Planning January 2016

Phoenix Rises Again

Postrecession, the suburban poster child is looking to reinvent itself with transit, density, and infill.

By Michael Sunnucks

Lorenzo Perez says Phoenix is still in its adolescence. "We're an awkward teenager," says Perez, a Phoenix architect and designer of some innovative infill and adaptive reuse developments, including the remake of a former old-school steakhouse into a bookstore and bistro.
Perez says the desert city is still figuring out what it wants to look like when it's all grown up.

The mostly suburban, Sunbelt city emerged after World War II, and the advent of air conditioning and freeways played a big role during its growth spurt. Today, planners and others are wondering how to reshape and retrofit Phoenix into a denser, more urban city that appeals to millennials and empty-nest baby boomers alike and attracts high-wage industries.

Much of the city's reformation comes out of the recession and a regional program called Reinvent PHX that aims the city toward a more walkable and transit-oriented future along the 23-mile Valley Metro light-rail system. The goal is to give Phoenix, a market built on subdivisions and suburban sprawl, a sense of place.

Reinvent PHX was established by the city in 2011 in conjunction with Arizona State University and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as local planners, developers, city officials, community advocates and businesses.

"Success begets success," says Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton. "So we must continue to encourage mixed use, high-density development along the light rail [and] build more high-capacity transit corridors."

Opened in 2008, Valley Metro Rail runs through downtown Phoenix and connects to Arizona State University's downtown and Tempe campuses, as well as Gateway Community College. All of the institutions are also partners in the Reinvent program. The system connects some employment centers such as downtowns Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa, and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport via a people mover.

There are also scores of new apartments under construction or planned along the system, with developers marketing those units to millennials, students, and empty nesters looking for more urban living.

Reinvent PHX received a $2.9 million grant in 2011 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Development as part of HUD's Sustainable Communities program. The timing was just right. "Phoenix needed a collaborative effort to spur transit-oriented development and smart growth along light rail, particularly as we were just beginning to emerge from a painful recession," says Mayor Stanton.

Opened in 2008, the 20-mile starter line of the Valley Metro Rail system served the cities of Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa, Arizona. Another 3.1 miles were added in 2015, with more planned over the next two decades

Opened in 2008, the 20-mile starter line of the Valley Metro Rail system served the cities of Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa, Arizona. Another 3.1 miles were added in 2015, with more planned over the next two decades. "Valley Metro light rail" by Steven Vance, Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Bringing people downtown

Transit is one of six planning elements of Reinvent PHX, with separate teams addressing each element. The program has a focus on transit-oriented development but also aims at making the city more walkable and urban beyond development projects.

Housing is another planning focus area. In September 2015, the city distributed $500,000 to help developers and nonprofits build five infill and affordable housing developments in downtown Phoenix. One of the projects will bring 80 apartments and retail to an empty lot near a Valley Metro station. Another will redevelop a low-end motel into affordable housing.

A $105,700 grant is helping to finance a Chicago developer's plans to build a 400-unit apartment tower on the site of the Central Station light-rail and bus station. The transit center is in the middle of the center city near ASU's downtown campus, Chase Tower (the tallest building in the state), hotels, and the Phoenix Convention Center.

"We have a very diverse downtown, and we want it to be accessible to [many people]," says city council member Kate Gallego. "I think we have good mechanisms here to be able to encourage development to make sure that people across income levels have the chance to live along the light-rail corridor."

Boosters say Reinvent PHX is bringing coordination to the city's urbanization efforts and has likewise brought private-sector, planning, and public stakeholders together to map visions and strategies. "Reinvent Phoenix is a key part of our long-range effort to make our economy more innovative and sustainable," Stanton says.

Kimber Lanning, who owns a Phoenix record store and is arguably the most vocal small business advocate in the city, agrees. "Reinvent Phoenix was a game-changing effort," says Lanning, executive director of Local First Arizona, a Phoenix-based small business group with a buy-local focus. "The grassroots efforts to that program [are] unlike anything else in Phoenix before."

The goals of Reinvent PHX mesh well with recent changes to the city's zoning and planning rules that make infill and adaptive reuse projects easier to pursue. Developers can put off improving parking lots until after other building renovations are complete, and there are new rules related to utility easements and public safety rights-of-way in order to encourage higher density developments. The city has also tried to expedite and streamline approval processes for infill and adaptive reuse projects. That includes faster approval of permits and having centralized approvals to avoid delays.

The city has also sold or leased out some well-situated city-owned properties and combined some empty parcels to attract development downtown.

Cheryl Lombard, president and CEO of Valley Partnership, a commercial real estate industry group, says change will take time, but Phoenix is already making strides in encouraging and fostering more dense developments.

She says an ASU expansion helped kick-start it. Voters approved a $223 million bond program in 2006 that allowed the university to expand its downtown campus, which now has more than 11,200 students, and move its journalism, nursing, and law schools there. That campus connects to the main campus in Tempe and its 51,800 students via light rail, according to ASU figures.

And where there are students with money to spend, count on businesses to serve them. Chipotle, Starbucks, independent coffee shops and nightspots like the Crescent Ballroom have all opened downtown. With young people around, downtown Phoenix is also less of the ghost town that it used to be on nights and weekends.

One of the five awardees was Union@Roosevelt, a mixed use development project from Metrowest Development located on a formerly vacant lot immediately adjacent to the Roosevelt Street/Central Avenue light rail station. The project, which is expected to be completed in the fall of 2016, will bring 80 market-rate apartments and 9,200 square feet of retail and restaurant space to the area, which serves as a gateway into downtown Phoenix. Courtesy Metrowest Development, LLC.

Challenges abound

Like other Western and Sunbelt regions, Phoenix really spreads out. Maricopa County (pop. 4.1 million), where Phoenix and its suburbs are located, encompasses 9,200 square miles of land — which is just 150 miles smaller than the entire state of New Hampshire.

The Valley of the Sun is actually an expansive basin encircled by mountains but with huge swaths of Sonoran Desert, which has long been seen as land ripe for development (but see "Making Space for the Desert" elsewhere in this issue to learn about the region's conservation efforts). Older U.S. cities, such as San Francisco, New York, and Boston, were major ports that grew as coastal entry points. Their geography and coastal nature prompted and forced density.

That doesn't hold true for the city of Phoenix, which saw its population grow from 65,000 in 1940 to 1.5 million today. The region saw a big boom after World War II and with the advent of air conditioning — the number of inhabitants jumped from 65,000 in 1940 to 106,818 just a decade later.

Although the sixth largest among U.S. cities in population, Phoenix ranks fifth in land mass at 517 square miles, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That is twice the land size of Chicago and bigger than the geographic mass of Los Angeles.

But Phoenix's density, roughly 2,800 people per mile, is on par with Lincoln, Nebraska, and Provo, Utah.

This makes efforts to create density and connectivity challenging, say Stanton. "The development patterns of the past, which tended toward suburban sprawl, make it more difficult now to link some neighborhoods to downtown and other employment centers," he says.

But Perez and other infill developers are trying to navigate how to make new and denser developments work. Amid the trouble that the Great Recession brought — two out of three homes with underwater mortgages, thousands of foreclosures, 300,000 lost jobs, office vacancy rates above 30 percent — it has opened some doors.

Today, infill development is a more affordable and smaller scale proposition. In central and downtown Phoenix, adaptive reuse projects are turning old warehouses into loft-style offices for advertising firms and architects.

Older commercial buildings are morphing into restaurants. They include a former motorcycle dealership turned gastropub, launched by prominent Phoenix restaurant owner Sam Fox. The historic but long empty and essentially roofless First Baptist Church is being repaired by a nonprofit who bought the property after a 1984 fire. The goal, says Katherine Patry, who owns the Phoenix construction company rehabbing the former sanctuary, is to bring in a half-dozen restaurants.

The hope is that a hometown and independent restaurant scene will help build more urban nodes, propelling further redevelopment and creating density and even walkability. Achieving the latter, however, is a daunting task in Phoenix. And it's not just because of the intense summer heat.

"The massively wide arterial streets with limited bike room and sidewalks right next to the street where people are driving extremely fast are huge challenges for making our communities more walkable and more bikeable," says Sandy Bahr, state director for the Sierra Club environmental group.

Take Seventh Street, a north-south thoroughfare that connects to downtown Phoenix. It's home to a number of the aforementioned restaurant redevelopments but it's also a fast-moving, major rush-hour commuter route with the tight sidewalks Bahr mentions.

Another barrier, Bahr notes, is regulatory: Zoning and other policies, as well as political focus, have been geared toward suburban home building and sprawl, not fostering density. She contends that is especially true at the more conservative Arizona legislature, which focuses transportation spending on freeways and restricts cities' rules and fees on developers.

The light-rail system, for example, is paid for by city sales taxes. "The whole system is set up to feed and subsidize sprawl," Bahr says.

Nick Labadie, a senior planner for Rose Law Group, one of the leading land-use law firms in the state, has said in the past that there just hasn't been demand for walkable, transit-oriented development in Phoenix or a strong interest in paying for or subsidizing such projects.

Old buildings throughout downtown Phoenix are being given a second chance at life, including the currently roofless historic First Baptist Church. The church, built in 1929, could eventually house restaurants, a coffee shop, and concert space. Photo by by Derrick Bostrom, Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

But it's a dry heat ...

And then there's the heat. "Extreme temperatures for a significant portion of the year make alternative modes of transportation difficult," for even the most ardent urbanists, Labadie says.

The average high temperature in Phoenix from June through September is above 100 degrees, but that scorching season lasts even longer some years. The middle of the desert summer sees temperatures of 105, 110, and 115 degrees.

Efforts to increase shading and add misters to shield residents, shoppers, and workers from the desert sun and heat help, but there are blocks of downtown Phoenix, and suburban downtowns, that are woefully lacking in shade structures or trees. "Sidewalks that are set back from streets and narrower streets with shade trees along them," need to be in place to bridge the gaps, Bahr says.

"It takes engaged architects, planners, and landscape architects who are responsive to their surrounding physical environment, especially as they relate to Phoenix's desert climate," Lanning adds.

Phoenix has narrowed Grand Avenue and First Street and put in public art. The city and ASU also relocated and replanted dozens of trees displaced by the construction of a new law school building downtown.

But city, state, and other budgets are still strained as Arizona slowly recovers from the recession. Those projects were done on the cheap with limited expenditures.

What's not being done cheaply is a 35-year, 70-cent sales tax — known as Proposition 104 — that Phoenix voters approved in August. The approved tax extends and expands an existing 0.3-cent city sales tax approved in 2000 for the current light rail.

The tax will raise $17 billion and be used to double the size of Valley Metro Rail, improve surface streets, put in crosstown express buses, and extend bus hours later into the evening. The new light-rail lines would extend south and east of downtown and farther into more suburban areas of the city.

Mayor Stanton and city council member Danny Valenzuela hope more light rail will help connect more students with college campuses, including ASU's West campus and Grand Canyon University, both of which are on proposed new routes.

There are 106,800 college and community college students living in Phoenix — more than Washington, D.C., and Seattle — and another 44,700 in neighboring Tempe, according to Zillow, the real estate research firm. But Arizona has one of the highest high school dropout rates in the country. Stanton and Valenzuela both say better transportation access will help more students get college degrees.

Tim Sprague says he has more selfish reasons to back better transit. Sprague is an infill developer of apartments and condominiums in downtown Phoenix. He's also worked on urban developments in Portland.

Sprague hopes approval of Prop. 104 will help convince his four urban-minded adult children to move back to Phoenix, not to mention further infill and urban developments in traditionally suburban Phoenix. He says it's already begun.

"The people in my business have consumed the Kool-Aid," Sprague says.

Michael Sunnucks is a senior writer with the Phoenix Business Journal. He's also an adjunct journalism professor at Arizona State University.

Health Impact Assessments in Reinvent PHX

By Dean Brennan, FAICP

The National Research Council defines a Health Impact Assessment as "a systematic process that uses an array of data sources and analytic methods, and considers input from stakeholders to determine the potential effects of a proposed policy, plan, program, or project on the health of a population and the distribution of those effects within the population. HIA provides recommendations on monitoring and managing those effects."

Nationally, the use of HIAs has grown in the last decade. In Arizona, they're being used more, too: Seventeen HIAs have been prepared statewide since 2010, according to the Arizona Department of Health Service, and three more are under way.

Public health professionals in state and county agencies have taken the lead in efforts to incorporate HIAs into the decision-making process. A coalition, the Arizona Alliance for Livable Communities, also has conducted, promoted, and advocated for the use of HIAs, established a statewide Health in All Policies organization, and conducted HIA training workshops. For planners, though, HIAs are still a bit peripheral.

Generally, Arizona planners have not used HIAs as a planning tool — a major constraint being the lack of local resources. But perhaps more critical, many Arizona planners have yet to make a firm connection between community health and the design of the physical environment, which in turn limits recognition of their own roles in this area.

But some planning departments are helping to change public policy, and in fact, a state-mandated update for all general plans (cities and towns) and comprehensive plans (counties) has provided the opportunity to incorporate healthy community goals and policies into these critical community planning documents. Those updates were supposed to be completed by July 1, 2015.

Planning with health in mind

Reinvent PHX gave Phoenix planners a chance to participate in preparation of an HIA. Recognizing the need for outside expertise, they relied on local partner St. Luke's Health Initiatives as the project lead. The effort received $2.9 million in funding from the HUD Sustainable Communities program.

The Reinvent PHX planning process was comprised of six elements: land use, mobility, economic development, housing, green systems, and health. Planning staff and a team from Arizona State University worked on the first five, with the SLHI Health Team crafting the health element.

Reinvent PHX was divided into five transit districts. Because of the overall geographical size of Reinvent PHX and the project timeline, the team decided to prepare a separate HIA for each district. While that meant more work, there were definite advantages to preparing five distinct HIAs, including the ability to focus on smaller geographic areas with unique needs and characteristics. Further, using the first HIA as a learning process enabled the team to evaluate what worked and what didn't.

Five separate HIAs provided the opportunity to creatively adapt the HIA process — including customized approaches to public outreach and engagement — to the characteristics of the different populations in each of the transit districts. This not only provided direction for Reinvent PHX, but also showed Phoenix planners the value and benefits of HIA to help inform the decision-making process.

Healthy community leadership

Will the HIA process undertaken for Reinvent PHX demonstrate the value of this planning tool to other Arizona planners? It's hard to say.

But there has been at least one exciting new development in connecting health and planning: In November the Arizona Chapter of APA and its partners in the Nutri-Bike-Ajo Coalition received a $110,000 grant from APA's Plan4Health program to further its work on increasing both physical activity and access to nutritious foods (

The future of healthy planning relies on planners expanding our knowledge of healthy communities and understanding the role we can play. Public policy will undoubtedly move that effort forward, primarily as it relates to general and comprehensive plans.

Dean Brennan is principal planner with the Project for Livable Communities. He is a member of the St. Luke's Health Initiatives Health Team and the AALC, where he leads HIA training for public agencies and professional organizations.


How can we Reinvent Phoenix? Reinvent PHX is taking cues from the past to plan for a better future.

10 projects in Downtown Phoenix. For a rundown of these and eight other historic adaptive reuse projects in downtown Phoenix, check out this list from the Arizona Republic.