Thursday, July 14, 2011

Thoughts about South Phoenix

A friend of mine from east of 27th Avenue (local leader Victor Jett Contreras) recently asked on Facebook that I contribute to this questionnaire from Fronteras' Public Insight Desk, regarding South Phoenix. The working title of the piece is "Has South Phoenix Been Forgotten?" As a Laveen resident, I certainly haven't forgotten about South Phoenix. Aside from the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway, I think South Phoenix holds some of the most important opportunity for Laveen's future well being. Not to mention, South Phoenix possesses many of the same characteristics that make Laveen wonderful, with a few variations.

Inextricably tied in many ways throughout history, our two parts of town may be slightly different, but they are best served together, like Phoenix's own Wallace and Ladmo (if you grew up here, you remember those guys). Just as the rest of South Phoenix will benefit from the big box commercial growth, new hospital, and other amenities planned for Laveen, this is only half the battle in making our community better going forward. We also rely strongly on continued growth and development opportunities in South Phoenix, such as a light rail link along Central Avenue and the re-emergence of a historic main drag along South Central. Likewise, we benefit from enhancements to the Baseline Road corridor and South Phoenix's increasing share of unique bars, restaurants, and other infill amenities. So without further ado, here are my thoughts (please click the link above to share your own):

How does South Phoenix fit into the city as a whole?
South Phoenix provides a vital link between various communities within the city of Phoenix and its surroundings, as well as having a rich heritage of its own to lend to the city's overall character. As a community, South Phoenix is nestled between the re-emerging downtown area to the north, the nation's largest municipal park at South Mountain to the south, new growth in Laveen to the west, and the vibrant college town of Tempe to the east. South Phoenix is home to some of the city's most noted agricultural history with its flower gardens, citrus groves, tree nurseries and other various farming operations. It also boasts several major populations of unique cultural groups, with a track record of increasing affluence and celebration of the community's diverse qualities.

Do city leaders adequately address the needs of South Phoenix?
South Phoenix has faired well enough on its own in recent years, with the help of its two dedicated representatives in Phoenix's city council, Michael Nowakowski and Michael Johnson. Councilman Nowakowski represents District 7, which covers South Phoenix, Laveen, and parts of Estrella Village and downtown Phoenix, which gives him a unique level of insight into the needs of this entire area and how they can be better integrated to accommodate its continued growth. Councilman Johnson represents District 8, which covers the rest of South Phoenix as well as the airport and parts of downtown and eastern Phoenix (north of the airport, up to the Biltmore area). Both districts are incredibly diverse in their composition and needs, which necessitates a careful balancing act from both our city representatives in meeting South Phoenix's needs. This means that our two city council representatives often find themselves at odds with political and economic interests from growing areas of north/northeast and west Phoenix, as well as Ahwatukee. While many of us can understand why a strong central core, including the south side of town, is good for the whole area, South Phoenix often loses the battle for city resources because we are all too often outgunned by the rest of the city. We must also sometimes seek compromise between competing interests from within and between our two dedicated council districts, which works with effective collaboration, but may also weaken our standing against the rest of the city at times.

How has South Phoenix adapted to address its own needs?
South Phoenix boasts a strong sense of community, fortified by its independence and interdependence on the rest of the city. For instance, whenever the rest of our city has failed to specifically address issues important to South Phoenix, we have often seen people willing to step up and take on important advocacy/leadership roles. This trend has grown in recent years, especially as South Phoenix has seen a continued growth in relative affluence and diversity. While others outside South Phoenix often to fail to understand our community, South Phoenix and Laveen residents "get" why the south side is one of the few parts of town still building houses amidst our generation's worst housing crash ever, and why we boast such amazing gems as the James Beard Award-nominated Quiessence at the Farm at South Mountain or the breathtaking Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audobon Center. It's a wonderful part of town and most people here are willing to work to keep it that way.

Is there anything else you'd like to add...
Oh yes. The city has too often overlooked the overall lifestyle and economic benefits that could be realized by bringing updated infrastructure and growth to South Phoenix. A light rail extension along South Central Avenue could reinvigorate a classic historic main drag corridor, with unique retail, dining, and other cultural amenities (or "transit-oriented development" to use a more desirable vocabulary for the city). Not only would this benefit South Phoenix and surrounding communities, but it would enhance the city's tourism and economic development efforts downtown. Part of the reason people choose to visit and relocate to the Phoenix area is our incredibly unique natural beauty, as well as our renowned resorts and restaurants. In past decades, Scottsdale and Paradise Valley have excelled in capturing both, but Phoenix is halfway to becoming unbeatable with our impressive new downtown facilities, our scattered collection of national award-winning restaurants, and our visitor-friendly nature trails at South Mountain and at the Rio Salado Audobon Center. All we need now is improved access and enhancements to the surrounding corridors.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Let's Keep Our Infrastructure Smart

We're all well aware of the proposed Loop 202, right? It is generally regarded as the key to Laveen's future in many ways, and we know that policy makers at the local, state, and federal level hold that key. As we've discussed repeatedly in the past, the freeway is probably the only way we will see our hospital plans come to fruition. It is also the only way to justify the development of any large retail and entertainment centers, such as Laveen Spectrum, or any substantial employers locating in the area. And if we want to get far more pie-in-the-sky in our thinking, how about a major league Spring Training facility in Laveen. This idea seems far-fetched now, but it has been proposed and a freeway can only help make it a reality. In other words, the Loop 202 freeway means huge economic growth for Laveen and Phoenix as a whole.

But there are other ways, too, that we can build Laveen and "they will come." We need continued development of transportation options besides the Loop 202 freeway, such as extended bus service and better surface street flow in heavy traffic corridors, or even better alternatives (hint: look up AZ Route 801 and consider it expanding eastward). We need connectivity for our sidewalks and biking/horseback riding paths, as well as safety in integrating all of the above. We need to build the additional schools we were promised and maintain or improve performance as the Laveen Elementary School District grows. In short, we need to catch up with the urbanization/suburbanization of Laveen to make our village more livable for all our residents.

My family chose the Rogers Ranch area, north of 47th Avenue and Baseline, when we decided to settle in Laveen in 2005. We liked the area for its proximity to the only neighborhood shopping at the time, as well as the proposed Rogers Ranch Elementary School and the LACC green belt network. We selected this neighborhood because we thought it was quite walkable and bike-friendly, and it would be a great place to grow as a family. We had the added benefit of being a comfortable distance from the freeway that would eventually be built a little over a mile west of us and all the amenities it would bring. While we were mostly right about our assumptions, we've had to be very patient over the years.... Sound familiar?

Just yesterday, Councilman Michael Nowakowski announced a major victory for people in Laveen relying on bus service: Thanks in large part to his office, Route 77 on Baseline is finally going to extend west to 75th Avenue, which opens up bus service to thousands of additional Laveen residents. This announcement comes on the heels of a lesser victory in mass transit for our village, which is a park and ride facility planned for the corner of 27th Ave. and Baseline. While many will benefit from this park and ride facility, I completely fail to understand its placement -- it was a "me too" project for our village, which even Valley Metro and Phoenix Transit officials admitted would have been better placed on the empty parcel adjacent to Cesar Chavez Park (coincidentally almost identical in its dimensions to the parcel on 27th). Near the park, an expanded transit facility could have doubled in off-peak hours and weekends as an amenity to the park itself, while also serving the library, school, and helping to promote increased connectivity for existing and future commercial development. But instead we get part of the solution we need and must make do.

Please don't get me wrong. I am always grateful when we see improvements that will directly and indirectly benefit us here, but I still ask that Laveen residents demand more from our leadership. For starters, let's continue to demand more in the way of mass transit access for our neighbors, as well as demanding other community amenities -- even the small stuff, where victories may come easier. Our new skate park? Awesome! But how's that community center coming along, or South Mountain trail access? Sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, and other improved traffic control measures? Yes, thanks for the road expansion and sidewalk now being constructed on Baseline west of 47th, but can we please speed up these projects a little more? Let's provide safe pedestrian crossings at every intersection of our urban trail system and a major road (you'll understand if you've ever tried to cross 51st Ave. at the LACC crossing). Park and ride? Let's make it better -- move it a mile west. Loop 202? All we're asking is for a more galvanized support base from our representatives. Let's get these projects going so that we can realize the benefits sooner rather than later.

To be continued....