Although the challenges of creative reuse of land and buildings are often written about as being the purview of the East, we in the West share the same interest and goal — rethinking our cities to ensure that those that grew in the 20th Century are sustainable in the 21st. Like those in the East and Midwest, we are thinking about using vacant property in a manner that reflects the ever-more-similar desires of the increasing number of people who are flocking to cities for the cultural, employment and quality-of-life opportunities they offer.
At the same time, our city, like many in the Western states, is different. While the vacant land in our cities is plentiful – mostly as a result of our unique growth patterns rather than abandonment – the City also has very few arrows in our quiver to incentivize land development. Unlike many states, where public utilization of land is encouraged, Arizona laws impose strict limitations on government’s ability to appropriate and redevelop land. And unlike all but one other state, Arizona has no Tax Increment Financing (TIF).
What this means for those of us who recognize the need for change is addressing land issues in a manner that fully engages and utilizes the resources of the private sector in smart ways that gain the private resources and popular support necessary to get the job done.
With those realities in mind, last November we launched PHXRenews, the city’s most aggressive and visionary redevelopment plan to date.
Our first endeavor centers on reclaiming a privately owned, 15-acre parcel of land that had been vacant for 20 years. Because the land is centrally located on a light rail transit line, down the street from three high schools, and at the corner of a major intersection, the property had long been a concern to the community. These same characteristics — centrality and visibility — also make its transformation such a great and important opportunity.
Here, in partnership with a variety of local institutions, we are experimenting with a variety of low-cost, high impact activities that build on local resources and demonstrate the creative intermediate use of land to enhance the urban experience.
Our first partners were the City Council, which recently updated our ordinances to allow by right the creative use of vacant land in our downtown area and the Barron Collier Companies, the owners of the land, which generously agreed to license the use of the property on a pro-bono basis for use while it awaits the potential for development. The second partner was Keep Phoenix Beautiful, the stellar local organization that is actually responsible for executing and managing the endeavor. Our third partners were the amazing array of institutions that came together to provide “programming” for the site.
When the work is complete, the parcel will be a center of art, cultural and community activity and engagement. The land will be identified and graced by 1,240 linear feet of community-developed art. Within its bounds will be a host of complementary activities. The International Rescue Committee and The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Office are sponsoring community gardens providing space for refugee farmers to grow food and develop a viable business model and allowing for the scientific examination of best practices for urban gardening/farming. PetSmart is creating a “pet engagement center” expanding our thinking beyond the notion of the usual “pet park.” The City Public Works Department will use the parcel as a showcase for how we are rethinking waste and recycling; and Gompers Habilitation and Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center are partnering here to provide opportunity for life and vocational skills development for clients with developmental and autistic needs.
We see this site not as a one-time endeavor, but as the first of many such sites that can be transformed throughout the city and as a part of a spirit of renewal in Phoenix that is evidenced by others, such as the universities that are reclaiming underused downtown buildings for their expansion. While we hope to broaden this experiment to other sites along our light rail corridors and throughout the city, it is my hope that our experiences will be able to provide a creative and flexible platform that can be used to iteratively innovate upon.
Simply putting a “thing” in a vacant space doesn’t fully hit the mark. A space that isn’t activated or ever used, I would argue, is still vacant. Rather, the use of vacant land should layer opportunities to have greater impact. We want to link and embed economic development, community gathering opportunities, arts and culture and other elements to truly activate space. This is the 21st Century City.