Fill In The Blanks: PH_E_IX NEE_S U_BAN IN_ILL.

Common view around the Central Phoenix

Phoenix Needs Urban Infill

Travel through the expansion of the downtown university and the Phoenix Convention Center, one can see numerous new restaurants and businesses sprout up along the tracks of the light rail but still there are “blanks” within Phoenix’s development. Planning for these areas is known as urban infill, which focuses on reusing obsolete or underutilized sites or buildings for growth management.  The nosedive of the economy in 2008 was followed by the screeching halt of suburban development. These barren areas within the existing infrastructure provide opportunity for long-term development.   Whether it be making old lots greenways for parks or empty spaces new homes or businesses, now is the time for Phoenix to focus on urban infill.

It’s a smarter future growth plan.

The current economic environment has devastated the housing industry. The areas hit hardest by foreclosures are located in the periphery of the City of Phoenix, which are also the areas with the highest transportation costs. With rising gas prices, which also impacts other costs like food, it is necessary to look at growing by infill. Carol Johnson, Planning Manager at the City of Phoenix, states, “…it is important to provide more location efficient housing options and this can happen on the significant areas of vacant land in the more central or urbanized parts of the City.” Instead of converting farm land or natural open space, developers can focus on the vacant land and infrastructure we currently have, “creat[ing] the densities necessary to support a more comprehensive public transit system, and also create a basis for additional small-scale retail to create truly walkable communities.”

There are more supportive regulations for infill projects.

Johnson also encourages developers to take advantage of the City’s general plan new urban form zoning rules. “The new regulations are more consistent with the standards under which the older parts of the City were originally developed. Small developers won’t need to go through the extensive variance process with no guarantee of the outcome. Instead, the Downtown Code supports a more compact and urban type of development.” The code also provides improvements for adaptive reuse of existing buildings and flexibility in site specific conditions with the new Design Alternative process.

Johnson also advises developers interested in Phoenix infill to be patient and utilize City of Phoenix staff. She asks developers to “incorporate more upfront research time and talk to a planner who specializes in central Phoenix.” The City has planners assigned to each of the following villages – Encanto, Alhambra, and Central City.  The city is helping make it easier for developers who want to invest in the Central City. “As part of the merger of the Planning and Development Services Departments, the staff is looking at ways to consolidate and simplify procedures to improve the entire developer process while still achieving the quality development that will be sustainable and make a positive contribution to our community.”

Can we work together?

Filling in the blanks in the Phoenix infrastructure will help protect the agriculture on the periphery of the City and sustain our community for long-term growth. These urban infill projects are important and can only be successfully launched if we can work together to help secure funding for the right projects. Johnson thinks that the biggest obstacles for a developer “is the combination of city staff still in learning mode and lenders who only want to fund cookie-cutter projects based on pro formas.” Funding for these projects is a challenge and as our economic future continues to be unpredictable, can we find ways to support infill development? What are the best opportunities for development and how can developers work together to support the best projects for our community?

As members of Phoenix Community Alliance, we want to hear from you.  Issues like urban infill may be beneficial to you or your organization. What are your thoughts regarding urban infill development?

Note: The email interview with Carol Johnson happened in the later part of the year in 2010.

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