A Second Chance for McDowell Road’s Miracle Mile

Nearly seven decades ago, shop owners frustrated by the challenges of conducting business in downtown Phoenix went looking for the next big thing in local commerce. They found it on McDowell Road, which back then was on the outskirts of town.

McDowell Road quickly became a mid-century commercially vibrant, pedestrian-friendly place to be. A stretch of east McDowell was so thick with business activity it became known as the “Miracle Mile.”

Fortunes changed just as quickly for Miracle Mile. By the late 1950s, the hot spot was snuffed out by the next big thing — Park Central, Arizona’s first shopping mall.

Decades of neglect and abandonment and policy decisions turned McDowell Road into a major route for commuters rather than a destination location or a place with goods and services for neighbors.

McDowell Road is getting a second chance.

In contemporary terms that signal next-big-thing status — revitalization, diversity, inclusion, small-business investment, creative placemaking, connected neighborhoods — the east McDowell Road commercial corridor from 7th Street to Highway 51 is heating up again. The area has amassed an array of ethnic restaurants and markets (Salvadoran, Ethiopian, Morrocan, Mexican) and is becoming a hub for immigrant and refugee entrepreneurship. Other small business also are finding success in the corridor.

New Miracle Mile conversations are enlivened by a respectful historical perspective of McDowell Road, new tools in the community planning and organizing toolbox, and nearby examples of eye-popping urban revitalization along stretches of Roosevelt Street and Grand Avenue in central Phoenix.

“I see an area just ripe for potential,” said Joel McCabe, co-chairman of the McDowell Road Revitalization Committee. “I see a vibrant commercial corridor, harking back to our days as the Miracle Mile and doing fun projects that recognize some of that history.”

“It’s hard to find, in this big city that we are now, the remnants of what was this commercial corridor,” McCabe said. “Sure the street doesn’t look the way it did, but I can see beyond that.”

McCabe is COO and vice president of Trellis, an organization dedicated since 1975 to the development of stable homes and communities, which began its revitalization work in the neighborhoods in the McDowell Road corridor. Now it’s a Miracle Mile anchor institution that has added commercial corridor development as a pillar of its work.

Trellis helped the Coronado Neighborhood on the north side of McDowell receive historic district status and it moved some homes from the path of Highway 51 to the neighborhood. In the Garfield neighborhood south of McDowell, Trellis has acquired and rehabbed more than 80 homes and this year is building new single-family homes there.

In recent years, Trellis and community partners such as Phoenix Community Alliance and LISC Phoenix have focused on the McDowell Road commercial corridor as a gateway to downtown Phoenix and as a way to strengthen neighborhoods.

LISC MetroEdge completed a market scan of the corridor in 2016 that recommended goals, noted assets and challenges, and suggested early actions for organizing small business leadership and corridor improvements, including clean-up efforts and beautification. Formative work has begun with Miracle Mile Merchants Association. Community clean-ups occurred last year; the first one of this year is April 21. Trees were planted last year; additional landscaping may be added this year.

The McDowell Road Revitalization Committee of the Phoenix Community Alliance meets monthly. McCabe is co-chairman of the committee that will help create a branding and marketing campaign and a website. The new Miracle Mile corridor logo features the iconic “Gateway Arch” that spans McDowell Road near 16th Street. (The public art installation was an attempt in 1991 to brand the area for local businesses and to create an entrance to downtown Phoenix.)

Ideas are flowing about the “missing teeth” look of the corridor, the gaps of vacant lots and empty building space between successful businesses. There’s talk of pop-up shops or events to help bring people to the area. There’s also discussion of activating alley space.

Various mixers for business owners are planned in 2018 to discuss topics such as microlending, social media and marketing. There will also be a brand unveiling and community celebration in which there likely will be Miracle Mile talk about the past, present and future.

“I see this as the re-pioneering of McDowell,” McCabe said.