Dear Mayor...

Written by Editorial Staff Category: Valley News Issue: November 2011
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But it’s an ideal time to reboot, to examine our foundations and alter our course before it’s too late, to view the vacancies as canvases for creative projects to make the city more livable. Phoenix is a young city, and like a teenager heading off to college, the choices it makes now will shape its future.

So we’ve asked people in various fields – urban planning, business, conservation, recreation – to tell you what actions they’d like you to take to make our city more successful, vibrant, sustainable and unique.

Job Creation
When it comes to creating jobs, mayor, take your cue from saguaros: They know not to rely on the trickle-down effect, and neither should you.

As Kimber Lanning, founder of Local First Arizona, points out, “What we need is a mayor who really understands that new job creation comes from small business startups and small and midsize business expansion…. I’m not talking about pat-them-on-the-head kind of small businesses. I’m talking about, like, La Grande Orange – businesses that are driving millions of dollars worth of sales and also creating culture, which we can then leverage to attract bigger companies into the area.”

It’s the trickle-up effect, mayor: Creating a vibrant city with a thriving small-business sector will lure larger, job-creating corporations.

Here’s what you can put on your long-term goal list: “Strip some of the bureaucratic process away and get out of the way of the small businesses,” Lanning says. “We need to get city staff communicating among the departments [and] make the process quicker so small businesses can get their doors open faster…. We need to get more money in the hands of bankers that are interested in lending here. We need to be sure that our businesses can connect to capital, and right now they can’t.”

Your everyday to-do list is easier: Demonstrate your locavorism. Need a pick-me-up? Caffeinate at Copper Star instead of The-Chain-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named. Holding a staff luncheon? Have your assistant call a local catering company. Planning a new bioscience building? Contract with a local design firm. Building a giant glow-in-the-dark cervix? Commission a local artist.

View the city’s shortcomings as more opportunities for employment. Teresa Brice, executive director of the Phoenix office of Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), a community development nonprofit, offers this idea: Phoenix has thousands of unemployed construction workers and thousands of older, energy-inefficient homes that cost their owners beaucoup bucks in utility bills. It’s a job creation match made in eHarmony heaven.

Brice advises “taking a look at how we can retrain that workforce [of construction workers] to become proficient in weatherization, energy retrofit, installation of solar panels… and looking at re-greening those neighborhoods that have the opportunity to benefit the families living there as well as the workers that can be put back to work.”

Make an energy-efficiency goal and stick to it, says Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Arizona chapter: “Say we’re going to have X number of homes and X number of businesses retrofitted to become more efficient, and have X number of solar rooftops, and really make it happen.”

In addition to sprouting small business opportunities, we need to lure businesses and entrepreneurs from around the world. But you’re going to hit a stumbling block, mayor: “We’re still fighting the stigma of SB1070,” says David Roderique, CEO of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership. “A lot of what’s happened in terms of job creation, at least Downtown, has been companies from within Arizona moving around. We’re not really attracting the companies from outside. As we talk to those businesses there’s still some concern about the issues and perceptions of the state.”

You can help with that. “It is critical that we have a mayor who celebrates diversity and can talk about that on a national level,” Lanning says. “We need a mayor that can really champion all of the diverse backgrounds that Arizona has to offer.”

It will be necessary to repair our image if Phoenix wants to be part of the cool crowd that a young, creative workforce wants to hang with. We need to attract these people, not just because “this is the workforce of the future,” as Brice says, but because they give a city and its economy momentum; they’re magnets for more high-quality businesses and jobs.

But the creative class isn’t sold on the traditional taglines (“Phoenix is cheap” or “Phoenix is easy” or “Phoenix: No snow shovels necessary”). They’re willing to put up with Portland’s SAD-inducing sogginess and San Francisco’s 6.9-magnitude earthquakes to live in a city that gets them jazzed. Phoenix must offer that to them; sunshine and cheaper lattes are mere icing on their urban cake.

“A lot of cities have gotten a lot of traction by branding themselves as places where young, creative, entrepreneurial people live,” Brice says. “Everybody knows that ‘Keep Austin Weird’ was a very successful marketing campaign, and what that says is, ‘We welcome people that are creative. We welcome people that want to take a risk and want to turn some of these old warehouses and older housing into shops, restaurants, business incubators or shared workspace.’ These are people that would love to live in Phoenix if it is a great place, a thriving, exciting place with arts and culture and restaurants.”

“You see other cities doing it – they’re able to capitalize on the tech economy, the creative professions, the medical profession, accounting and the arts,” says architect Kevin Kellogg, principal at Kellogg and Associates and assistant professor at ASU’s School of Design. “But in order to do that we have to have the habitat for those creatures to live in.”

Smart Urban Design
The ideal habitat for city dwellers is walkable, bikable and well integrated with public transport; it’s patched with parks and public squares and dotted with indie businesses and eateries; and it melds modernity with adapted historical architecture (how about those Luhrs buildings, mayor?).  You can help steer us away from the Bermuda Triangle of city development – strip malls, sprawl, generic structures – toward the smooth course of smart urban design.

“I believe that the mayor of any city is its first urban designer,” Kellogg says. And Phoenix needs such a design-minded leader, because as Kellogg explains, “The best practitioners have left because they don’t think there’s any future. They don’t get a sense that quality is what this city is about. If it were a retail store it’d be a Walmart.

“Arizona is full of bold ideas, mostly in terms of ‘large,’” he continues. “We’re a little supersized. Our freeways are massive, we have the biggest sports arenas, but it’s all out of proportion. Our roads and our arenas are big, but our paychecks are too small.”

This isn’t a men’s locker room competition, mayor. It’s a city. And we need to be realistic about size.

First, advises Teresa Brice, start to think regionally. The cities that comprise the Valley “have to create strategies that will allow us to share revenue… and really figure out ways so that we don’t replicate amenities in each city, because now that we have the Light Rail, transit to those other cities is much more readily available,” she says. “So, does each city need to have a large and expensive performing arts center? Does each city need to have a regional shopping mall? As resources have become more scarce, cities that think regionally find that there are savings to be had by sharing resources and amenities.”

Next, we need to move away from the bundt cake-style city, with a huge residential hole in the center. So replace the words “big” and “generic” with “infill” and “adaptive reuse.”

“We have too few people living in the places where they need to be in order to form the economy and neighborhood units that will make us competitive,” Kellogg says. “And we have way too much of things that are in the wrong place. We have a lot of low density cookie-cutter housing, long commutes to job centers, and areas that are not very distinguishable from each other. There’s no value there. They’re not unique. Whereas our central areas do have the quality of neighborhoods; there’s a lot of loyalty and community pride. And the little neighborhoods are able to compete because of what they can offer.”

The Sierra Club’s Sandy Bahr concurs: “There are so many people who [want] to get the bulldozers going on the urban fringe when the economy cranks up again. And  that is the last thing we need.”

“We need more people Downtown,” David Roderique says. “The city has done a fabulous job in the last five, 10 years of getting the big projects in place – ASU, Light Rail, the Convention Center, Sheraton. But more than anything else we need more activity down here, and the biggest way to do that on a 24/7 basis is to have more people living down here.”

Architect and blogger Taz Loomans, who lives near Downtown, thinks that making the area more livable is a matter of prioritizing residents’ needs. “Parking Downtown: Is that what we really think is important – to get cars into Downtown – or is it more important to have things Downtown that people actually want to go to, to have more life in Downtown?”

She’d also like you to break with the Phoenician tradition of following the lead of the massive developers and start lending your ears to regular people who live in the Downtown area. “I would like the mayor to just give [the big developers] the attention that they’re due, meaning that they’re part of the community, but also look at the community as a whole, the people who actually live in the central core, people who want to have a vibrant place to live where they can get around without a car…[and] shop at local places.”

The best thing you can do to make Downtown more livable, attractive and vibrant is to transform those barren lots and crusty old eyesores.

Laura Bell, chairman of the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Board, says there’s a great plan semi-sweeping the nation called Red Fields to Green Fields. It’s like a Civilian Conservation Corps project for urban blight. Cities employ people from the unemployment rolls to clean up financially and physically distressed vacant lots or buildings and turn them into temporary green spaces. It puts people to work, beautifies the city (thereby attracting more people), and, as Bell explains, increases the property value of the land, which can then be sold for profit when the economy wakes from its cryonic slumber. It’s not only a win-win, mayor, it’s a win cubed.

We’ve written about a similar project, Valley of the Sunflowers, on page 46. It’s doubly cool because it involves biofuel and high school education. Other ideas include community gardens, urban nurseries, eco-friendly jungle gyms, sports fields and live music amphitheatres.

Speaking of areas that need TLC, Phoenix has numerous low-income neighborhoods that require a serious revamp. But be careful not to get too ambitious, or your plans will backfire.

“The federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program brought some of the largest federal dollars to Phoenix in years, dedicated to addressing foreclosed properties,” Teresa Brice explains. “But what happened was that the City chose to distribute those all across the city, and when you spread those resources so thinly you don’t see an impact. It’s really important to target your efforts geographically, so you can begin to see impacts.”

That means focusing on one area and improving it holistically, Brice says – retrofitting homes to make them energy-efficient, adding bus stops and access to transportation, improving parks and schools, etc. If you don’t know where to begin, Brice has this advice: “We need to start by leveraging the single largest public infrastructure investment in our city’s history, and that’s the Light Rail.”

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“We need to start by looking at those neighborhoods that are immediately adjacent to the Light Rail and say, ‘What needs to be done to improve them?’” Brice says. “And we need to…attract jobs close to the Light Rail so that the workforce can be connected from where they live to where they work. We need to look at commercial revitalization along the Light Rail so that we can encourage small, locally owned businesses to locate there, and we need to adaptively reuse some of the vacant properties along the Light Rail.

“At each station, there needs to be an analysis of what is there and what needs to be there in order to make that particular neighborhood a vibrant, thriving, sustainable neighborhood,” Brice continues.

She says that ASU conducted some studies and found that “if we concentrated just 10 percent of our projected growth in our city along the vacant, undeveloped land along the Light Rail, we could accommodate another million people. And that means that we are saving the city budget from increased infrastructure cost, because every time we build a new Anthem or Verrado, we as a community have to pay to put out streets and streetlights and sewer lines and utility lines.”

Everyone interviewed for this article favors Light Rail expansion, but only if it’s smart. Currently, Brice says, there is a plan to extend Light Rail west from Central Avenue to about 79th Avenue along the I-10.

“That makes no sense to put a light rail system along a freeway,” Brice says, “because the Light Rail system is supposed to be used to jumpstart economic development. There isn’t going to be any economic development…along the freeway. We need to move that alignment to a major corridor that can benefit from Light Rail, just as Central Avenue and Apache have, [such as] McDowell, Thomas, Indian School, or Camelback.”

That proposal doesn’t fall directly under your purview, mayor, but you can use your bully pulpit to champion smarter rail design, including transforming what is essentially a single artery into a circulation system. 

“We have a light rail line, we don’t have a system,” Sandy Barr says. “To really have a transportation system that serves the needs of the people it needs to be frequent and regular, and the buses and other aspects of it need to be integrated with rail.”

“We need to maintain funding for circulator buses,” Brice says, adding that such small area-focused bus programs have been very successful in Maryvale, Sunnyslope, Ahwatukee and Tempe because they’re accessible, especially for young people and seniors.

“This is really critical if we are to get people to use transit,” she says. “We cannot provide circulator service to everyone in Phoenix. But if we’re strategic, then we can begin to build out these neighborhoods where people are going to want to live and invest, and businesses are going to want to locate.”

Phoenix will always be a car-centric city, but remember that “Americans are driving less now than they have,” Brice says. “It’s the first time since the 1950s that automobile use has actually decreased. We are hearing more and more stories of one-car families.”

It’s an effect of the recession: In order to pay their mortgage and medical bills, families are selling that second car and looking for alternatives. But they’re not finding them. Light Rail is a boon for some Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa residents but a distant dream to the rest of the Valley. The bus system is woefully inadequate, and bicyclists and pedestrians are practically pariahs in the Valley – Phoenix/Scottsdale/Mesa is the eighth most dangerous metro area in the country for pedestrians, according to the organization Transportation for America.

Little changes can help make Phoenix more bike friendly, says Taz Loomans, such as “putting more bike lanes in, re-looking at the intersections [because] bike lanes end before the intersection to give cars the leeway, [and] making bikes a priority, because right now they’re really an afterthought. If we made that one effort it would have results in other areas that are unexpected, making the city more livable and spurring smaller developments.”

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Park Expansion
One area in which Phoenix can stand proud is its desert preserve system. But we can’t rest on our laurels. We must “continue to add to our preserve system,” says Parks and Recreation’s Laura Bell. And now is the time, she says: “We can get a great value right now because the price of land is down,” plus the City is currently benefiting from a matching-fund grant, Growing Smarter Funds, which runs through 2012. The money is there, Bell says, because voters designated it for preserve purchases alone; it’s just a matter of moving forward with getting the land at auction.

Here’s another way to increase our parks and pedestrian-friendly cachet: Increase trail connectivity throughout the metro area, especially, “the great walking path with shade and trees going up Central Avenue,” Bell says. She’d like the City to “eventually connect that [trail] going south toward South Mountain.”

Bell would also like to expand Parks and Recreation’s Phoenix Afterschool Center (PAC) program and reopen some centers forced to close due to budget cuts. The program provides sports, games, arts and cultural activities, education and community involvement for kids at centers throughout the Valley. “The PAC program is extremely important because for families a lot of times that is the only place their kids can have a safe place to stay instead of going home alone after school when the parents are working and trying to get by,” Bell says. She acknowledges that funds are tight but advises thinking outside the box, “even working with partnerships, nonprofits and private sponsors…to keep those open.”

This is a long to-do list, mayor, so we’ll leave you with a few last pieces of advice:

“Make a consistent effort to listen to people…and get a broad swath of people to [tell you] what’s important to them,” Loomans says.

If you get overwhelmed, Kellogg says, “Don’t worry if doesn’t happen so fast. A lot of stuff that’s slapped together ends up having to be redone. We should get into a ‘build it right the first time and keep it’ mentality.”

And finally, as Bahr says, “What I don’t want to see is another plan. How about some action?”

How about it, mayor?