Sunday, December 1, 2013

Laveen 2.1, Part I: Density

I wrote a post a few weeks ago that I knew would be contentious, but did not anticipate the level of divisiveness that it fueled. It was titled "Laveen's Delicate State of Housing, Density, and Growth". What's so delicate, you might ask? Well, aside from the obvious point that we are still in the midst of the housing recovery (and it has slowed drastically in recent months), there are many issues in which I see Laveen precariously divided and without a properly up-to-date strategy going forward.

This division became clearer in watching the videos from the October 30th city council meeting (here and here), at which many Laveen residents spoke both in favor of and against Butler Housing's plan for a slightly denser housing development at 43rd and Baseline (and yes that's me, very dressed down for a formal meeting, but it was a rather stressful day of going back and forth from the hospital and other commitments). So let's look at some of these issues as discussed and/or alluded to in the last few months and explore how they might hint at a shift not only from Laveen 1.0 (low-density, agricultural) to Laveen 2.0 (more suburban, with mostly low- to medium-density tract housing and neighborhood retail), but now to Laveen 2.1, which I think is a fitting name for the revised plan that we should envision after having experienced a full cycle in the housing market over the last decade.

This will be a brief series, starting with density and then exploring traffic, real estate values, and Laveen's overall "feel" -- all of which are recurring topics of discussion both here and in general. So here goes:


I get it, some folks don't like density. I once was on your side -- remember, I supported the legal battle against Berkana. I also fought the apartments planned for 35th Ave. and Southern. The memory of these past battles made me want to look back and reflect on what has changed since then, either about Laveen or my perspective. Here's a blog post that I wrote five years ago about the fight against apartments near Wal-Mart, which I'm glad I found. To this day I am concerned about the quality of development that we will see on that site if it ever gets developed. The high density only helps to facilitate and contribute to low-quality development at such a location in my opinion (although I suppose there's a chance that it could become affordable senior housing, which is pretty inoffensive and a popular, much needed multifamily product at present, as discussed in my last post). This is a separate issue from the site at 43rd and Baseline, largely due to the difference in surrounding amenities.

As was discussed quite vehemently by those opposed to the marijuana dispensary approved for 35th and Southern, Wal-Mart has brought something of a "bad element" to the community and we should be concerned about exacerbating this problem. Since then, the much celebrated C-A-L Ranch Store and others have decided to locate at the same intersection, which I see as positive for the area. I still, however, scratch my head in wonderment about how and why we pushed density toward that intersection. Without digressing too much on this particular example, let's bring it back around by saying that it's now there and it has most certainly changed things. I see the increased traffic to the area as a positive in the overall goal of crowding out the bad with the good -- essentially my overarching theory for promoting positive developments, which once again reflects MLK's famous quote:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
This brings me back to the overall tone of our discussion on density. Not only has my perspective on appropriate placement and levels of density evolved; not only has the execution of Laveen's overall plan evolved; but there was something else that made me want to jump into the fray on this issue. It was that I picked up on a darker, more insidious element to the anti-density argument. The Laveen faction that most opposed the density on this site seemed to most prominently feature the voices of those who bought larger homes on larger lots in newer subdivisions. These homes are now, for all intents and purposes, regarded as "low density" (although many folks who live on Laveen's rare remaining acreage in the area might call it something more of a "compromise"). In their arguments against density, I detected this precariously qualified notion that they don't hate all density, but they certainly hate it to south of Baseline if a project wasn't previously zoned for higher density. This realization made me question what was so inherently bad about density -- particularly in this location, near where I once bought my own home on a 5,500 square foot lot. Were they blaming homebuyers like me for Laveen's growth-related challenges, while escaping blame themselves? I cannot find a justification for this line of reasoning in the city's most recent annual heat maps of criminal activity, nor could I find justification in analyzing rental rates in newer subdivisions and I made this case in my previous blog post. Therefore, I could not bring myself to oppose the density on these bases or any others.

Urban Village of Laveen

This discussion is incomplete without a reexamination of the overarching paradigm of the Urban Village concept adopted by Phoenix during the heyday of the New Urbanism movement. So too must we reexamine our naively wide-eyed vision for New Urbanism, as well as the specific implementation we envisioned, way back during Laveen 2.0's formative years.... like this blog post that I wrote in 2009, which now seems like an eternity ago. Granted, the housing market and the stock market had already crashed by then, but I was still optimistic about the framework we had created in Laveen and other such enclaves of newly planned growth. Re-reading that post was fascinating to me, and I feel that I owe my audience a little insight into my perspective. Here are some places that I'd visited and studied in recent years prior, as at least somewhat analogous templates (even if wildly inappropriate as direct analogs) for our visions of planned growth:
There were many more, too numerous to list, as well as the trend toward "Traditional Neighborhood Development" that took root in these places and others -- especially suburban growth areas that feature quaint walkable town centers (or even neighborhoods that offer a neat mix of uses). For a great regional example of a truly traditional neighborhood, I'd offer downtown Prescott, AZ, which is often held up as exemplary urban design. However, I can't help but note that downtown Prescott developed largely organically, on its own, in a very different time before the days of zoning and it started with density at the town center (newer growth in Prescott is an abomination to the city's original charm, IMO). Conversely, all of those above named places feature some sort of justifiably powerful centralized planning control (not to mention a great deal of economic resources), which allowed the artificial co-development of high density and low density for their own manifest destinies.

Guess what Laveen lacks: centralized control and clarity of vision. Not only must Laveen struggle with the modern execution of Phoenix's urban village concept, but we tend to erode the legitimacy of Laveen 2.0 with each inappropriate compromise that we allow and each smart compromise that we block (like our Wal-Mart apartments versus smarter SFR layouts near quality amenities). In every such controversy over compromise, we find this vocal minority talking about the prescribed density that we can live with -- density at the future village core, to be located between Baseline and Dobbins along 59th Ave. (see 2002 general plan here). Remember that this is the same density that was shoved down Laveen 1.0's throat a decade before most of our development started.

I'll go into Laveen's overall "feel" in another post, but end this one on a note that the above argument is misguided, possibly even spurious, based in part on our perception of what Laveen is and can be. The anti-density crowd holds onto its false belief that Laveen 2.0 remains "rural", while also rejecting the apparent truth that people tend to move to Laveen seeking housing value. To take it a step further, one of the parties fighting new density in Laveen cited a bit of smart-sounding research about current trends toward higher density mixed-use development (see here, here, and here), but falsely rejected that it matters to Laveen. Note that millenials and aging baby boomers are largely credited with leading these shifts away from the typically suburban toward more urban neighborhoods. When I ran an analysis of Laveen's demographics and community "tapestry" on, I confirmed that our population has experienced a sea change from "Green Acres" (Laveen 1.0) to "Up and Coming Families" (Laveen 2.0), with additional changes anticipated for the years since the 2010 census information was cited. Laveen does, after all, offer the closest swath of new housing to downtown and the airport, which differentiates the area from other such suburban locales in our metro housing market.

Moving forward, I find it increasingly difficult to toe the line on our expectations for a glorious village center that only makes sense once our embattled Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway gets formal approval. If we seek to preserve that plan, then I propose that we hold firmly against low-density suburban development in the target area, which hasn't been an issue (yet). But to oppose good density elsewhere looks foolish and backwards, especially when Laveen 2.0 is but one interpretation of an ideal balance between high and low density, and it's long overdue for an update. We can and should do better than our already corrupted Laveen 2.0 plan as we move forward, and one such way that we can do that is to squeeze increased density and positive flow closer to fun open spaces as a means to amplify that very benefit that we all agree is most critical to Laveen -- open space. Here's a wonderful article that might just blow your mind if you opposed the project at 43rd and Baseline: "Using urban density to support parks, and vice versa".

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