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'Fun' Is New Mortar Of a Rebuilt Phoenix

A shapeless central city redefines itself as entertainment mecca - in fewer than 15 years.

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From his office high above the heart of downtown Phoenix, Mayor Skip Rimsza looks out at 1-1/2 square miles of urban renaissance that has become the envy of city planners from Australia to South Africa.

Amassed in record speed of about 10 to 15 years, no fewer than 67 public and private projects are visible in the tiny redevelopment area and surrounding blocks. They include two new sports stadiums, science and history museums, and several restaurant and movie complexes.

Although some housing and office space are in the pipeline as well, Mayor Rimsza may already be looking at the future of the American metropolis, say urban historians. In the age of telecommuting, that means a central city landscape jammed with culture and entertainment - but far fewer offices or residences.

"As dispersed employment continues to become the wave of the future - courtesy of computers, modems, and the rest - the need for us to congregate to work in downtowns is vanishing," says Grady Gammage, an architect and professor at Arizona State University School of Architecture in Tempe.

Rattling off a list of American cities that are borrowing from the Phoenix model (Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Kansas City, Houston, and Dallas), he says: "Work is destined to become the last reason masses of people congregate, while socializing, recreating, and enjoying life is becoming the first. That is where the future of urban cores is headed."

Ten-year makeover

In just a decade, Phoenix's once-blighted downtown has gone from ghost town to boomtown - and nearly everyone loves it.

"In 1990 you could fire a cannon down here and hit maybe three people," says Margaret Mullen, executive director of Downtown Phoenix Partnership Inc. (DPP), the nonprofit organization that has masterminded the renaissance. "Now we get 10 million visitors down here a year."

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