Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Laveen-SoMo, Motor City?

It's been a while, but I'd like to revisit and expand on my last post about the now closed Manzanita Speedway on Broadway Road and 35th Avenue. That one was inspired by my contribution to the PlanPHX collaborative brainstorming website, as well as pent up frustration from years of hearing about and reviewing plans to "redevelop" Broadway Rd. I'm for beautification as much as the next guy, but it occurred to me that this big idea from the city was borne almost entirely out of plans for a traffic reliever corridor, with the added benefit of some speculative land development along the way. So let's call into questions some of the broader assumptions we've made thus far about such ideas -- seems like fair game at this point -- and I promise to bring it back to Manzy's old home stretch of Broadway Road in the end.

"If we zone it, they will come!"

While we've all been quite patient in awaiting desirable development in the Laveen area over the years, it's becoming more and more imperative that the city gain a better appreciation for the affected community and overall financial/development markets when pushing these "big idea" redevelopment plans. We keep falling into a 2005 real estate boom mindset when it comes to development and, while it may work enough of the time overall, who wants to wait through a decade or two of ugliness and empty promises in hopes of a better community? My bold assertion about this idea's fallacy is that it can only bring us a more boring suburban bedroom community with a whole lot of empty dirt lots that may or may not have cotton/alfalfa planted on them. Flip a coin, hope, pray -- it's all we can really do for the most part, as we take pleasure in the few fun ideas that may be allowed to pop up along the way.

"Let development take shape organically"

There's an equally sound argument that works much of the time, but likewise assumes that certain conditions are already met. The notion that we can take a more passive approach to economic development by simply enabling those who want to bring new ideas to the area works really well in adaptive reuse situations where the community is highly vested. We see it now along the light rail line, and have a great proof of concept in the downtown area -- particularly along Roosevelt (some may remember when the city proposed clearing the entire area for more sports venues -- thank goodness we didn't!). In Laveen, I'd argue that this is partly the kind of thinking we need in filling our vacant retail spaces and as a means to more creatively re-envision opportunities for something more interesting than the subdivision-meets-strip-mall scenery that we've mostly seen pop up in the last decade. However, if you scroll through this blog or take a survey on public sentiment, I don't imagine you'll get the sense that a Houston-like no zoning model would meet the community's interest very well on a widespread basis here.

A better alternative: the "integrated economic development" approach

If you google the above phrase, you'll likely find scholarly articles about promoting economic development in struggling third world locales. That's because the folks who have studied such ideas from a holistic viewpoint recognize that a scorched earth model of redevelopment doesn't work in helping communities build themselves up. It may work great for slapping a five-star resort on top of an impoverished area and then building walls around it, but not if you recognize an intrinsic value in the people and the community targeted for development/redevelopment. Instead of replacing everything in sight, let's focus on the infrastructure and guided assistance to improve upon whatever positive attributes are already present -- one iteration of this idea that I've seen both poorly and brilliantly applied in economic development circles is "cluster development" (see San Diego bioscience cluster, for a good example). Doesn't this seem more fitting of the Laveen and SoMo area? It does if you take a moment to appreciate what we already have here.

"One man's blight is another man's playground"

So, now we return to Broadway Rd. If you have generally avoided it, as I know many have, please do yourself a favor and take a little cruise next weekend to see what's there. If you see either "junk yards" or "brilliant green recycling businesses", you've probably made a value-based judgment. Let's try not to go there and instead focus on a common denominator. I see money -- and believe me, others do too. I may be a real estate guy, but I'm not looking at how we can get rid of all that industrial "junk" in hopes of redefining the "highest and best use" for the area. That's because I see economic activity, a crucial component of which is the "activity" part. I also see a lot of land owners and business operators who have been around for a long time and have a great basis in their land -- not to mention all those potentially valuable assets that appear to sit there rusting away (but believe it or not, some of those lumps of metal actually change hands from time to time).

Instead of asking how we can successfully move everything to a different area of town or different city altogether (where someone else's vision is executed), why aren't we asking how we can facilitate their success in moving merchandise within our city limits, meanwhile improving the aesthetics and streetscape in the area? Why not go for the win-win, which may seem like a lot more work from a concept design standpoint but would be infinitely more valuable and less expensive to the city overall. If you saw the Broadway Road plans from the city's streets department last year (or was it 2011?), you may recognize that we haven't really been asking these questions -- the proposed landscaped island and high crowning/slope of the street are unacceptable to heavy trucks in the area, for instance. To the city's credit, these points were heard at the LVPC meeting a while back and we were told that city staff would revisit the plans.

But there's more that we can do. This ought to constitute its own visioning project, and the city should call in the business/property owners in the immediate area as the primary group, while seeking broader community input on aesthetics. All that most people want without thinking too much about it is for things to look nice and be more convenient/harmonious. We can certainly address these criteria, while at the same time unlocking a phenomenal economic development opportunity in the process that benefits all. Better yet, we can do it on the cheap if we all put our heads together -- after all, I can't imagine a more resourceful and industrious area nearby than the Broadway Road corridor.

Our Vision and Our Goal

If we really work to build community support and put the full power of the city behind this idea, great things can happen. We can tap into far more of the wealth that changes hands each year at Barrett-Jackson and the other big car shows (this should be a record setting year, btw, according to the Phoenix Biz Journal -- read it here). Sellers are already buying parts in our corner of town after all, so why don't we push them to start doing more of the work and spending more time/money here as well? Likewise, why don't we have some of these U-Fix-It business concepts that appeal to many classic car enthusiasts (code for recently retired guys or busy professionals with disposable income who prefer to outsource the heavy equipment but want to keep the nice car at home) -- a great idea that I wish was mine, presently serving the north Phoenix area. And while we're at it, how about making up for missed opportunities to attract national companies already doing business in the area, like the "totally awesome" Local Motors (see video, above) or that hybrid/electric vehicle battery maker we heard about a while back (battery makers may like our harsh climate for testing purposes), not to mention all those automotive testing grounds scattered around the region. There's plenty of room for the old and the new on the south side of town, especially in light of the forthcoming Del Rio Brownfield redevelopment, which could anchor the automotive focus of the area. For added community support, might I suggest our two great engineering schools at UA and ASU, our various private technical schools and programs at community colleges, and the "Maker" community (look it up -- very cool stuff). And if we're looking for an economic cluster, mechanical design/servicing makes sense in the area, where we also have several aerospace component companies to the east. So, who's with me? You're welcome, City of Phoenix. I may not have cited all my resources, but I think I just offered the outline for a compelling powerpoint presentation if nothing else.

Who wants to help push city staff to get to work on this? If you hate the idea, please tell me why and offer constructive criticism. We need to start taking action, even if it's just to get our voices heard, and we need to get to it sooner rather than later. We also need executable ideas if we're going to successfully push the city to invest its energy in our community as we see fit. That's all I'm trying to do here, other than please my inner child by preserving a wide swath of land where we can make cool stuff.