Negative space: How art is reshaping Phoenix's vacant land

Darkness is fading in on a Friday evening in early October. The lot next to First Street and Garfield in downtown Phoenix is vacant and the streetlights nearby are starting to click on with a low buzz. The ground is dusty, littered with cigarette butts, plastic bottles and weeds. A small gray cat skitters by and the “No Parking” sign at the front of the lot is tagged in graffiti.

Lots such as this one are typical of the downtown area. It is stuck in a slow uphill battle of redevelopment.

Only two blocks north on Roosevelt Street – nicknamed Roosevelt Row to mark it as the epicenter of a burgeoning arts scene – dozens of people take in the events of the city’s First Friday art walk. Families, college students and artists browse an assortment of creations from wind chimes sculpted from bottle caps to hand-painted animal masks. Food trucks line the corners and the lines for local favorites such as Short Leash’s hot dogs and Pizza People Pub’s slices snake around busy plastic-covered picnic tables. The revelry can last deep into the night and livens up a usually quiet neighborhood.



From the vacant lot, however, the sounds of the revelry are muffled and distant. Its two-block distance from Roosevelt Row might as well be two miles.

A little more than a week later, a tenant for the lot is scheduled to arrive.

The delivery is late; the driver is stuck in morning rush hour traffic. Stephen Azarik, a young architect and ASU alumni with dark hair and a clean suit paces the lot; he is dressed for work and needs to leave soon. It is already past 7:00 a.m. and the truck was supposed to arrive by now.

Azarik is getting impatient, but only a few minutes later, at last, a rumbling tow-truck pulls into the space, its back weighed down with the solution to the empty space ­– an 8-foot wide, 20-foot long shipping container. The morning is still cool, but the driver is working to get the container down before the notoriously brutal Phoenix sun rises to bake the clay-colored ground.

Photo by Noemi Gonzalez Architect and ASU alumn, Stephen Azarik, greets the truck driver in charge of placing the shipping container on the lot.
Photo by Noemi Gonzalez

The container’s interior is empty and open since its two vaulted doors were removed earlier. In its current state it is simply a frame, but Azarik and Mike Lu, both architects, plan to use the container to bring people into the underused lot. By adding platforms to the end of the container and installing a turf grass ramp, it will become an accessible public art space.

“The idea is to have this platform expand out here and then ramp down,” Lu explains, pointing to the front end of the container.

He is wearing work boots and dark jeans. A couple of his friends have showed up to help install palettes that will support the ramp.

He then turns and points to the right and left of the structure where he plans to have food trucks parked on First Friday evenings.

“So food truck here, food truck there…and this is an exhibition space at night on the interior.”

Lu and his wife Karla, who is currently an engineer for the city of Phoenix, saw promise in the developing downtown area and purchased the lot three years ago, with plans to one day build their firm at the location. After winning a National Endowment for the Arts grant and with help from the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation (CDC), Lu and Azarik were able to participate in the Adaptable Reuse of Temporary Space (A.R.T.S.) project that is reshaping several vacant lots in the Phoenix Arts District.

“As designers, that’s what we live for,” Lu says of the project. “We see a lot of these vacant lots as opportunities to do these urban interventions.”

The empty spaces are common. Christina Noble, an architect who got involved with Roosevelt Row after she noticed promise in the growing community, says around 11 percent of downtown Phoenix is vacant.

The arts district, a section of downtown Phoenix home to a growing group of artists and creative entrepreneurs, is facing these challenges with the help of A.R.T.S., a multifaceted project that reclaims vacant land with art projects that include gardens, a marketplace and most recently, art businesses built inside repurposed shipping containers.

The shipping container project, or A.R.T.S. Village as the Roosevelt Row CDC has dubbed it, will bring several businesses and public art installations to four locations.

The concept of using shipping containers to house galleries, businesses and other public art projects has been around for a while, says Greg Esser, artist and founder of the Roosevelt Row CDC. Similar designs, such as Proxy SF in San Francisco and Dekalb Market in Brooklyn, have had relative success revitalizing an otherwise vacant area in their respective cities. These examples seemed like a viable option to Esser, who has been the mastermind and cheerleader behind bringing the container project to Phoenix.

“When someone passes by vacant land, they begin to feel like they are not in the right place,” Esser says. Reshaping this otherwise negative space on Roosevelt improves the neighborhood and attracts visitors and businesses.

Photo by Newlin Tillotson In early October, the container served as a frame. Now, it serves as a hallway, hosting artwork by local artists during First Friday art walks.
Photo by Newlin Tillotson


Developing a solution

In addition to Azarik and Lu’s public art pathway, plans for four other containers include a white box gallery called the Hot Box, a bike-share business, a two-level mushroom farm interestingly accompanied by a yoga studio, and a community library. The containers were all provided by Artplace, a national organization focused on creative placemaking through the arts. In January of 2013, Roosevelt Row CDC issued a national call for idea proposals for the containers they had been given.

“We selected four teams, all of whom are actually local teams, which is very exciting,” Esser says.

The teams are made up of a range of urban development professionals that includes architects, designers and local business owners. The problem they are trying to tackle in Phoenix is not that there is a lack of space, but that there is too much space.

It is a result of decades of neighborhood expansion and transportation development.

In the 1950s, the area that is now Roosevelt Row was filled with a mixture of the affluent and working class that included doctors, lawyers, seamstresses and teachers, among others.

But, as Phoenix grew outwards, the population moved as well. Esser explains that city zoning over the years changed the shape of entire neighborhoods. The Churchill neighborhood, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Arizona with sections dating back to the 1910s, spans Van Buren, north to Roosevelt Row and across from Central Avenue to 7th Street. The Evans addition, adjacent to Churchill, came later and brought with it neighborhoods that housed a wealthier class.

The Evans Churchill neighborhood was filled with suburban life until construction of the I-10 cut through the city in the '80s.

“The Evans addition was completely decimated by the freeway coming through in the 1980s,” Esser says. “Entire blocks of these mansions just all got completely wiped out and now there are only a handful left.”

A few of these original structures can be found around Roosevelt Row. Just a couple blocks north of ASU’s downtown campus and the modern skyscrapers are pockets of artist ventures and mom-and-pop businesses, such as Bodega 420, a grocery store built in an old home with a cabana-style front porch where you can often find the owner, Adrian Fontes, chatting with visitors on the steps.

Cindy Dach, Esser’s wife and co-owner of MADE Boutique, an art boutique that sells locally made jewelry, prints and other assortments, runs her store out of a renovated home on Roosevelt Row. Like many of the businesses in this area, it doesn’t have the typical storefront with large window displays and flashy advertising. Instead, there is a large porch with seating and a wind chime hung from the roof’s gable.

Dach and Esser purchased the space in 2000 and started an art collective called Eye Lounge on one side of the building. MADE came five years later when Dach noticed that the evolving area, which was becoming a home to so many artists, lacked a place for them to sell small functional artwork.

“Etsy was just starting around then so we really saw the handmade and shop local idea growing in the consciousness of the public,” she says.

Even with the success of Eye Lounge and MADE, the area still posed challenges with its lack of community collectiveness. Together, she and Esser founded the Roosevelt Row CDC.

“We started working on the circle around it and that circle just sort of kept growing,” she says. “To me that’s how the evolution of Roosevelt Row is, where you just sort of stop looking internally and start looking externally and say, ‘How do I connect and make all of this work together?’”

Dach explains that the change on Roosevelt Row has been drastic yet slow at the same time. Only ten years ago, it was a section of the city you wouldn’t dare to venture in at night, but now it is much more walk-able and a desirable place for artists to live and work, she says. For the lots that continue to be unoccupied, Dach is hopeful about their makeover with A.R.T.S. Village.

“I think it is really great because you’d have a dark spot – just an empty, dark, scary, corner – and that is being changed,” she says.

Photo by Noemi Gonzalez A.R.T.s Village takes shipping containers, repurposes them and places them into empty lots in metro-Phoenix in order to make neighborhoods safer and attractive.
Photo by Noemi Gonzalez


The impact of vacant land

Empty corners are concerns to cities because of the negative impact they bring. With vacant lots there can be a contagion effect where vacancy spreads among unused or underused areas, explains Ann Bowman, an urban planning professor at Texas A&M and co-author of “Terra Incognita: Vacant Land and Urban Strategies.”

Phoenix has an abundance of virgin land – raw dirt that has never been built on – she says. The lots around Roosevelt Row, however, have more of an abandoned quality to the land because of its prior infrastructure.

“It is a tremendous opportunity, but it does require, obviously, some investment,” she says of downtown Phoenix.

Roosevelt Row’s investment in revitalizing the empty spaces aligns with the theory of the creative class developed by urban studies theorist Richard Florida, Bowman says.

“Florida’s argument is that cities will thrive on those creative communities, or how he calls them, ‘cool,’” Bowman says. “And those are the sort of sites that will attract tourism, leisure and spending.”

It is a theory that Florida says has shown considerable success in downtown Washington D.C.; Portland, Ore.; and Denver, Colo. By opening venues appealing to the creative class such as coffee shops, restaurants, theaters and galleries, the city will attract visitors and, in turn, create a vibrant safe area, he says.

San Francisco capitalized on the creative class with its project, Proxy SF. Like the A.R.T.S. Village, Proxy SF uses shipping containers to house businesses in vacant lots in the city’s Hayes Valley Neighborhood. In 1989 an earthquake damaged the Central 101 freeway that ran through Hayes Valley. It was deemed structurally unsound and was torn down, leaving behind empty lots. Envelope A+D, a small architecture firm, answered the city of San Francisco’s request for proposals to temporarily develop the area.

The idea for using shipping containers came because they were modular and easy to work with, says Lindsey Schott, director of communications for Envelope A+D. Each container is custom built to fit the vendor’s needs, that way when their lease on the spot ends, the vendors can relocate the container wherever they choose.

To convert the containers into spaces for vendors, Envelope A+D worked closely with the city of San Francisco to cater to building codes that would keep the project cost-effective. The structures are designed in a way that is similar to fair booths. They are open aired and do not have heating.

“We were able to get around heating the Beirgarten container, for example, by providing blankets to customers instead of heaters,” Schott says. “We are lucky to live in San Francisco with its pretty temperate climate. For other sites this isn’t really doable.”

And, the site has been a success. Schott says new vendors have been reaching out with interest in becoming part of Proxy SF and the lease for the land was recently extended to 2021.

Photo by Noemi Gonzalez During December's First Friday art walk, the hallway shipping container debuted.
Photo by Noemi Gonzalez

“Proxy has brought a dramatic change to the area,” she says. “It has been an anchor to Hayes Valley… new development plans for the site will be even more of a content-machine, creating a sense of vibrancy in the area.”

Like Proxy, A.R.T.S. Village is working with the city to maintain cost-effective construction. To use a shipping container for anything other than storage poses building code challenges and, as a result, development of the containers has been a slow process.

“The system in terms of policy isn’t necessarily designed to do these out-of-the-box things,” Esser says.

By working with the Office of Customer Advocacy, a section within the planning and development department of the City of Phoenix, the architects and developers of A.R.T.S. Village have been able to come up with solutions. Because the site on Second Street and Roosevelt had already been zoned for a farmers market, initial steps to bring the shipping containers to that lot were relatively easy.

The city currently views the shipping containers as an accessory use to the farmer’s market, explains Jason Blakely, program manager for the Office of Customer Advocacy. For the three containers at the other locations, Blakely says there have been text amendments to zoning ordinates that allow the interim vacant land uses to include pocket parks and public art displays.

“We are trying to get some of these what we are calling “test cases” or “pilot projects,” … trying to get some of those to meet what we already have in place for our ordinances and standards,” Blakely says.

As of now Blakely says the time frame for the temporary structures is a year. After a year, the A.R.T.S. Village will be assessed for what works and what doesn’t.

“If everything is going fine, we can then extend the timeline,” he says.

That timeline looks promising. Take a walk down Roosevelt Row today and it isn’t hard to notice the change that is occurring. Crime has dropped to be almost non-existent in an area that was once a popular haunt for drug dealers, says Esser. The Roosevelt Point apartment complex, a large, ultra-modern building with corrugated metal sides and orange balconies, was completed in the summer of 2013 and is now home to several hundred students attending the nearby universities.

One side of the street is empty, but in contrast to the vacant lots are flourishing small businesses. Songbird Coffee House, a busy, eclectically decorated café that shares a front door with the MonOrchid gallery and event space next door, is making headway. A block west is Golden Rule Tattoo, a parlor with Arizona sky blue walls where tattoo appointments have to be booked into its busy schedule, sometimes six weeks in advance. While parts of the street still remain empty, vibrancy is burgeoning.

At the First Street and Garfield site, the container now has a ramp built from crates found on Craigslist and turf grass donated by the Arizona Sports Complex. The outside is painted with the word “Nanogram,” the design studio Lu and Azarik are a part of, and the interior is dedicated to showing off work by local artists on First and Third Fridays. Azarik says this is only phase one for the container; with community suggestions they hope to adapt it for alternative uses.

“I can’t say that I truly know what everyone is going to need,” he says. “For the moment it will be a nice little place to sit, hopefully seek some refuge from the sun, but it’s definitely a work in progress, it’s in no way a finished piece, and I think that’s the cool part.”

Reach the writer at or on Twitter @Newlin777.

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