The success of an urban city is dependent on several separate institutions doing their part, a co-dependence of different entities relying on each other. For the topic of this conversation I am specifically speaking of small and large business. Often times we categorize them as they have different needs and offer different services, but what if we deliberately considered the direct relationship that large companies have to small businesses? In many respects they need each other despite our sometimes tendency to engage them in a rivalry. For the next few minutes, let’s think of these to extremes of capitalism as friends. What if a huge corporate conglomerate asked a small start-up company for a favor? Or why a volunteer based organization should be excited about a large business making their headquarters across the street. In many respects these two typologies need each other and when you humanize them, the connection is easier to find than you might think.
For a dense city, this operating relationship is innate. Without knowing it, or maybe without branding it, the little bakery on the corner could get 35% of their business from the huge marketing firm that operates on the top floor of their building. Without the lunch rush from the courthouse, the small deli down the block couldn’t keep its doors open. And if it was not for the two bank towers that were just built, the dry cleaner wouldn’t want to expand his shop. It’s easy to see how these small operations could benefit from a heavily populated business being in close proximity, but in what way would a huge company benefit from the small corner stores? The value comes from the added livability they provide.
Phoenix has a tendency to desire the big fish and why not? They bring jobs, tax revenue, and notoriety to the city. They are the biggest bang for our buck and bringing large companies, headquarters and hubs to the valley is beneficial for our city. But are we too preoccupied with catching the big fish that we forget to patch the leak in boat? The leak I’m referring to is the absence of small business in our downtown core. When a company is considering expansion or relocation, they are usually considering multiple cities. Density is something that is required by them of our urban center and it has happened in the past, that a company will choose another city over Phoenix after seeing the lack of vitality in our downtown core. The rub is that when large companies look at Phoenix for expansion or relocation, they are looking for an urban environment with small shops and restaurants on the street. They are looking for a place where it is possible to live without a car and a city that their employees are going to want to move to. In many respects we are trying to sell a house without walls, or in this case, a city without people.
There are several incentive programs for large companies to bring their business to Phoenix but we have made it exceedingly difficult for a small (less than 1000 sqft) shop to open downtown. We make building that are not mixed use or multi-tenant, we allow ownership of an entire city block without the requirement of improving it, and we mandate setbacks and forbid on street parking which results in zero foot traffic. This forces a small business owner to advertise as a destination rather than a convenient service to the public. (See post Mall Mentality). The reality is, if we focus on getting smaller more varied tenants, it will help us in our desire to bring in the big companies downtown, big companies that employ large numbers of Phoenicians. Large numbers of Phoenicians that will need a multiple options for lunch and dinner and will in turn want to live downtown. Sounds pretty good right? So what are the fundamental changes that need to take place, and how do we not only plan, but enforce these changes?
First, we should require that new projects in the downtown area have rent-able retail space on the ground floor. This will give entrepreneurs the ability to open up shop in the downtown area without having to build or renovate a space on their own. These leasable multitenant projects must have entrances every 50 to 100 feet and street furniture and signage should be a requirement.
Next we need to incentivize opening a location downtown. I was shocked but not surprised when I discovered that with all the tax incentives and subsidies given away to some of the biggest business in town, that they were paying at a lower tax rate than a certain local downtown pizza shop. Is this how we treat our small business owners and entrepreneurs? We should be proving the opportunities for restaurants, bars, boutiques, and butchers to grow roots and become family legacies and Phoenix establishments.
Finally, we need to enforce real property improvement and the general plan. Being the Urban Design Geek that I am, I actually enjoy researching the Phoenix General Plan. I have read General Plans, Strategic Plans, Comprehensive plans, and Master Plans and some of them are not too far off from the urban design principals I discuss in the Phoenix’s Next Flight Series. The Achilles heel comes with enforcement. The general plan mentions a desire to reduce the number of unused parking spaces, yet they haven’t changed the zoning requirements to do so. The Comprehensive Plan discusses zones and districts at the core center of the more populated areas and re-zones them with higher max building heights and reduced setback to encourage deity, yet they approve construction with those same variances outside those core areas which dilutes the urban activity. These three changes to our way of operating would make a huge impact on the excitement around downtown. Understanding that in order to move big business into downtown, we need to foster small business. And to grow our urban economy and create a diverse and dense downtown network of small businesses, we need to bring the people downtown in the numbers that only large corporate headquarters can. My concern is that as it is, we are concentrating too hard on the big payday and not enough on investing our pennies