Monday, September 29, 2008

The fight is not over

It looks like we're cutting it close on our petition drive for the apartments on 35th Avenue and Southern. However, based on several recent trade articles, including this one, we will probably have several more opportunities in the near future.

If developers and contractors must stay in business, they must therefore keep looking for "low-hanging fruit." This means that they will find inexpensive land, inexpensive labor, and inexpensive financing for their projects (or else find an opportunity in a downtown market with very high barriers to entry). The most likely projects that will qualify for all of the above are apartments in markets with reasonable rental demand. Where the demand is lacking for high-end apartments, such as in bedroom communities, they will have to look for the next best thing: assured income from Section 8 rentals.

This again highlights my point that the developer is simply being opportunistic in trying to build multifamily. Once more, I challenge the belief that we must sacrifice our community's integrity to provide short-term income for one developer. It isn't fair to the neighbors who bought into another plan for their community.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Apartments at 35th Avenue and Southern

More apartments??? Not again!!!!

Anyone who knows me well would understand that I tend to support vertical development in urban centers, and I tend to gravitate toward a lifestyle that works within that type of setting. But underlying those attitudes are a lot of other beliefs about what a city should be, and how the community's character is expressed and preserved through development.

Now it becomes more complex, as I have grown more and more prideful as an Arizona native, and moved into a wonderfully planned community in Laveen - not far from where I grew up. Again, for those who know me well, you would understand the painstaking research that I undertook before buying our house here. I looked up the Phoenix general plan, looked into future transportation plans, crime statistics, schools (present and planned), strict development guidelines, prospective commercial growth, nearby industry, barriers to sprawl, convenient outdoor activities, and overall convenience in location. What I found was all positive - Laveen actually promised to maintain its character through good planning for managed growth, and appeared to be better positioned than any other newly developing community.

Now it seems that the planning department is actively working against its own interests and ours, as they keep trying to rezone extremely low-density residential for apartments. Not only are the planners violating the implicit social contract with those of us who bought into the current plan, but they're jeopardizing their ability to someday take pride in how well this community was planned and developed. What's more surprising is that our elected city council representatives are supporting these rezoning proposals in direct opposition to the people they represent.

I've been active in helping to obtain signatures for the referendum drive this time around, and gotten into a few heated debates as a result. I was amazed at how many long-time Laveen residents have expressed grateful support for our efforts, despite the fact that the two community councils commissioned to represent their interests have failed to hear these concerns. Below is an email exchange that I shared with Phil Hertel and Steven Kline, both of the LCRD (I'm blue/green):

Justification for the 35th Ave apartment project...this in from the LCRD (Laveen Citizens for Responsible Development)...for more info,
On Wednesday Sept 3, the Phoenix City Council unanimously approved the rezoning of the property directly South of the Wal-Mart Supercenter for apartments and two small commercial pads.

The city council vote was required due to the unanimous objection of nearby residential owners. All neighbors within 150 yards of the subject property were asked, and they opposed, as I understand. Like the Berkana case, this is yet another example of an unresponsive and non-representative council. Were you at the LCRD meeting? Although there were some in opposition at the outset of the meeting, I believe many of their concerns were addressed. This IS different from the Berkana piece. That was railroaded through with no community input or compromise.

I was not able to attend, as noted above, due to work. Again, what about the 150' rule, and the unanimous disagreement?

This was a very unusual and unique case for Laveen. For the very first time the Laveen Citizens for Responsible Development (LCRD) and the Laveen Village Planning Committee (LVPC) offered support for an apartment development in the heart of the community. This was a result of several meetings with the developers and intense negotiations. The project received approval after the applicant made numerous changes to the project to address the many issues that were raised during the process. They also agreed to a long list of stipulations further defining this project.

The previously approved use was low-density residential. The negotiated compromises still allowed the developer to rezone the property to the developer's speculative interests. Without making concessions, which are almost universally anticipated in real estate development, the developer would have failed in this pursuit. On all pre-existing assumptions, one would only be allowed to work within the previously planned and accepted zoning: low density residential. The developer has thus won, while nearby residents must sacrifice more than they already have. I would have loved for it to stay low-density. However, in that location, it would not have been viable. In fact, I really wish all of Laveen had stayed low-density.

How is it that this location was not viable for low density? The fact that we "had to" rezone for a Wal-Mart center? Please inform the residents of Laveen which other locations' present zoning is "not viable," or which rezoning decisions have resulted in a reconsideration of other uses. Is there a list of second-thoughts that we can all see? Otherwise, it appears that the current residents' factually based expectations were superseded by the speculations of a single developer.

This case was nothing like the Berkana case. As you may remember the Berkana case had no support from anyone in the community, It is in the wrong place surround by uses that do not compliment high density apartments. The applicant, former Mayor Paul Johnson, and his lawyer Jason Morris refused to work with the community, refused to compromise, and refused to participate in the process. Then Councilman Doug Lingner refused to listen to his constituents and in spite of opposition from every group involved, including the LCRD and LVPC, approved that case and then promptly left office.

Neither the council, the LCRD, nor the LVPC asked the immediate neighbors for their input, or else they chose to ignore it. Assuming the best of the LCRD and LVPC, this was likely an oversight on their part; and the Council based its decision on their mutual support. Additionally, all approving parties neglected to consider that the overwhelming support for the organized Berkana opposition was largely due to Laveen residents' expectations that our representative leadership would remain committed to low density development. The Southwest Growth Study restricts apartment development to several areas already zoned for up to 15 units per acre, but explicitly states that Laveen should maintain it low-density, agricultural character. This was the compromise previously made with Laveen's residents, and it appears that other parties would now prefer to renege on that agreement while our leadership was weak. Again, were you at the LCRD meeting? We sought community input throughout the process. The LCRD does not meet in secret. If people choose not to come, that is their decision. We encourage people to attend and voice their opinions. We did not ignore the neighbors. Laveen lost its low-density agricultural character when the first urban high density project was approved. We are trying to preserve what semblance we can. Putting apartments in proximity of the intense commercial is about the best we can make with the deck stacked against us by the City of Phoenix. We worked extensively with the developer to eliminate some density and to try to keep this as good as possible.

The current general plan allows for an upward limit to density that allows some preservation of Laveen's agricultural character. Moving toward even greater density than what has already been approved is the opposite of low-density preservation.

On the contrary, the 35th Ave case is in an area that makes sense. Being on a major North/South road, having mass transit opportunities, next to retail and employment, water, sewer, and the ability to carry the traffic already in place, and being right across the property line from Wal-Mart, one must ask "if they don't fit here, then where?"

Apartments were already zoned very thoughtfully near commercial and employment cores that were concurrently planned as complementary uses. The guiding document, the Southwest Growth Study, was written in accordance with the city of Phoenix's directive to "[outline] City policies that address neighborhoods, open space, transportation, economic vitality, sustainability and many other components of our city for the next 10 to 20 years or longer." Furthermore, "Because of shared space and common needs, a plan [was] needed that [represented] the best interest of everyone.... The goal is a balance of development and preservation so that all Phoenix residents enjoy a wonderful quality of life." (from Although the Southwest Growth study is still referrred to and a guide, much of it was supplanted by the revised General Plan adopted in 2002.We fought hard to actually strengthen the SWGS, but had limited success. We can thank Doug Lingner in part for that.

Point taken. However, there is no need to give up.

Most residents of Laveen will readily acknowledge that public infrastructure is lacking, while the national housing crisis has threatened Laveen's economic vitality, and higher residential density will only exacerbate these problems. The location decision for inevitable apartment development was already made for the village cores, near Baseline and the future Loop 202 interchange, and near Chavez Park. If one looks at more mature communities in Phoenix, such as the Biltmore area, apartment development has been restricted to established major commercial corridors. The anomalous approval of a shopping center does not constitute a necessary shift from our planned development, nor does it constitute an employment center. 35th Avenue is a major traffic corridor. The commercial does provide some employment opportunities.

True, Wal-Mart does provide "some employment opportunities." According to a study commissioned by Wal-Mart in 2005, each store creates an average 97 new jobs in a local market (from "Studies Highlight Wal-Mart's Impact" By: Ellis, Kristi, SN: Supermarket News, 00395803, 11/14/2005, Vol. 53, Issue 46). The additional retail in the shopping center and others nearby adds to that number, although like Wal-Mart it is mostly entry level employment. However, these stores are open and currently staffed; Mervyn's is closing. Therefore, the roughly 70 employees from Mervyn's are now in need of employment. The addition of 275 apartments, and a greater number of potential workers, would again constitute a disservice to current Laveen residents. And again, 35th Avenue may be planned as a major traffic corridor, but it was never shown to necessitate high-density developments, except near Cesar Chavez Park and the neighboring retail.

This does not open the flood gates and these high density projects are not going to get approved throughout Laveen as Mr. Jones suggests. Although it is not high on the list of what we all wanted or expected for our area, there is a need for apartments in the middle of Laveen. Now they are done. Carefully planned, thoughtfully located and created with much community input, here is a place for our friends and family members that want to live in Laveen but do not want nor cannot afford a stand alone house. We have now planned for tomorrow. As a community we now have high density living for those that may want it. The City and developers can no longer say that we have not planned for the diversity we need to allow opportunities for everyone in Laveen.

Even if this decision does not "open the flood gates" to further rezoning decisions, the domino-like rationale already demonstrated by our planning representatives would suggest otherwise. This decision inevitably adds to the proportion of high-density development by failing to replace the existing apartment-zoned properties with lower density uses, which creates an inherent dilemma. Regardless of the already planned apartment locations, this specific zoning decision serves to change the dynamics of the entire eastern portion of Laveen, and it begs the question of a ripple effect.

In regard to the affordability issue raised by Mr. Hertel, one must consider that average apartment rental rates in the metro Phoenix area are upwards of $700 per month (according to the 2008 Sperry Van Ness Top-Ten Multifamily Market Report). Currently, new homes in Laveen are being offered for sale as low as zero-down and $800 per month. While many people cannot qualify, or do not want to buy a home, investors are buying foreclosed homes for as little as $100,000-$150,000 and seeking to rent them out. This means that homes could feasibly rent for as little as $700-$750 per month, which is hardly different from average rental rates. Thus, above-average apartments hardly offer additional affordability or any related benefit (and this example completely fails to address the number of trailer parks located in Laveen, which presumably rent for far less).

By stating that the LCRD and LVPC's support for this rezoning decision was a plan for tomorrow, Mr. Hertel fails to account for the fact that the general plan represented our community's planning guidelines. This decision not only defies the community's tacit acceptance and agreement with the general plan, but it also modifies the very nature of that plan by increasing Laveen's overall density and lowering its employment-to-population ratio. For a point of reference, the recent housing boom has already changed the future outlook for Laveen's employment ratio over the last five years, changing it drastically from 37% (projected in 2003) to 18% (projected in 2007). A true plan for tomorrow would seek to reverse this trend by focusing on the city's goal of a 45-55% ratio, thus promoting regional sustainability and economic vitality. While we may have added some density here, overall, the LCRD has been instrumental in reducing the overall projected density of Laveen. We were successful in derailing a plan for increased density and apartments at 67th Avenue and Dobbins. We have averted other apartments and been successful in moving and reducing density of apartments in our community.

The LCRD has been instrumental in fighting other battles against increased density. I trust that the LCRD will continue in this tradition in most cases. After Laveen is "built out" to its projected development potential, I will again look to the LCRD to keep the planners in check on infill developments. This, I hope, is an isolated incident, and I trust that the CPLV will remind others of the above data to avoid future mistakes such as this one.

Members of the community do not need to accept the finality of this decision, and I will strive to promote this ideal. Call it a passion for citizen involvement, a desire to keep Laveen on track in maintaining its roots while planning for smart growth, or a little of both. I have already volunteered to offer my full support - financially and with my time - and I believe that the Coalition to Preserve Laveen Village will brilliantly succeed in these efforts, by virtue of a passionate and dedicated support base. I do appreciate the work of the Coalition, but where where you in the early stages of this project? If Laveen had been allowed to retain its roots, there would be nothing but one acre plus horse properties and farms. That is gone. You want dedication and passion? Look to the LCRD. We helped make it possible for a group like the Coalition to be heard. We will oppose apartments where they are not appropriate, but opposing apartments just because they are apartments may be counter-productive. I understand that you feel you live in a low-density neighborhood. I guess it's all perspective. From my perspective, any neighborhood where the house are just a few feet apart is high density. But you are my neighbor, I value your committment and I will work to do what is best for our community as a whole, not just one segment or neighborhood. Sometimes we have to give a little to get a little (quite often we get a lot). When it's all or nothing, we have tended to get nothing. I know I will not change your mind on this matter, but don't be so quick to condemn the LCRD.

Again, all of our community leaders deserve praise for taking charge of such responsibilities. It's sad to see such an apologetically defeatist voice expressed by some, however, in regard to the increase in Laveen's density. The LCRD is not to be universally condemned in my mind - I have no credibility to make that claim. As I cannot be available during most weeks, I will always have to depend on the willingness of my neighbors, such as yourself, to take charge. For that, I thank you. But, you are right - my opinion about this specific case will remain steadfast. Therefore, as I will continue to question the LCRD's judgment on this case, I fully hope and expect to offer my support to the LCRD in the future.

Performing Schools in Laveen

As Catherine and I prepare for parenthood next Spring, we've had many debates about public vs. private school, and more importantly the quality of the schools in our present neighborhood. When I searched the performance records not long ago, it didn't look great, although they were improving..... (See ratings here:

This morning, as we were taking the dog into Petco to be washed and de-furred, I ran into one of our neighbors who is also a community leader. She recalled that I raised this concern at a district funding-related meeting (please fund!!!), and informed me that our schools are all performing and beginning to achieve the high-performance mark.

This news is highly encouraging, as it indicates a positive trend, despite the fact that we've seen what can happen with growing pains and inadequate funding in the last couple years. This Fall, we will vote 'yes' for a bond issue and 'no' against the state redistricting measure, and should see significantly better improvement. The outlook is finally positive, and I hope it stays that way.