique cultural character and creative assets of the Roosevelt Row Arts District, to advocate for the continuing presence and role of the arts, particularly individual artists, and small business in the revitalization of the district, and to foster a dense, diverse, walkable and sustainable urban community.

ArtPlace spoke with Roosevelt Row board member Greg Esser about some of the difficulties of defining place inherent in creative placemaking.

ARTPLACE: What has been the thorniest issue you’ve faced to date? How have you dealt with it?

ESSER: We walked into an unexpected hornet’s nest as it relates to defining physical boundaries for what would be called the Roosevelt Row Arts District. The process itself of naming and more narrowly delineating our focus as it relates to geographically defined space has caused adverse reactions both internally and externally. There is not only a surprising lack of consensus among our board of directors, but we are learning that our constituents, the general public and the media also have differing perceptions about what our areas of service and physical boundaries can and should be.

We have also focused on being an “artists’” district rather than an “Art” district with a capital “A” without necessarily reflecting so in our name. Both Main Street and Marshall Way in Scottsdale represent the more traditional “Art” district model, and in fact Scottsdale is one of the top art markets in the nation. However, it is an area comprised almost entirely of galleries. Artists cannot afford to maintain studios or generally live in the area. Through the last recession, we have also seen the downside of such an economic homogeny with the number of commercial galleries that closed.

Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation (CDC) was founded more than a decade ago in principal as a service organization with the general intent of fostering the artists that have contributed to the vitality and success of this general area of downtown Phoenix as a baseline. From our inception, we did not clearly define streets beyond which we would not work. Rather, our focus has been on building connections, literally and figuratively.

At the same time, we also understood that our focus and intent was urban and not suburban in nature. We have worked collaboratively as a service organization with the neighborhoods that comprise the historic foundation of geographically defined areas on the north side of the urban core. We were deeply involved in the development of the Arts, Culture and Small Business Overlay which was the first official designation in the City of Phoenix of an “arts” area with tangibly defined zoning and development benefits. This overlay includes Grand Avenue which is itself a distinct district with its own leadership but which connects with Roosevelt Street at Grand and 15th Avenue, one mile west of the Arts District light rail station.

We were prompted in part to visit the question of physical boundaries when an on-line service started ranking businesses such as dentists under “Roosevelt Row” that were more than a mile north of what we consider our area of service to be. We don’t actually have any dentists currently working in Roosevelt Row, though at least one good one wouldn’t hurt. Our Merchants Association also voluntarily adopted membership boundaries earlier this year that set a new precedent for us in terms of establishing boundaries. As part of our ArtPlace supported visioning process, we have assembled a steering committee to help guide our process that includes leadership from each of the five distinct neighborhoods along the Roosevelt Street corridor. We were surprised by some of the reactions we heard at our initial meetings.

ARTPLACE: What are some of the implications of defining geographical boundaries versus areas of service?

ESSER: There are a number of policy and perception impacts that we need to thoughtfully consider as we examine the question of how we define the boundaries of the Roosevelt Row Arts District and how those boundaries relate to Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation as a service organization, advocacy resource and community development organization. The Arts, Culture and Small Business Overlay that took several years to develop and codify, serves as one baseline as a mapped zoning district. Once the new Downtown Urban Form Code was approved, the overlay was eliminated in certain areas, namely the Roosevelt and Evans Churchill neighborhoods which house strong concentrations of arts activity. The overlay remains intact along Grand and in the Garfield neighborhood. If we explore a policy that would allow sales tax or property tax benefits that support the district, distinct areas would need to be defined at the state level.

Also, through an anomaly of state law, a city in Arizona with a population over 500,000 residents can only have three officially designated “entertainment districts” within the city limits as it pertains to a relaxation of liquor license standards with regard to proximity to schools and churches. Phoenix has not yet officially designated such an area. If we were to propose such a designation, it would clearly include a much broader area of the urban core than we would typically serve.

We also have the basic challenge of how we market and promote an area that consists of multiple neighborhoods, overlapping jurisdictions and all within the context of Downtown with a capital “D” where there are multiple other organizations are doing critically important work. We have tried to have as many voices as we can in our steering committee without being overwhelmed by how civically engaged the general downtown area is.

A number of years ago, the downtown business improvement district sought to expand north into our area and the expansion was bitterly fought by the property owners. These were among the most contentious meetings ever held in downtown. Today, a new organization is in the process of formation with the intent of being broader in geographic area. We need to understand the tensions and balances between working collaboratively in partnership and stepping on the toes of vested stakeholders. Where we don’t want someone making decisions for us and without us, we also, as an organization, do not want to supersede in any way the literally groundbreaking work of the core neighborhoods we serve and work in partnership with. Once we draw lines on a map and try to name something as formal as an “Arts District,” however, these tend to become more defensive rather than collaborative conversations. This is the rich area of conflict in which we are currently working. We have our work cut out for us in terms of tackling these questions today. But there are also extremely positive indicators.

There is no better community catalyst than a common enemy. Just as we collectively opposed a stadium wiping out the arts area that would become Roosevelt Row, we have dealt over the past several months with an international convenience store chain with the intent to build a 16-pump gas station at the gateway to downtown and at the intersection that connects the Garfield and Evans Churchill communities. Through broad partnership and collective community opposition and the considered work of elected city leadership, the corporation voluntarily withdrew its application for a liquor license and, subsequently, its plan for the gas station. The whole process dramatically illustrated the critical need for a clearly articulated community vision for the area, a plan that is distinctly pedestrian in character.

At the same time this month, under the guidance of our visioning steering committee, we conducted the first of a series of workshops with artist and urban planner James Rojas to solicit input to guide our visioning process that will help define a survey to help us set short-term, mid-term and long-term priorities for the area. We held four workshops and had more than one hundred people participate and share their vision for new amenities in the area.

This process is really about us opening up, listening to more of our stakeholders and soul-searching to find our ideal path. Are we only a service organization? Are we a place with definable boundaries? Are we both, or a hybrid of some kind? Are we scalable, and is that appropriate to our mission if we are strictly place-based? The brilliant work that Adam Huttler has accomplished with Fractured Atlas as a national service organization is a compelling model. In the same vein, the visionary work of Karen Mack with L.A. Commons is another incredible model for communities nationally to look to. Roosevelt Row has a unique path to chart and it is through our partnership with the visionary leaders in downtown Phoenix today that will help to define that direction. It is an exciting challenge.

ARTPLACE: Any other news or updates that you would like to share?

ESSER: We are very pleased to announce this month the hiring of our new executive director, Dale Erquiaga. Dale has served as an advisor to Nevada’s governor and is past chair of the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF). He brings a wealth of background in writing, policy and cultural planning and we’re very excited to welcome him to our team.

PHOTO: Community members work with artist and urban planner James Rojas to envision the type of community and urban spaces they want to see evolve in the neighborhoods connected along the Roosevelt Street corridor.

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