Phoenix Rising

In week nine of our novena, we explore Phoenix, AZ, which is in the process of transforming itself from suburbia on steroids to a more urban model, without losing its historyor quirky character in the process.

Our last stop on this year’s novena is my former home town of Phoenix, AZ.  As a city that experienced its boom after the widespread availability of the automobile, Phoenix is synonymous with sprawl.  Inner city neighborhoods arrange themselves in a ring of concentric circles, representing the insatiable desire to annex land.  In some ways this paid off for the city- they didn’t lose their tax base to “urban flight” as older cities in the east, but all this growth of questionable sustainability was built upon a central city that was slowly rotting from within.  During my time in Phoenix, I saw serious efforts to de-suburbanize the thinking of citizens and promote density;  a successful campaign for a light rail transit system, more progressive measures for mixed used and transit-oriented development and for creating neighborhood overlay districts to promote the character of existing neighborhoods looking to revitalize. 
Distinctive sun shades and public art mark each Metro stop

Transit in a large sprawling city is challenging at best, so instead of supporting density, this project had to be used to drive density.  While I was involved with the new General Plan  which included transit oriented development, I relocated to Cleveland before getting to see its implementation.  Phoenix City Councilman Tom Simplot and architect Luis Peris catch us up on Phoenix’s quest to combat sprawl with density and strategically revitalize core neighborhoods. They represent two distinctively different points of view- Tom comes from a real estate background and is a long-time active resident (we served together on the Housing and Neighborhoods Commission with back in the late ’90’s), while Luis is an architect, artist and engineer who relocated to Phoenix in recent years, and proceeded to become a highly engaged community member.

Both feel that  the opening of METRO light rail has been the single biggest physical change in Phoenix in the last five years. “First and foremost, it has changed the overall look of central Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa,” says the Councilman.  “The signature shade sails and public art at each station bring a unique identity to the line. The light rail provides reliable and accessible transportation for commuters and leisure riders alike, and ridership has surpassed all projections. It has also spurred economic development in the central core, leading to more jobs, accessible housing and a wider tax base that sustains essential city services. Light rail will continue to positively impact Phoenix and the Valley as extensions are built and the system connects even more communities. We can lessen any negative impacts by involving the community in the planning process, and by keeping light rail trains clean, safe and secure.”  Luis concurs, adding that “The full impact to the community is yet to be realized as unfortunately it began service right at the onset of the recession.  Many of the businesses displaced or even stressed by the construction did not survive and it is only recently that enough new development along the light rail corridor is starting to take place; to great success and eagerness from the neighborhoods.  Continued expansion of the light rail system would be needed in order to have true city-wide impact from a public transportation and neighborhood redevelopment point of view.”

Of course, transit has come with its challenges. “[Phoenix’s] ridiculously large geographical expanse renders any significant urban density difficult to attain, observes Luis. “I wouldn't call it the ‘worst quality,’ but a real opportunity for growth in Phoenix is [to move away from] the overall reliance on vehicles, adds the Councilman. “In the central core, the light rail and increased bike lanes have helped to lessen the car-centric culture, but there is still more to be done. The community has demonstrated a strong desire for pedestrian improvements and bike lanes. As a matter of fact, on any given Saturday, you will see couples and families riding bicycles around their central Phoenix neighborhoods, grabbing a cup of coffee or just enjoying the scenery. I am working with my colleagues to incorporate more bike lanes in the central core to increase our pedestrian friendliness and lessen our dependence on cars.”

So what can other cities learn from the Phoenix experience with cultivating urbanism via transit?
Engaging the community is critical
“Truly, the best quality of Phoenix is community,” says the Councilman. “Phoenicians are very engaged, not just in City dealings but in their neighborhoods, schools and individual interests, as well. Phoenicians are receptive to positive change, and just as importantly, they want to be involved in the process of making that change. The City of Phoenix has numerous boards and commissions - they are all filled with residents and business-owners who believe in, and care about, our community. It is very uplifting to see this dedication, which is a real driver for the improvements made in our City. We are lucky to have a very active and engaged public. Having said that, I believe there are always ways to reach out to more residents. As an elected official, part of my responsibility is to continuously invite community members to participate in the government that represents them. Social media has been a huge driver in engaging new folks because it provides a direct, personal connection in a format that people are comfortable with.” 

Luis adds, “Grassroots developments always carry more staying power.  No artificially regulated rezoning/redevelopment can ever take place with the inhabitants of that area becoming fully involved and vested.”

Keep it real by leveraging existing neighborhoods and districts
Both Luis and the Councilman cited revitalization of Phoenix's inner city neighborhoods (and the corresponding increase in density) as examples of recent urban victories.  “The most successful neighborhood transformation in District 4 over the last 9 years has been the revitalization of the Melrose District,” notes the Councilman. The area on 7th Avenue, from Indian School to Camelback Rd, was marred by vacant buildings, crime and transients. With the tremendous work of SAMA (Seventh Avenue Merchant's Association), City support and overall collaboration among all interested parties, we can clearly see a vibrant stretch of thriving independent businesses, a flourishing LGBT community and unique, urban character....not to mention an annual street fair that brings out 20,000+ people!”

Luis mentions the Roosevelt Row Arts District neighborhood redevelopment program as one of the neighborhood redevelopment success stories.  “Although it is still young and it’s growth has been slow, again partly due to the current economic conditions in the city.  Interestingly enough, the ASU Downtown Campus is also growing, in a less organic, more structured/institutional way, to the point that both districts are closing the gap between them slowly.  That is truly exciting, as neither could encompass enough momentum by itself, so it is one of those 'unite and conquer' moments in the city with quite strange bedfellows.”

“Not only has ASU brought thousands of students downtown,” observes the Councilman, “New City projects like Civic Space Park and the CityScape development are encouraging these students to stay downtown after classes. New dorms are bringing hundreds of residents to the central city to live, study and play. On any given day, you can see young people walking from the Taylor Place dorms to study at the restored A.E. England building or play sports in the grass under the 'Her Secret is Patience' sculpture. The most exciting part about this plan is that it only has begun. Soon we will see the post office across from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism building transformed into a student union and new construction all around Downtown Phoenix to build up ASU's campus. This collaboration has taken dedication, teamwork and shared vision between ASU and the City of Phoenix, and the results have been amazing.”

Forge community partnerships to get things done
“Strong partnerships between the community and the government are essential to achieving win-win outcomes,” the Councilman stressed. “The City of Phoenix has a number of boards and commissions that advise the City Council on issues like parks, land use and public safety. Even the city budget is heavily influenced by public input. Residents and business owners intimately know the issues that affect them on a day to day basis, and policymakers can undoubtedly benefit from their input. I strongly believe it is important to include community members in decision making, and I will continue to work with grass roots groups to reach consensus.”  Luis mentions another, less “official” undertaking that demonstrates the willingness of average citizens to make a difference in their community, “One of the best examples in Phoenix is the Valley of the Sunflowers project, that has proven successful at utilizing empty lots downtown for crops despite of city and private developer delays.  It is very much a community driven effort that relies on the resilient quality of grassroots leaders to navigate the bureaucratic quagmire.”  He goes on to add, “[the residents of Phoenix] not only have a voice but a presence; physical as it needs to be.  Great beliefs are much more compelling and their energy more contagious than any regulatory measures.  We need the regulatory support to ensure proper legal execution, but the compelling concepts are the driving force.”  The Councilman agrees. “Absolutely, I know for a fact they do. Along with Mayor Greg Stanton and my colleagues on the City Council, I value the insight and suggestions of the residents of Phoenix.”
To continue the trajectory of transformational change, both men point again to the light rail system.  “A crazy increase in the reach of the light rail,” Luis states. “Even to the cities that snubbed it like Scottsdale, so that Greater Phoenix can be a city for all its citizens, not just the privileged few.”  The Councilman has a similar, if not more pragmatic approach. “The next transformational change in Phoenix will stem from economic development along the Camelback corridor. METRO light rail has positively impacted downtown Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa, but the Camelback corridor been slow to follow the trend. I fully believe this area is ripe for growth, and I am confident that this growth will compliment the unique neighborhoods in the area. I am currently collaborating with community members, business owners and city officials to focus attention and resources in this area. The goal is to revitalize an important stretch of Camelback road and to continue the spectacular transformation that has positively impacted the rest of the light rail line.”

Like its namesake, Phoenix is rebirthing itself as it has many times in its history.  Still, as it goes for a more urban feel, it holds on to many of the qualities that have made it a place that people go to to escape big cities. “When friends and family visit from other cities, they are always impressed the cleanliness of our city,” says the councilman. “Both the government and the residents of Phoenix are dedicated to having a clean, livable city. The city of Phoenix has a zero tolerance policy on graffiti, and we even have a staff team known as "Graffiti Busters" who paint it out on streets, freeways and buildings. This level of commitment by an active and engaged population makes Phoenix an ideal--and clean--place to live!”  Yet, as I found in my years spent living there, the real Phoenix lies beneath the surface, in the wonderful collection of places you discover over time. 

Luis muses, “I have yet to find out what is memorable about Phoenix from a wordly point of view.  It cannot be the crazy out-of-control urban sprawl.  Nor its (lack of) unified cultural life.  Actually, what makes Phoenix unique is the widespread downtown, or distributed downtown, concept. So it is very much a city a la carte, a dim sum of city life spread through many miles of desert.  It is my understanding that twenty years ago Phoenix was quite a different city.  The last financial boom, which preceded this most recent recession, brought significant wealth that combined with cheap abundant real estate created a proliferation of development expanding outward.”  This time that expansion is centered right on the heart of the city, a concept that leads Luis to conclude, “On a good day I feel Phoenix, the fifth largest in the nation, is a city of unified fragments.  However, on a bad day I feel like it is more of a fragmented unity…”

Tom Simplot was first elected to the Phoenix City Council in 2003 In January 2009, he was unanimously voted by his fellow council members to serve as Vice Mayor.  Simplot’s primary goals for representing District 4 are fighting crime, protecting small businesses and preserving the character of neighborhoods.  He also believes residents can reclaim their neighborhoods with the help of city services, and encourages the development of the arts and culture community within the city’s central core. He has worked with community groups to bring more attention to the city’s west side and to capitalize on the arts and business potential of downtown. As a longtime resident of Phoenix, Councilman Simplot has been active in the community for years. He served as the president of the Maricopa County Board of Health and the Maricopa County Industrial Development Authority. He also served as chair of the Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission, vice-chair of the Phoenix Encanto Village Planning Committee and a member of the Phoenix Housing Commission, among other boards and commissions. Currently, Simplot serves as chairman of the METRO Board of Directors and on the board of a community-based social service agency, Valle del Sol.  He also serves as a member of the Federal Communications Commission’s Intergovernmental Advisory Committee.  Simplot currently serves on the following three City Council subcommittees:  Transportation & Infrastructure; Housing & Neighborhoods; and Seniors, Families & Youth. He also hosts Metro Matters, on Phoenix 11 TV. In addition to his post on the Phoenix City Council, Simplot is the president of the Arizona Multi-housing Association and is an attorney and licensed realtor.

Luis Peris, AIA, PE, LEED AP is an advocate for making neighborhoods more livable one building at a time, one park at a time, his work focusses on establishing new models of performance and critically reprogramming spaces to enhance the human experience. He is the owner of LuPe Design, where he promotes architecture and design with an urban flair. As an architect, engineer and artist, he pursues seamless multidisciplinary integration of projects. This has allowed him to serve a variety of roles throughout his career, from wind-tunnel controls design engineer for NASA Glenn Research Center, to project architect for a downtown San Francisco large mixed-use development, to preservation architect for the Cleveland Museum of Art.  Luis is an instructor in Daylighting Strategies for the Sonoran Sustainable Building Advisor Program, past Board Member of AIA Central Phoenix, and Chairman of the Committee on the Environment (COTE) for AIA Central Arizona.  He is also a member of the Education Committee for the Central Arizona Society for Healthcare Engineers (CASHE).  His art spans from photography to metalworking, sometimes involving the creation of custom sculptures and architectural pieces for clients.