City Hall: Planning Commission Commends Apartment Developers, Despite Neighbors’ Objections.

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

By Brian Mori, Publisher and Realtor(R)

Facts and process:

The Phoenix Planning Commission unanimously approved a zoning change last Thursday that would allow a 402-bedroom apartment complex be built at the n.w. corner of Indian School Road and Central Avenue.

The change is likely to be approved in final at next month’s regular City Council meeting.

Toll-Brothers, the national developer, even received compliments by two commissioners for their efforts to adjust their designs.

“I can tell that you added some good value to our community,” said Commissioner Justin Johnson. “I think it’s a testament to working with the neighborhood that they’ve made so many changes to help appease some of the comments made at the Village.”

Their project received heavy public criticism by the Encanto Village Planning Committee in July, and some lingering concerns were enumerated by neighbors Thursday night.

“When they run out of parking at that complex,” said John Cavenaugh, a neighbor about four blocks away, “There’s going to be nowhere to park on my street, where I’ve lived for nearly twenty years.”

The apartment project includes a surface parking lot in its rear, but no communal garage.

In response to objections from neighbors, Toll Brothers and the City agreed to remove individual unit garages from 3rd Avenue, and prohibit drivers from exiting to the north through the residential neighborhood.

Much more of the public negotiations, however, revolved around aesthetics.

“The concern we heard was ‘this doesn’t have a wow factor,” explained project attorney Stephen Earl, of Earl, Curley, and Lagarde. “Now, we have provided that pop and it’s completely different than anything in the area.”

Earl highlighted some of the changes he said came out of negotiations with Encanto, specifically including design elements from the Phoenix Financial Center at Osborn Rd.

“This is an iconic, mid-century modern building,” Earl Said. “That’s exactly what we brought into the achitecture, and we also brought in a lot of verticality.”

Meanwhile, one of Phoenix’s last, remaining examples of true mid-century modern architecture sits right across the street from Toll Brothers’ lot, the former Valley National Bank which is now home to Devenney Architects.

DSC_0426
“Valley National Bank” currently home to Devenney Architects at Indian School & 2nd Ave.

It’s unclear if Devenney’s building was taken into considering in the final renderings.

Unless an appeal of the Commission’s recommendation to change the zoning to the “Walkable Urban Code” is filed by a member of the public by the end of Thursday, the zoning change is almost certain to succeed without further discussion.

If no further formal hearings are held, the final decision will most likely be included on the Consent Agenda for the next Phoenix City Council meeting.

(Read more about Village Planning Committee’s critique in July.)

More Spoke in Opposition than in Favor at Commission Hearing:

Margaret Deitrich lives near McDowell Road just off Central Avenue, about two miles from the proposed project.

“This is such a huge improvement from what we started with,” she told the Commission. “It’s turned out really unique, I think it will work well.”

Deitrich was originally opposed to the five story project because it was not as tall as the zoning actually allows.

She has since changed her mind, stating she understands the developer doesn’t want to go taller.

Carnation neighborhood resident John Cavenaugh said he liked Toll Brothers’ design, but wasn’t happy with more apartments.

“I like growth, I like change, but I want proper City Planning,” Cavenaugh told the Commission. “There has to be a balance between the services and the population who resides there.”

Cavenaugh said he called seven complexes that had been, or were in the process of being built within a one mile radius.

He claimed there’s been 2,199 apartment bedrooms added in the last four years.

“It’s supposed to be retail,” he said of the corner at Indian and Central. “In those four years, we’ve had zero gas stations, zero dry cleaners, no clothing stores, banks, or hair salons, and no grocery stores (have been added).”

Commission Chairman John Glenn chose to respond directly to Cavenuagh.

“I sincerely hope that developments like this would actually discourage more car use because there’s a light-rail station right there,” he said. “I think that was kind of the driving force of Reinvent Phoenix.”

Glenn asked Cavenuagh if he’d participated in the 2015 citywide General Plan campaign.

Cavenuagh said he had not because he was working 70 hours a week as restauratuer.

“I love the light-rail, I think it’s great,” he responded without skipping a beat. “But there’s a tipping point, when I need groceries, where am I going to go?”

Speculation – More Bumps Than Were Acknowledged by Commissioners:

There can be no question that Toll Brothers got the message from the Encanto Planning Committee that they had better demonstrate public support for what they want to build.

Encanto Chairman Jake Adams lives within a half-mile of the site and characterized the project as “terrible” in July, before later approving the project once changes were made.

In the interim, Toll Brothers sent envoys to knock doors and get neighbors to sign form-letters of support.

They submitted over 90, not including favorable letters from two commercial investors who own large properties immediately adjacent to the premier corner in midtown (read more about letters of support).

Although public support is not technically required, it was a smart move on the part of Toll Brothers‘ attorneys after Encanto all but accused them of avoiding their neighbors.

(…not to mention whatever they did or said to get Margaret Deitrich on their side.)

Still, while there were no angry mobs carrying torches and pitch forks Thursday night – not for this project anyway – there was also no support from neighborhood leadership.

Not a single person from the Carnation Neighborhood Association, or any of the homes near which the project sits, showed up to vocalize support.

Sometimes silence speaks more than words.

While Misters Johnson and Glenn of the citywide Commission might interpret the lack of public objection Thursday night as a “success,” others with a bit more familiarity with this specific part of town might wonder why there was so little comment.

“The extent they reached out to me was a door knock with a clip board, saying we’re building this thing, do you support us,” Cavenaugh told the commissioners. “The answer was ‘no’, and they walked off. This is not working with the community.”

Commissioner Johnson’s characterization may reflect Toll Brothers’ eventual efforts to pacify, but his characterization was hardly reflective of the history of this zoning case.

Carnation Neighborhood Association President Tamiko Garmen said as much in her formal opposition.

“(I) was a tad bit frustrated they never reached out to the Association nor any other members,” she wrote in a letter to the City. “Securing signatures in a pre-written letter is not getting actual neighbors’ input nor approval.”

Garmen highlighted some of the changes that did come from discussions with the Village Planners, including the removal of individual unit garages from along 3rd Avenue, and limiting exit traffic from the complex to left turns only (directing drivers to the light at Indian School instead of through the residential neighborhood).

Carnation resident Dave Jenkins elaborated on that concern Thursday night.

“Is there going to be police there every day,” Jenkins asked rhetorically. “Don’t tell me people aren’t going to go right, and cut through this residential neighborhood to Seventh Avenue.”

No Commissioner acknowledged the points made by Cavenaugh and Jenkins, the only people who spoke from the actual neighborhood where the project is to be built.

Toll Brothers stipulated they will work with Planning and Development Department staff once the developer has paid for a traffic impact study of the project.

Publisher’s Opinion: Developers Should Invest Early in Outreach

Whatever the extra costs Toll Brothers’ architects incurred by having to go back to the drawing board on their apartment project (probably nominal in the overall scope), they can’t rightfully blame the public, nor the process.

Toll Brothers might have saved themselves the hassle, and the red cheeks, if they had done a bit more research, returned the right phone calls and e-mails, from the beginning.

T.M.L. knew whom to call, why didn’t they?

Private property owners don’t need their neighbors “approval” to build what they want, but if they want to change the zoning, those affected must be notified and heard.

Historically, zoning was limited to determining appropriate uses of land in certain areas of cities, not the way buildings look, as is an ironic and often hairsplitting negotiation today.

As a matter of pure opinion, T.M.L. preferred the original design for the apartments, the one Toll Brothers came up with themselves, over what impressed “representatives.”

Cave Creek based Biltform Architects provided a design that was symmetrical and stately, without being obtrusive.

It was, in a word, classy.

…even if conventional.

And while T.M.L. appreciates that public involvement resulted in a specific designation for a coffee shop at that corner (something the developers should have thought up themselves), the new design seems little more than an infusion of the eye-catching concepts used for the Muse Luxury Apartments down the road at McDowell.

Perhaps its no coincidence that Toll Brothers’ most vocal proponent, Margaret Deitrich, changed her stance from definitive opposition to definitive support once the Muse-esque themes were introduced into the new design.

Deitrich, a regular at Encanto Village hearings, lives nearby the Muse and has referred to it several times during hearings, specifically her observation that it has not increased traffic in her neighborhood.

Meanwhile, live-work spaces aren’t taking off as people in the City might hope, so who’s to say what Toll Brothers will gain or lose by adding them, at public suggestion?

T.M.L. wonders what we’re going to think of this project in ten years, or even five.

…we hope we will think very highly of it.

After all, Toll Brothers did blend in elements of the Phoenix Financial Plaza – an interesting choice – in their second set of renderings for Indian & Central.

Not that Phoenix Financial Center is the most attractive building in this town, it is unique, and cherished by many.

Despite T.M.L.’s personal preference on architecture, if Toll Brothers apartments are built as proposed they are sure to grab attention.

Meanwhile, if the “real” news media did its job better we’d have a lot more to discussion about design in this town, before developers must bow to public boards.

Perhaps developers should look into investing in such public conversations?

T.M.L. knows a bit about explaining things to the public.

In any event, Encanto Village Planning Committee may have overstepped a bit here, because zoning laws weren’t really intended to hinge on the way things look.

Even if that is what happens in many cases, and is the effective goal of “form-based-zoning-codes” like Walkable Urban, there may have been a Catch-22 from the start.

Arizona law prohibits cities from regulating zoning to the point where it costs private property developers money.

What that means in any given case is a “who-can-tell” question that most everyone wants to keep out of courtrooms.

Publisher’s Opinion – Carnation Resident On-Point with Questions:

Carnation resident John Cavenaugh was really the only person who spoke publicly in this case about anything that legitimately pertains to the police powers of zoning, specifically how the land is used.

“Once that vacant land is gone,” he told the Commission Thursday night. “There’s no where else a grocery store can go.”

It’s too bad the Commission ignored him – they didn’t even thank him for the data he provided – because he spoke some truth about this part of Phoenix, even if unpopular.

Density is great, but Midtown is becoming a very crowded place, fast.

Central and Indian School is a nightmare at rush hour, and on weekends.

T.M.L. asked former Phoenix Mayor and current Congressman Greg Stanton what the City’s plans are for the traffic results from all the new apartments.

“I’m not sure there is a comprehensive plan,” he said, shortly before leaving office.

As much as the City wants to justify the light-rail, especially after the recent campaign to effectively dismantle it, the system simply doesn’t serve the volume of professionals intended.

Unless someone works or goes to school downtown, or is ideologically dedicated to mass-transit, it takes too long to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time.

The Publisher of T.M.L. lived at the Station on Central Apartments for two years (immediately north of the Toll Brothers property) while studying real-estate at the W.P. Carey School of Business.)

Like Mr. Cavenaugh, T.M.L. supports light-rial, but there’s no express train.

Enough said.

More to the point, Toll Brothers did not really seek out input from the immediate neighborhood in any meaningful way, at least not until the Village Planners forced them to do so.

If they had, these questions would have been answered long before City Hall hearings.

While T.M.L. disagreed with the Encanto Village Planning Committee’s initial, surprisingly emotional reaction, we truly respected their frustration, and are happy they made it known publicly.

Development is a balancing act.

Publisher’s Opinion: Good Development is Done with Neighbors, Not to Them:

Property owners shouldn’t have to kiss babies just to build buildings, nor should they have to forfeit what they believe is profitable just to make politicians happy.

But it doesn’t take a genius to see that most Arizona development hearings are more about transparency than they are dictating what actually happens.

It’s not even clear in this case why Toll Brothers needed a zoning change in the first place, as apartments have been entitled by law for that corner for over a decade.

Even after the zoning change is approved for their desired density, Toll Brothers is still going to have to negotiate the finer details with City Staff to get their permits.

A developer who engages with a neighborhood early, and sincerely, reduces embarrassment, if nothing else.

In this particular case, residents in Carnation were given incorrect details about the neighborhood outreach meeting that was first required by law in April.

Those are exactly the people you should want to meet first, not later, after complaints are filed with the City.

When developers treat the public as the enemy, they run the risk of inviting public representatives to intervene, many who don’t really understand real-estate.

Is this the lesson of what happened here?

Simply put: There’s no good reason why Toll Brothers’ most vocal ally, Margaret Deitrich, lives almost two miles away.

“Midtown, Melrose, Central Corridor, Central Phoenix …” no matter how you  describe the neighborhood, you can’t deny its residents pay attention.

Both Central and Seventh Avenues have their own zoning overlays, and not because people who live there don’t care what gets built.

Two years ago the leadership of this key area stood up in a big way to support the conversion of an all-but abandoned gymnasium into a storage facility, even after its developers also got caught trying to circumvent the neighborhood’s involvement.

Later in that same zoning case, the City specifically thanked the developers for working with Melrose, and passed the zoning approvals unanimously.

Did Toll Brothers or their attorneys reflect upon that case before filing a zoning change for Central and Indian School?

Very probably not, because in the end, the Turney Avenue storage project never got off the ground, and those of us who got to know the developers weren’t all that surprised.  (Read more). 

Despite appearing to work with the neighborhood, and getting it past the City, the owners never quite figured out how to communicate with the people who live and work here.

Their private comments (some T.M.L. agreed to hear off-the-record) didn’t match their public face, so who knows what their investors eventually decided about their project.

The only people who can’t be blamed for that failure were the neighbors.

Anyone with a brain for either politics or real estate knows it’s hard to put a price tag on the goodwill of your community, especially after you’ve already insulted them.

There are developers who get this, and those who don’t.

If the market trends hold as we all hope they will, Toll Brothers should do very well on their apartment project.

More power to them!

They’ll bring more people to an area that has many small businesses.

T.M.L. certainly and sincerely wishes them good fortune, because just about anything is better than vacant dirt in the heart of the nation’s 5th largest city.

…except a vacant apartment building, of course.

T.M.L. is no expert in multi-family housing, but we do pay attention: Toll Brothers’ is coming to the table pretty late into the central Phoenix apartment game.

Literally millions of square feet of multi-family housing have come online in a relatively small area, in the last five years.

As for this Phoenix native, who happens to be a real-estate professional, a teacher, and a journalist, who also just happens to live a few blocks away from the subject property,  who also lived next door to it for two years while commuting by light-rail, I just can’t help but wonder what, if anything, Toll Brothers has learned from this project so far.

I’d love to ask them myself, but neither they nor their attorneys have returned any of my calls or emails.

I wonder who Toll Bros. will call if the winds shift down at City Hall, even beyond what a lawyer can do for them.

Their neighbors?

Brian Mori is an an investor and a Realtor (R) with a Master’s Degree in Real Estate Development from the W.P. Carey School of Business. He also holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Arizona. He lives in the Carnation section of Melrose. 602-575-117. 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s