Blog Archives

ASU report examines new ideas for Phoenix parks, public landscapes

[Source: Arizona State University] — Flying into Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, you become powerfully aware of a suburban landscape dominated by housing subdivisions, by single-family houses with large yards and private pools.  You will also see, interspersed throughout the vast expanse of residential tracts, a scattering of public parks and preserves.  But what role do these public landscapes play in a city with so many private landscapes, with such abundant opportunities for personalized leisure?

This question is at the center of the latest of Lab Report, an annual journal published by the Phoenix Urban Research Laboratory (PURL), a think tank and research center within the College of Design at Arizona State University.  In a series of articles on projects in the United States and Mexico, leading practitioners and academics argue that postwar cities, like Phoenix, test the relevance of the traditional city park, and would benefit from new approaches in which landscapes are defined not only as places but also as large-scale metropolitan systems…

In “Connected Oasis,” Christiana Moss describes a proposal developed by the architectural firm Studio Ma, working as part of the design team for the Downtown Phoenix Urban Form Project, to create a “green grid” that would interweave through downtown Phoenix a network of linear parks, plazas, and courtyards with the goal of making the streets shady and comfortable year-round.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.  To download a copy of the report, click here.]

Got creativity? Help “spice up” Downtown Phoenix Plan

Let the creative juices flow... or something like that.

Okay, we all know about plans and what happens to many plans (i.e., they just sit on a shelf collecting dust).  Well, the City of Phoenix Planning Department wants to make sure that doesn’t happen to its Downtown Phoenix Plan, adopted by the Phoenix City Council on July 2.

The Plan is a policy document that will provide direction as the City continues work on the Form-Based Code and begins to prepare the detailed Connected Oasis Plan.  As a continuation of the Urban Form Project, Planning Department staff is conducting a series of public meetings in each of the Downtown Character Areas to prepare a detailed character analysis of each area.  That analysis will be used to prepare specific Form-Based Code development standards for each Character Area.  As the draft detailed analysis Character Area Plans are completed, they will be added to the department’s website.

The Plan format has not been finalized and the format may change.  If you have suggestions for the format design, “user-friendliness,” and method of dissemination — let’s get creative people! — pass your ideas along to Dean Brennan, Principal Planner, Phoenix Planning Department, by e-mail or phone at 602-262-4499.

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

Downtown Phoenix may see more shade, parks

Urban Form Project

[Source: Jahna Berry, Arizona Republic, July 2, 2008] — Today, Phoenix is expected to take an important step toward bringing more shade, better-looking buildings and pedestrian-friendly spots to downtown. The City Council will likely approve today a key part of that sweeping effort, which is called the Urban Form project. The final part could go before city leaders at the end of the year. Downtown Phoenix relies on tourism and foot traffic, even during the steamy summer months, so the changes are also an economic issue, city leaders have said. “I think it really is a sea change,” said the city’s planner, Dean Brennan.

“What this… whole process has done is focus a lot of attention on downtown and the important role that the downtown plays in helping to create a sustainable community, helping to create a great community and a great city.”

Phoenix previously agreed to pay $855,000 to a team of consultants who worked on the plan with city planners. Downtown Phoenix Partnership, a business group, contributed $45,000.

Council members will vote today on the first part of the project, the Downtown Plan, which is a vision for future parking, growth and neighborhoods. It includes the Connected Oasis, a blueprint for increasing downtown shade, parks and foot traffic. The second part, an overhaul of downtown zoning rules, will go to the council this winter. If approved, it will simplify the city’s complex zoning code and will help city leaders implement the Downtown Plan’s goals, city officials say.

The proposals impact properties that cover 1,500 acres. The area roughly is bound by Seventh Avenue, Buckeye Road, Seventh Street and McDowell Road.

Downtown Voices statement on ASU College of Nursing design

Frank Dolasinski
Zoning Administrator
City of Phoenix
200 W. Washington St.
Phoenix, AZ 85003

Dear Mr. Dolasinski:

The Downtown Voices Coalition had representation at the variance hearing on January 10 regarding the ASU School of Nursing, ZA-997-07.  However, we did not learn about the hearing, and the variances being requested, until the morning of the meeting.  We are in the process of scheduling a meeting with the architect and ASU regarding some of our concerns.

Because this project was described as the “gateway” to the campus by the architectural team, and is a key component of the campus and informs how it will connect with the rest of downtown, we would like to see some changes to the current request for variances.

As you are aware, the current Urban Form Project, which is steadily making its way through the city approval process, is geared toward making downtown more pedestrian friendly with an emphasis on shade, connectivity, pedestrian-oriented features, and other “green,” sustainable features.  The Urban Form directive is intended to fix some of the design problems that have hurt the walkability of our downtown, some of which have resulted from developers and architects being able to repeatedly vary out of important shade, window and other pedestrian friendly features.

The ZA-997-07 variances being requested are based on current city standards; it’s interesting to note that the city will eventually be requesting more stringent requirements through the Urban Form recommendations (for instance, 60 percent window coverage instead of the currently required 30 percent).

Since this project is publicly funded, and ASU’s stated goal is to promote “green” building practices, we think this building presents an opportunity to set an example, for not only other construction downtown, but to other builders and architects who might be hired for future campus buildings.  The Connected Oasis is an important component of the Urban Form plan, and without adequate shade and shade structures to act as connectors between important destinations, the Connected Oasis concept will be severely compromised.  We would like to see the following in regard to the variances being currently requested:

There should be a major entryway at the corner of Fillmore and 3rd Street, not only creating a gateway to the campus but connectivity to the surrounding non-campus businesses, thoroughfares, and the rest of downtown.  Where the staircase is shown today on the 3rd Street side, the rather hidden entry could create some real security and safety concerns for students.  By locating a major entryway at the corner, you can create a hub of activity that energizes this side of the building and creates the “gateway” ASU states is their goal with this building.  There might also be an opportunity to create a breezeway that connects the interior courtyard with the Fillmore side of the building, helping to break up the mega-block feel of that street face.

We believe the currently required 30 percent window coverage on the 3rd Street face creates an opportunity for the building to be outward looking versus inward looking (and as a matter of fact would prefer to see coverage that reflects the 60 percent the Urban Form is proposing).  The 3rd Street side of the building, without adequate window coverage (or perhaps an inset area for a mural, recessed info boxes, or other visual opportunities) will create a bleak stretch of wall that will add to security concerns. More features along this wall would help to activate the street on this side.  As examples, this could be an opportunity for built-in informational kiosks to help promote downtown events to the student population, or create an opportunity for a mural designed and implemented by ASU fine art majors.  We would like to see these features in addition to the currently required window coverage.

There is not adequate shade along 3rd Street — we would like to see more trees planted along this stretch if indeed the overhang is going to be reduced.  Also, there is no shade at the corner of 3rd and Fillmore.  Because there is a bus stop located at that corner, we would like to see some kind of free standing shade structure for the bus stop area.

Thanks you for your consideration of our concerns before making your determination on these variances.

Best Regards,

Steve Weiss, Chair, Downtown Voices Coalition