Friday, January 23, 2009

The Village Concept

Phoenix once gave a lot of lip service to the idea of promoting an urban village approach to the development of different areas of this sprawling city -- probably influenced by the likes of Portland and other major population centers that have successfully relied on balancing individual neighborhoods' self preservation/enhancement goals with the need for controlled growth. This, after all, was the reason behind our creation of Laveen Village; and it has ostensibly guided our general plan's creation and execution.

In theory, this is all very good. It gives Laveen the ability to strengthen its most prized rural/industrial characteristics by forcing the inevitable new developments to blend in with the existing community. This also helps to support the basis for several of our community organizations, such as the Laveen Community Council, LCRD, and LAHOA. But again, this is all still only in theory, and those community organizations have been threatened recently to modify their purposes....

When I moved to Laveen a few years ago, it was to embrace what I thought Laveen stood for and what I felt was being chased out of the now heavily urbanized Tempe and other nearby areas. It's that old school Arizona respect for an independent and somewhat agrarian lifestyle -- like when I was younger and got to watch the sheep being moved from one plot of land near my house to another nearby, or scavenged pecans and oranges from the nearby orchards and played in the open fields (all in Tempe, by the way). I had one friend in high school who lived here in Laveen, and we affectionately joked that he lived out in the boondocks; while at the same time observing the rapid disappearance of the boondocks from our own landscape.

Then, as Catherine and I shopped here for our first home a few years ago, I remember smiling at the site of hand-painted "Goats/Chivas for Sale" signs, "Fresh Eggs for Sale," and the periodic stray livestock or slow-moving tractors that created Laveen's only traffic jams at the time. "This is it!" I thought, and it's so close to South Mountain, the airport, downtown Phoenix, Tempe, Glendale (Catherine's parents lived there), and everywhere else I need to be besides home. As we moved in amongst the flood of other new subdivision dwellers, however, I saw that this area too was being threatened by haphazard urbanization and abandonment of a cultural legacy. And if you scroll through some of my past posts on this blog, you will see that I reacted by jumping in headfirst to the "Preserve Laveen Village" campaign to oppose higher density rezoning. If we allowed intensification in other areas of our village, then how could we maintain the assumption of a yet-to-be-constructed village core? And how would we actively preserve the existence of our beloved mom-and-pop farm businesses while simultaneously preserving their rights to cash in on their property values like the rest of us?

This especially hit home a few months ago, when I approached the owners of a prize-winning dairy cow at the AZ State Fair to find out where in Laveen they called home -- 27th Ave and Dobbins, by the way. But just as I thought I was about to find a local dairy where I could buy fresh milk, they crushed my dreams by reminding me that there was none, at least not any longer. The problem, as they very obviously stated, is that the land here was too valuable for its development potential, and so the farmers couldn't help but to gradually sell it off. My utopian dreams were crushed momentarily because, at the same time, I noticed that I could no longer locate the home of the fresh eggs, and my chances of finding truly local food were falling apart along with that elusive agrarian lifestyle.

But I thought that the village concept would protect us from this type of degradation! What about all those old-timers who should be concerned about preserving their customs, and could thus keep Laveen rooted in its legacy as a farming community? Did they all give up and sell out? But what happens when they can no longer ride their horses in peace because of the increased traffic? What about the rising noise pollution, litter, and fading nighttime views of the Milky Way? How about maintaining familiarity with one's neighbors? Surely, we wouldn't all be so complicit in eroding these charming features of our community.

But in defense of our community and its longtime residents, I can proudly point out that our/their laziness hasn't been the cause of all this conflict between old and new. Rather, it's been the continued failure of the City of Phoenix to respect its urban village concept and the fact that we tend to know what we're doing when we express concern about the development of our community. We're preserving what we the residents want, even if it doesn't necessarily jive with the hopes of a speculative land developer recognizing a potential opportunity. The unfortunate fact is that part of that opportunity lies in the expectation that our city government is completely spineless when it comes to preserving our general plan, and our staff/council have repeatedly acted against the residents of our village. Whenever we call their lack of support into question, we're essentially reminded that we need to take one for the team. This is uninspiring to say the least.....

But behold, the times they are a-changing. With such a disastrous real estate and development market right now, we won't likely see many more rezoning requests in the near future. So, for better or for worse, at least we can hang onto what's left of Laveen's general plan and expect that it remain intact for the time being. In effect, we can now take back our village because the real estate market doesn't appear to want it anymore.

I'm not just trying to make the best out of a bad situation or look at the silver lining. Instead, I want everyone else to see what a real opportunity this market has created for Laveen, even if it means that we must think outside of the box. That box, by the way, has somehow always packaged real estate as the only possible opportunity, which is a sad outlook for those of us who still respect a more industrious ethic to pure speculation. Real estate will still be there -- just relegated to its rightful place as a longer term type of business strategy. But we need action now, and we're all capable of helping.

Here are a few ideas for how we can do this together but individually:

First, get involved. Pay attention to your community and become concerned about it. After all, most Laveen residents are homeowners who won't likely move anytime soon due to the housing market's woes. So since you're here, make the best of it.

Second, go out and enjoy your life, close to home. Use the hiking trails, bike paths, parks, library, golf courses, etc. Go to the upcoming BBQ and other local events. I just checked the latest BLS data, and it says you have some extra time anyhow. So use it to rediscover your humanity, for heavens sake. I bet you'll be surprised to find something new if you try.

Third, shop here. I don't care if you hate Wal-Mart -- me too. So I'm not suggesting that you opt to support an international chain just because it has an outpost here. But please do forgo that convenient stop near the office if the same option is available near home. Now that we have these businesses, it's important that we keep them here. The alternative is an abandoned shopping center covered with graffiti and other vandalism.

Fourth, let's get the plows back in the ground, dairy farms working harder, and everyone else with a marketable skill into their own home-grown businesses wherever appropriate. The first three steps here were remarkably simple, so I expect a little support for my idealism on this one. If we all work together and follow our goals, we can make it happen. It'll just take some time and cooperative support.

Fifth, we need a plan. While planning usually comes first, it helps if we have the right mindset and behaviors in place as we begin the planning process and move toward execution. Remember how I pointed out that we can enjoy a little reprieve from rezoning battles and other such outside influences? Well, now we can put it to good use by strategizing and justifying our desire to maintain our cultural heritage as a community. It will make things easier in the future and preserve Laveen's "brand" image and character; not to mention I'm one of those sentimental types who believe in posterity, and I expect the same from others.

Now, let's do something positive for our future!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Local Businesses in Laveen?

YES, PLEASE! Now is the time for Laveen to go after local businesses, given the increasing retail vacancy rate and the ever-present demand for local options still lacking here. Anyone who has heard me rant about the state of retail in Laveen knows that I'm also working to do something about this -- even if it seems discouraging at times. As discussed on my other blog entry, "Time for Local Businesses Is Now," the LAHOA Retail Committee is trying to work with the Laveen/SoMo Chamber and local retail developers to encourage local business growth. This means we need to help people navigate the whole process of starting a new business, including their SBA loan applications and their lease for shop space. As I've always believed; with work, we will succeed (eventually). Please read my other blog and tell me what you think.