The ultimate ‘car city’ seeks change
Phoenix pins its hopes on transit-oriented development along the light rail line.
Phoenix is the lowest density, most-spread out large city in the US, with 1.4 million people on 516 square miles, or about 2,800 people per square mile. The metro area, with 4.2 million residents, is even more sprawling.
The oppressive heat and car-oriented infrastructure makes Phoenix one of the least walkable, bikable, and transit-connected cities in the US.
The lack of connections is costly. Last year’s Losing Ground report from the Center for Neighborhood Technology rated the Phoenix area one of the worst for combined housing and transportation costs. Moderate-income families spend 62 percent of their income on those expenses — half on housing and half on transportation.
While this overall picture will not change soon, significant parts of Phoenix along a 20-mile-long light rail line are poised for redevelopment on a more human scale. The goal of Reinvent Phoenix, a project funded by a $2.9 million US Housing and Urban Development Sustainable Communities grant, is to convert the station areas of the five-year-old transit system to more compact neighborhoods.
Light-rail ridership is on the rise in Phoenix — it climbed 5.4 percent to 14,286,093 in the most recent fiscal year.
The light rail system is divided into five districts – each of which is getting a plan – outside of downtown. The largest, the 3.9-square-mile Gateway District just north of the airport, includes many low-density industrial and commercial areas as well as residential neighborhoods and three light rail stations.
Relative to the city and metro region as a whole, the Gateway District is tiny. But its plentiful supply of vacant and underutilized properties allows for huge development opportunities, as shown in the plan below produced from a charrette led by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ). The team included urban designers, civil and transportation engineers, and economic and market consultants.
Redevelopment areas include a proposed large traditional neighborhood development of 24 blocks and many other smaller infill sites, especially along commercial corridors.
In addition to the light rail stations, the district already includes patches of residential neighborhoods with connected, walkable streets and affordable housing. Yet existing residents have nowhere to walk or bicycle to.
Like most of Phoenix, the commercial streets are oversized and many of the blocks are too large for walking. Mixed-use, fine-grained, urban fabric is lacking and many of the amenities that make walking pleasant — like street trees, on-street parking, buildings that front the sidewalk — are in short supply. About 90 percent of the street frontages in Gateway are categorized as “neutral” or “worse” in terms of walkability – including most of the arterials like Van Buren Street.
Van Buren traverses the district from east to west and is targeted for revitalization. This once-bustling thoroughfare was never very walkable, but it was lively — home to as many as 200 motor courts and hotels in the mid-20th Century. These were independent establishments with lively neon signs — not the homogenized chain motels of today. Van Buren fell victim to Interstate highways that stole the affluent traffic, changing demographics, and sprawl. “More than a hundred years after the city was founded, our former main drag is lately just a drag — and has been for nearly half a century,” writes the Phoenix New Times. Thirty miles long, three of the miles located in Gateway, Van Buren is an important commercial corridor even in its run-down state. Many believe that Van Buren offers significant potential for mixed-use, compact development.
Van Buren Street, Phoenix
Because of Van Buren’s potential, the plan calls for streetscape improvements here and on critical cross-streets first. New residential development would occur within a half mile of light rail stations, which are situated along Washington Street, a quarter mile to the south. Most Gateway residents must drive to reach these stations, because the alternative is to walk a mile or more on roads with bad frontages.
Van Buren Street transformed, Steve Price, Urban Advantage
Phoenix’s so-called “Grand Canal” flows through a portion of the district and under Van Buren on a diagonal, but it is currently a utilitarian waterway. Planners envision a mixed-use waterfront with connections to new residential neighborhoods.
Imagining the Gateway District as a walkable place is “ambitious and radical, but also realistically builds upon the existing actual potential of the district,” says Galina Tachieva, the project manager for DPZ.
The report envisions the area as a bustling urban community by 2040. Beyond the plans for the Van Buren corridor and the Grand Canal, a series of ideas are proposed, many of which will be applicable to the other districts:
• Leverage the light rail to support higher-density, mixed-use, walkable development — including many new homes — near the stops. A fourth light rail station is proposed. Station areas are conceived as a “Connected Oasis,” i.e. “a necklace of compact urban villages.”
• Create a pedestrian-priority street network that is entirely lacking now. This plan includes converting major thoroughfares throughout the district into “complete streets.”
• Revive a tradition from the first half of the 20th Century of Phoenix being “A City of Gardens and Trees” through ample and appropriate landscaping.
• Create a long-term vision for the urban interface between Gateway and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, which abuts the Gateway District to the south. The airport is about a half mile from the light rail.
• Create an innovative infrastructure financing toolkit that will bring together planning and economics.
• Apply “sprawl repair” strategies within the areas of Gateway and the city where car-dependent, fragmented single-use suburban patterns have been introduced (almost everywhere).
• Create a new “walkable urban code” using the framework of the SmartCode and the methodology of the Transect.
• Provide residents with more access to food by encouraging the development of food stores and farmers’ markets in the district.
• Maintain housing affordability in existing neighborhoods.
• Improve access to parks.
• Facilitate employment opportunities near the light rail stations.
If collaboration between nonprofits, for-profit businesses, and governments can make this plan a reality, the The Sustainable Communities Collaborative (SCC) is a good start. The SCC has organized 35 partners to catalyze development along the Valley Metro light rail. SCC was launched in 2011 with a $20 million private investment from Local Initiatives Support Corporation and Raza Development Fund.
“In just the past two years, during one of Arizona’s worst economic periods of the last century, we’ve invested $12 million in 13 developments that are leveraging” $141 million in private investment, says Shannon Scutari, the director.
This article appeared in the September-October 2013 print issue of Better! Cities & Towns