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How Growth Is Changing Phoenix Neighborhoods

Phoenix leaders like to promote the city being the fastest growing in the country. But growth isn’t necessarily a good thing in the eyes of some residents.

Citywide Concern

It’s a story playing out across the 518 square miles that make up Phoenix. In September, it brought residents from north of Deer Valley 35 miles south to a City Council meeting downtown to protest a developer’s rezoning request to build more houses.

“This is a piece of rural America in a corner of Phoenix,” one man said.

“We’re not asking for the moon,” a woman said. “Just keep the zoning, OK? And they should be required to follow the same rules as us, and I’m sorry I’m getting emotional because, doggone it, it’s my home.”

It was a sentiment echoed 10 miles away in southwest Phoenix during September’s meeting of the Laveen Village Planning Committee.

“I understand from the development point it’s all about the money,” said Phil Hertel. “They want to jam as many lots in as they can, but it’s our community and we’re going to live here after they’re gone and we want something we’re going to be proud of.”

It was a frustration expressed in the city core in March when some residents lost their battle against a high-rise condo project at 7th Street and Thomas Road.

“It’s going to have a negative impact on my neighborhood,” a man told council members. “It’s going to surround my neighborhood with towers.”

It was a view shared in other established neighborhoods like 11th and Maryland avenues where a developer wanted to build three-story houses on a parcel that’s been home to one single story house and several horses.

“It really does not fit in that area as far as the character,” said Linda Colino.

Who Speaks for Residents?

Colino speaks a special language. She often finds herself translating city codes and interpreting developer speak for confused neighbors. I met with Colino to talk about the city’s planning and development process along with her friend Pam Fitzgerald.

“Somebody has got to represent the neighborhoods and the people,” Fitzgerald said.

She sits on the Alhambra Village Planning Committee. Phoenix divides its 518 square miles into 15 urban villages. Each village has a planning committee with members appointed by the mayor and council. The committees review zoning cases. They don’t get to approve or veto a developer’s proposal, but they can request changes and make recommendations to the city’s planning commission. The commission then makes recommendations to the City Council which has the final say. 

“Somebody has got to represent the neighborhoods and the people.” — Pam Fitzgerald

“I always listen to the people way above the developers,” Fitzgerald said. “Because I don’t have an innate trust in the developers because they have come back to us after we give them an okay for this and then they come back to us and they want more and then they want more and it’s like, you know, buy a piece of property that is zoned correctly. You don’t have this expense and this fight and you don’t have to make neighborhoods have something that they don’t want.”

When it comes to how many houses, town homes, condos or apartments a developer can build, the city relies on gross acreage. That acreage includes not only the land where housing units will be built but also streets. (See city explanation below.)

There’s also something known as ‘bonus points’. They allow developers to build more units than the zoning dictates. Points are awarded for different things — for example, building near the light rail line where the city is promoting density or building a gated community and adding green space.

Linda Colino said bonus points are unneeded because the marketplace already dictates what developers need to do to attract customers.

“Everybody gets them so why have them?" she said. "It’s supposed to be some incentive but what kind of incentive if everybody gets the same thing? It’s like getting a trophy for just being there.”

“I think a lot of people don’t realize that often we have stopped a proposal,” said Debra Stark.

As a City Council member, Stark votes on development projects. Before being elected, she served as Planning Manager for Maricopa County, Community Development Director for Peoria and Planning and Development Director for Phoenix.

“I think a lot of people say you know what it’s a done deal, a developer comes in, they get to do what they want to do, but so many times in my career I’ve told developers walk away it’s just not going to happen and they do because they don’t want to waste their time which equates to money,” she said.

Laveen’s Lesson

Development is like a sewer pipe,” Phil Hertel, a Laveen resident said, “You get out of it what you put in.”

Hertel said his community learned the hard way. Years ago, he served on the Laveen Village Planning Committeewhen developers started eyeing open land and talking about a future freeway. In late December, the 22-mile Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway is scheduled to open. It will connect the East and West valleys through southwest Phoenix.

“Looking back now I can see that we gave too much away,” he said. “We were learning as we went.”

“Looking back now I can see that we gave too much away. We were learning as we went." — Phil Hertel

Along Dobbins Road near 35th Avenue, horses and cows meander through green grass. Across the street a sea of red tiled roofs dot the horizon, courtesy tract housing. When Hertel moved to Laveen in 1988, whirring helicopter blades meant someone was dusting crops. Today, he says, it means police are looking for a suspect.

Developers keep waving cash at people who own farm land. I talked to one man who didn’t want to be identified because he was in the process of selling and didn’t want to jeopardize the deal. In 1968, he said he paid $4,000 an acre. A developer offered him $135,000 an acre which would net a profit of more than $10 million.

“We can’t stop the development,” Hertel said. “What we have to do is work very hard to make it as nice as we can possibly make it.”

He helped form Laveen Citizens for Respo nsible Development.  Unlike village planning committees, his group is not organized by the city and, he said, that allows him to speak more freely than others.

“It’s my opinion that for the most part the city would rather just rubber-stamp this stuff, be done and move on down the road and go to the next thing,” he said.

Hertel is proud of what he described as a unique condition the Laveen Village Planning Committee includes in development agreements. If a developer wants or needs to change a stipulation after a project has received council approval, the developer must make its case before a planning hearing officer to gain approval.

What Needs To Change?

Several residents I talked to repeated Linda Colino’s desire to be invited into the process earlier.

“It should be a part of the city planner’s duties is to not only work with the developer but to work with the neighborhood,” she said.

Colino would like to see neighborhood groups notified upfront and kept informed along the way. But Councilwoman Debra Stark doesn’t think it’s necessary.

“I think that’s the responsibility of the developer,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because they’re the one asking for the rezoning,” Stark said.

“But the city represents the neighbors, right? It’s the neighborhood, right?” I asked.

“They represent the neighborhood, they also represent the developer. That’s the applicant,” Stark said. “They’re working with the applicant, the person who’s spending the money that’s going through the process.”

She pointed out the city requires developers to hold neighborhood meetings in certain cases. Plus, she said most city planners already alert active neighborhood group. Overall, Stark thinks the process is inclusive but admits the city could do more to educate residents about organizing neighborhood groups.

When an area forms a block watch, homeowners’ association or other group, it can register with the city and receive notices on different issues, including rezoning requests. On that topic, Linda Colino and Pam Fitzgerald agree. Both are active in neighborhood groups and say more people need to show up.

“It falls not only on the city, it falls on the residents.” Colino said. “The residents have become complacent.”

“Thank you, great word," Fitzgerald said.

“Very complacent,” Colino said.

It’s the opposite in Colorado where a school teacher filed a petition asking voters to cap growth in Lakewood, the state’s 5th largest city. In July 2019, voters limited new residential construction in Lakewoodand next year, voters across Colorado could decide whether to cap growth statewide. No ballot measures to limit growth have been filed in Phoenix, but there will likely be more city council meetings filled with frustration. 

Population And Housing Numbers

According to the American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, Phoenix’s population was 1,449,481 in 2010. In 2018, the city’s population was 1,660,272. The increase totaled 210,791. The number does not distinguish between existing households that added people and people who moved to Phoenix.

The annual survey also includes housing units. It found Phoenix had 601,370 units in 2010 and 627,844 in 2018. Over the same time period, units increased 26,474. The Census Bureau defines housing unit as “a house, apartment, group of rooms, or single room occupied or intended for occupancy as separate living quarters” and includes occupied and vacant units.

Other numbers to consider involve homeowners who are at least 60-years old. As baby boomers get older and downsize or die, their homes will become available. Real estate database Zillow says by 2037, metro Phoenix is expected to see 28 percent of owner-occupied homes vacated. In El Mirage and Sun City, Zillow estimates as many as 65 percent of owner-occupied homes will hit the market.

Why do developers get to include streets in gross acreage to determine density?

“Gross acreage is permitted because state law allows for the government to require land to be given to the public for free road and other public purpose. Since the government doesn’t pay for the right-of-way land, the use of the remaining land is allowed to be based upon the larger gross areas.

All developers are able to include the streets as part of their gross density. Since the City requires the dedication of the streets, it wouldn’t be fair or appropriate to then reduce the permitted density by NOT counting the area they have to dedicate for streets.

As far as a developer that is dealing with the streets already in place, they too are able to count the streets in their gross density. State law requires regulations to be enforced uniformly so the same applies to the new developments and the ones in areas where streets are established.”

— Angie Holdsworth, spokesperson, Phoenix Planning and Development Department

As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.