Strategies for a More Vibrant Urban Core

Recently I read an article that asked experts from across the country “What are some best practices for attracting investment and supporting development in urban cores?”  These experts were dishing information and investment advice that has worked in densely populated urban cities.  Cities like Tampa, Denver, Dallas, San Francisco, Washington DC and Seattle have all seen economic and civic gains based on the principals and practices of urban design.  My next thought then goes to what are the applications of these methods in a unique situation like Phoenix?  This entry will discuss the application of these revitalization strategies to our city.

What is the strategy have been the most effective for re-invigorating the urban core?

Libby Seifel, Urban revitalization council San Francisco: The key is to creatively leverage public assets and build on them, whether they are properties, streetscapes, or parcels that might be developable. Leverage existing areas of activity as core anchors and build out from there; reclaimed streets with landscaping or outdoor café seating areas—linked to an event space or a major public park.

Phoenix has some terrific assets in our downtown, between the 7’s, area that are not being utilized to their full potential.  The first example that comes to my mind is the square block between our two major sport venues, chase field and US Airways Center.  Located south of Jefferson between 3rd and 4th street, this block is currently being used as a parking garage and is very well positioned for that.  However, the ground floor of the structure could be completely wrapped with retail.  Restaurants and bars around the parameter of that garage would link those major venues with businesses that would experience some of the highest foot traffic Phoenix has to offer.

James Moore, Senior Vice President of HDR Tampa: With city centers, the challenge is to integrate uses. Particularly if you’re targeting residents who may have grown up in a single-family house in the suburbs, now they’re living for the first time in a 200-unit residence above retail and a busy city street. Cities can address this by creating a fine-grained form of zoning. Twenty years ago, a lot of cities might not have even had a mixed-use zoning category. Now they are recognizing that if you want walkability, you need mixed use.

This is an area that Phoenix could really benefit.  A re-evaluation of our zoning procedures could make it more attractive to build downtown.  Mixed use and especially multi-tenant development is the only way we are going to boost density.   A careful evaluation of the uses, benefits and/or hindrances our zoning causes to neighboring properties is capable of filtering through good and bad development options.  Many times, the zoning is too general in purpose and too restrictive in the details.  This leads to new construction that is reduced to a formula by those who have the means and resources to figure that formula out.  Formulaic development may lead to projects that are out of scale, mass produced, and unoriginal.  I have often heard it said that Phoenix is lacking in “identity”.  Identity does not come from a shiny new monolithic block-occupying building.  Projects like that tend to alienate the general public because they had no part in its creation or they don’t occupy it on a daily basis.  Those projects are defiantly needed and necessary for any functioning city but we must not ignore the distinctive more intimate spaces, in fact we should foster them.   Identify comes from the uniqueness of a place that can only be found in Phoenix and has a recognizable story surrounding it.  These spaces are usually small public ground level places offering goods and services that are unique and customized to the neighborhood they occupy.  These types of storefronts and vendors are supportive in the function of the larger buildings and add to the success of larger projects and all too often time the owners of these small spaces have difficulty getting through the red tape that is the zoning and building code.

Charles Werhane, President and CEO of Enterprise Community Investment: To build affordable housing in urban cores, groups that are interested in investments that don’t just have a financial return, but also a social return. In the past, a lot of that money has gone to medical aid and environmental projects, particularly international, but we are beginning to see funds that bring that money into redeveloping urban areas in [the United States]. Another technique we’ve used is layered funds. In some cities, the financial risk associated with developing affordable housing is significant, so we’ll put together funds to acquire and refurbish several types of properties—primarily multifamily residential. Some of the risk is taken by public money, the next layer of risk is taken care of by foundations, and the banks take the lowest-risk piece. The banks can then offer a favorable rate. We’ve also had a lot of success with transit-oriented development funds, where cities use philanthropic money to acquire sites around transit-oriented development areas. That way they can maintain control over the sites for affordable housing later on as transit gets built.

Housing in general is a big need downtown.  We have some terrific residential towers in Phoenix but in order to attain a critical mass downtown, we will need more.  In his response, Charles Werhane has mentioned some creative funding solutions for ways that developers can get residential projects to pencil.  He also notes the importance of making that housing affordable.  In Phoenix, where we have golf courses within communities and three care garages attached to our homes, compact urban living could be seen as a compromise to some.  This shrinks the pool of possible buyers.  By making downtown living expensive and luxurious, we shrink that pool even more.  To grow downtown Phoenix, we should make living in downtown affordable and attainable.  Charles Werhane’s ideas on layering funding could be a good solution for Phoenix to create affordable living until the market demand grows high enough to justify luxury condominiums.

What demographic groups are drawn to urban cores?

Janet Protas President of JP Ventures and Chairman of the Redevelopment Council Dallas: In Dallas, the demographic that’s drawn to the city center is a fairly upscale, young demographic, and they look for high-end finishes in amenity spaces and public gathering spots. The public spaces within the building are as important as the units themselves. They want to know that there is a lounge with high-speed wireless access; they want their own private coffee shop within the building. They value a pedestrian-oriented lifestyle and access to public gathering spots, such as parks and coffee shops in the neighborhood. They live their lives in public via social media, so the same thing is important in the physical world. Sustainability is important, but not as important as how much the rent is.

A community that is walkable and promotes their neighborhood coffee shop or wine bar is not out of reach for Phoenix.  The next generation has an affinity for independent, non-corporate personal venues and some of them want to own and create those spaces themselves.  We need to foster those small unique non-mainstream spots around town.  Public interaction is essential and privacy is not as important as it used to be.  These are things to remember when designing common areas.

Claudia Sieb Principal of the Sieb Organization Phoenix: Smart developers have figured out that it’s really not so much demographics as it is the psychographics. It has to do with the way somebody wants to live.  We live in central Phoenix.  On our street, there is every shape, age, color that you can think of, but there is a like-mindedness and a very strong sense of community.  These are people who care about intimate spaces, who want to live in pedestrian-oriented communities, who want access to good, unique restaurants, art museums, the arts scene. It could be somebody who is 24 years old; it could be someone who is 74.

Our own Phoenician Claudia Sieb makes an excellent point that the demographic in phoenix is very broad and there is an attraction to living downtown for all age groups.  The mixture of different ages, cultures, socioeconomic levels, and professions are very important to making a functioning, thriving living situation.  Those connections and interaction have proven beneficial in raising the success of the middle class and keeps pockets of the city from deteriorating.

How are different uses or building types faring in city centers at this stage in the economic recovery?

Protas: I’ve seen mixed signs of retail coming back, but it depends where you are. I have seen no signs of office coming back. Conventional office space is not doing well right now, but shared office space is surviving.  That suggests a rise in smaller, more entrepreneurial companies and startups.

Werhane: Urban schools are getting a lot more attention than they used to. This year here in Maryland, the state general assembly authorized the issuance of $1 billion in bonds for Baltimore to refurbish 30 to 40 public schools and build an additional 15 schools.   

Seifel: Multifamily rental housing is doing well virtually everywhere. Condominiums are starting to come back in a lot of the markets, and retail follows rooftops. But retail tenants in the urban core have to compete with malls as well as online retailers. The underwriting market is concerned about long-term performance, which usually means big-box retail or chains that may not offer the dynamism needed in an urban core area.  Food-related tenants are key because those are much more place based.

For the most part these are positive signs in a strengthening market.  Again we hear that small dynamisms and uniqueness counts.  As well as places that are place based and authentic.  These are areas that make a huge impact with small square footage and can quickly and easily change with the times much faster than a large commercial tenant.  With a rise in multi-family units and condos, the schools will be a huge attractor or deterrent to moving families downtown.  As our economy becomes re-energized, now is the time to make sure we focus our efforts in the right areas that will set Phoenix on the right path to densification and urbanization.  In the case of Phoenix, I believe that the quality of life should be our main focus when trying to get not only the public, but companies as well, to invest in downtown.  We need to begin to think of our city as a home and not industrial park.

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