Phoenix gets real (Republic editorial)

[Source: Arizona Republic, July 9, 2008] — Want to build a cool project in downtown Phoenix?  Start applying for zoning variances.  You’ll need as many as 18 to carry out an appealing urban, people-friendly plan — even though it is exactly the type of development the city is so eager to attract. 

We have a huge disconnect.  The city zoning code doesn’t distinguish between suburban neighborhoods and the central-city core.  The rules are basically the same for both areas: setbacks, lot coverage, parking requirements, building standards, and on and on.

Phoenix has made enormous strides in energizing downtown, with big-league sports, a growing university, an expanding convention center, new hotel rooms, art galleries, entertainment, and the start of a residential core.  Yet city regulations and policies throw a steady stream of monkey wrenches into the works.  Now Phoenix is finally moving to create a set of planning tools that fits downtown goals instead of subverting them.

Last week, the City Council adopted the Downtown Phoenix Plan.  It’s a follow-up to the Downtown Strategic Vision of 2004.  An overarching theme is the “connected oasis“: a series of attractive public places and pedestrian corridors that link the activity centers downtown.  It’s a way to bring out the character of this hot, arid place while also making it more livable.  The plan is designed to be a bridge to reality.  It lays out the regulations and public projects required to fulfill the vision.  Among the big steps that will take us over the bridge:

  • Adopt a new kind of zoning, a “form-based code.”  The current zoning code — known as “Euclidean,” after a town in a court case — emphasizes separating uses.  Residential, commercial, and industrial developments are kept apart.  At a more detailed level, the focus is on such basics as building height.  A form-based code takes a broader look, considering the relationship between buildings and the public realm, including sidewalks.  Maintaining the character of a neighborhood is important.  Mixed uses and creative reuses of old buildings are allowed, even encouraged.  Pedestrian comfort and safety are emphasized.  The city has been floating a draft form-based code, and many of the elements are in the plan.  The proposals include a process to allow building elements to project into the public right-of-way.  That could allow, for instance, overhangs that shade the sidewalk.  The private sector does this type of holistic planning in creating master-planned communities.  The difference is that Phoenix must work within existing development instead of starting with a clean slate.
  • Figure out creative funding mechanisms.  With a tight city budget and a wobbly economy, it’s a tough time to talk about spending.  But there are critical needs, including green space and shade structures, that will require extra dollars.  The success of downtown hinges on these relatively small investments, and skimping would be foolishly shortsighted.
  • Give us shade, shade, shade.  We’ve had lots of lip service and little action.  While Phoenix has started planting trees along parts of Central Avenue and other streets, the specimens are pretty scrawny.  Structures to provide shade are still so rare that the nearly two-decade-old Arizona Center is still held up as an example.  In one promising move, the city is doing an inventory of shade needs on downtown streets.  For future development, the plan shows how well-designed building heights and placement can shade streets and promote air movement, relieving some of the “urban heat island” effect.
  • Have the city set an example.  Downtown just won’t work if it isn’t a comfortable pedestrian environment, and Phoenix has done a less-than-stellar job on some of the projects it controls.  All city departments must be on the same wavelength about what works and how to maintain it.  No more trimming trees so severely that they provide little shield against the sun.
  • Get local input.  Phoenix has done a lot of outreach so far.  That’s particularly important for the next stage: identifying the characteristics of each neighborhood and then developing the standards to reinforce it.  Good participation in stakeholder meetings is essential.
  • Build the momentum to get things done.  The plan is full of ideas for using materials best suited to our environment, adding green space, offsetting the climate challenges, and reinforcing the downtown identity.  Carrying them out will take long-term commitment, resources, and enthusiasm. Support must come from all sides: government, business, non-profits, interest groups, and the community.

The first test will be getting the new form-based code approved by the end of the year.  The Phoenix downtown plan touches on themes that are vitally important in the rest of the city and in other communities throughout Arizona.  They should watch it carefully, cheer it on, and adopt all the relevant points.  To check out the Phoenix plan, go to

One thought on “Phoenix gets real (Republic editorial)”

  1. Why are we depending on trees for shade? Why are we wasting our time with only natural selections?

    We live in a desert. Is depending on water-sucking, high-maintenance trees really that great of an idea? How long do you think they will last?

    Why not awnings? Downtown Phoenix would be a helluva more attractive if the sun wasn’t ALWAYS blazing overhead.

    Oh, and what in the hell are those structures on the Light Rail stops supposed to be doing? They are slanted slats, effectively NOT blocking rain, wind or sun, but they sure cast an interesting shadow on the ground.

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