(Update: Next meeting on this issue 8/5/19)
The first of July was hot in Midtown Phoenix, and it didn’t get much cooler inside the Willow room of the Phoenix College campus after the sun went down.
That’s where the Encanto Village Planning Committee voted unanimously to continue (delay) a recommendation for a zoning change that would allow a four-story, 402-unit apartment complex at the northwest corner of Central Avenue and Indian School Road.
“I’ll be honest, I am incredibly disappointed with this,” said Committeewoman Rebecca Wininger. “This is one of the premier pieces of land in one of the major transit intersections left on Central (Avenue).”
The Encanto Village Planning Committee is the first of three public hearing boards in the City of Phoenix re-zoning process.
Their unusual move – several said they’d never even heard of “continuing” a recommendation before – was strategic.
It gave Pennsylvania based apartment developer Toll Brothers an opportunity to go back to their drawing board and return next month with something more in line with the Committee’s vision, and the City’s recent approvals for that prominent intersection.
Toll Brothers had petitioned a zoning change from the current C3 – Transit Oriented Development District to a newer Walkable Urban (WU) code designation.
Although apartments are already approved on the site, the current zoning guidelines could make it difficult for developers to compete with today’s market in design and density.
And while no one spoke any objection to transforming 10.4 acres of unused dirt into apartments, Toll Brothers’ renderings and site plan did not seem to dazzle Encanto.
“The way this thing looks, it could be copied and pasted anywhere else in this city,” said Committee Chairman Jake Adams. “Central Avenue is a major arterial through Midtown.”
The Project as Proposed:
A Toll Brothers’ representative confirmed that the highly coveted corner is still in escrow with the previous owner, but stopped short of saying the transaction is dependent upon public approvals.
In the past, the lot had been home to a dairy, and then a warehouse and market for the once-upon-a-time locally prodigious Bayless grocery company.
As proposed in 2019, the site will encompasses three buildings that abut streets on three sides, and rear surface parking that buffers an existing 413-unit apartment complex built in 1999.
Buildings will be separated by single-vehicle ingress and egress passages to Indian School Road and 3rd Avenue.
There is no communal garage, but at least a quarter of the parking would be shaded by vegetation.
There is also street-level space dedicated for unspecified community or commercial use, and public seating and shade along the Central and Indian School frontages.
There was little talk of what inspired Toll Brothers’ actual design, but a representative from Cave Creek-based Biltform Architects highlighted variations in the roof heights, street-front vegetation, enhanced stone facades, shade structures, detached sidewalks, and front porch stoops along the street frontages.
Attorney Taylor Earl of the firm Earl, Curley, and Lagarde represented the developers.
He explained the majority of the project’s required open-space would be directed toward the corner of Indian School and Central, and open for public use.
“We wanted to put it where it would be highly utilized,” Earl said. “We wanted to make a very nice pedestrian experience, not just an amenity for our residents.”
Environmental Contexts, the Past and the Possible:
If constructed, the yet unnamed Toll Brothers apartments would also neighbor a pawn shop, several 1940’s era single-level apartments, and one of Phoenix’s few remaining examples of true mid-century modern architecture: the former Valley National Bank that now houses the architecture firm, Devenney Group.
Though no one discussed the neighboring context in depth, the Encanto committee frequently compared Toll Brothers’ proposal to an ambitiously master-planned, 17-acre multi-use office, retail, hotel, and residential compound recently approved by the City for immediately across Central Avenue.
“There’s nothing to do here,” Adams criticized of Toll Brothers’ programming. “We’re seeing really good projects coming in to this city, but I think this is terrible.”
Although it could be years before any towers spring up for the Rio Salado-esque development approved across Central, Encanto made the desire for activation clear.
“If there was a coffee shop or a bagel shop, it would get utilized,” said Committee Member Steven Procaccini. “To ignore that commercial aspect in this building, especially with what’s going on the opposite corner – I think you guys were looking for a quick buck here – I really just think you’re selling this property short.”
Over 1500 new apartment units have opened, or will open in the next year within a square mile of the proposed site.
Toll Brothers said they plan to build the property and hold it, and believe the market will continue to support apartments in Midtown ranging between $1k and $2.4k per month.
While the City has no jurisdiction to regulate private apartment rates, several Committee members were critical of Toll Brothers’ utilization of the prominent corner.
“There’s no affordable housing, and you’re not giving anyone who is like a school teacher an opportunity to live here,” Procaccini continued. “I think you could accomplish your density goals, and appreciate what the (Walkable Urban) code requires, and do a whole lot more for this community.”
Earl said his clients utilized feedback from several neighborhood meetings that were included in the Re-imagine Phoenix campaign initiated in 2015.
“These (corners) were designed to be in concert together,” Earl told Encanto. “I understand some people want to see more density, but we believe this is balanced.”
As proposed, the Toll Brothers project will top out at about 60 feet, even though the new Walkable Urban Code could allow up to 250 feet as already approved across Central.
“We’ve been waiting for years for this proposal,” Wininger said about the Toll Brothers corner. “I would rather be talking about a height waiver than talking about density.”
Support from One:
Not everyone was turned off by Toll Brothers’ design.
“I may be in the minority,” said Committeewoman G.G. George. “But I happen to like the fact that this is not as high as all of the other (proposed properties) there.”
George is a longtime Encanto resident and outspoken historic preservationist.
She was the only person to voice public support for the project during the July 1 hearing.
“I like the differences because people will have a choice at that corner,” George said. “I like this for Walkable Urban (Code).”
Tamiko Garmen is President of the Carnation Neighborhood Association in which the proposed project sits.
She was one of only two members of the public to speak at the July 1 hearing.
“I am opposed,” was all Garmen said during the public comment portion.
She later told T.M.L. she submitted a letter of opposition to the City, after receiving only one e-mail with correct information about project meetings from the developer.
Though a neighborhood meeting was advertised at the Hilton Garden Inn in April, a later e-mail was sent explaining that the dates and times were incorrect.
Garmen said she had not been contacted personally by the project’s representatives.
“This project is at one of the biggest intersections in the city and it deserves more than 4 stories,” said Margaret Detrich, an Encanto resident who lives just off Central Avenue south of Thomas Road. “We’ve been told that Toll Brothers has a high-rise building in its portfolio, so it would not be out of the realm of possibility for them at this corner.”
Deitrich also submitted a letter of opposition to the City; it can be read in the online case file.
“This is one of the most popular intersections in Midtown,” Detrich continued. “People get off the light rail and go there.”
Earl told Encanto that neighbors had also contacted Toll Brothers to support the project.
“We had people thanking us for not making this project so intense,” he said.
Procaccini asked if it was feasible for future residents to have to wait to make left turns from Indian School Road into the complex.
Earl said specific answers would come from a future traffic study which would be required before construction permits could be issued.
While not unusual to delay expensive studies until later in the development process, the Toll Brothers lot presents several unique challenges.
Central Avenue is limited to only southbound traffic by the light-rail, and Indian School Road suffers heavy volumes during both morning and evening rush hours.
Add to that, Third Avenue transitions from a commercial to a residential semi-arterial in the rear of the proposed project.
Earl pointed out the site plan included no ingress and egress from Central, and only egress to 3rd Avenue, a modification he said came from meetings with neighbors.
“Our original plan had (individual) garages on Third Avenue,” Earl said. “Most of the concerns were about the interchange with 3rd.”
Encanto’s official opinion is non-binding, as is the recommendation of the citywide Phoenix Planning Commission, the next step in the chain of public approvals.
Both boards are comprised of un-elected volunteers who are appointed by City officials to host and review public comments in zoning and development matters.
Although the ultimate decision is up to The Phoenix City Council, approval is highly unlikely given expressed opposition from either of the lower boards.
“In my opinion, they’re not asking us to redesign the building,” reminded George. “They’re asking us to approve the Walkable Urban (zone).”
George may have been trying to remind the Committee that zoning laws were not originally intended to proscribe aesthetics, even though local authorities routinely tie zoning changes to design stipulations.
“This is a zoning request at the end the day,” Earl responded with noticeable care when the Committee was finished commenting. “That said, we would welcome a continuance to go back and take a look.”
George had previously reminded the panel that Toll Brothers had proposed a high rise apartment building over a decade ago at Central and Thomas that has not yet been built.
“I’m not going to say that (a delay) is not going to hurt us,” Earl continued. “Timing is very important, but we would not be opposed to coming back in a month.”
After a few seconds of private discussion with his clients, Earl formally petitioned the Committee to “continue” their recommendation.
“We can’t guarantee at this moment what would be done,” he said. “But we would certainly look at your feedback.”
City Staff explained a continuation would result in the zoning case being placed on the Planning Commission’s “Continuation Agenda,” then sent back to Encanto Committee.
T.M.L. confirmed the proposal will be heard again by the Encanto Village Planning Committee on August 5th at 6 p.m. in the Willow Room of Phoenix College.
Village hearings are open to public observation and comment.
Brian Mori is a Phoenix native, a Carnation Neighborhood resident, a Realtor, a teacher, and investor with a master’s degree in real-estate development. He welcomes factual information, constructive opinions, and collaborative opportunities to help discuss or solve urban challenges. Brian can be reached: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; or by calling 602-575-1170.