Apartments Approved: Developer and City Promise Physical Traffic Diversion

Apartment Project Fact Summary (Skip to 1:20:00 to watch this case discussed):

After months of hearings, the Phoenix City Council approved a 402-bedroom apartment complex to be built at the northwest corner of Indian School Road and Central Avenue.

They voted unanimously Wednesday to change the zoning from Transit-Oriented-Development (with underlying commercial), to the newer “Walkable Urban” zone.

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Revised proposal for apartments at N.W. Central/Indian.

The latter, an example of “form-based zoning,” was designed from public input that was gathered from the “Reinvent Phoenix” General Plan campaign in 2015.

Although multifamily was already an approved use on the ten-acre site, “Walkable Urban” allows the City to regulate design aspects of the project throughout construction.

The zoning approval was conditioned upon 21 site-specific stipulations which are still subject to interpretation and implementation by City Staff.

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Phoenix Financial Center inspired revised project

In exchange for the extra oversight, developer Toll Brothers is allowed a higher density ratio of apartments per acre and reductions in their parking requirements.

The yet-unnamed apartment complex will front the Indian School light rail station, and plans include a “bodega” coffee shop, as well as several live-work units.

The project will top-out below sixty feet and will include three residential structures that abut Central Avenue and Indian School Road.

Entrances and exits are planned on Indian School Rd. and Third Avenue, not Central Ave.

No Plans for a Communal Garage:

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Todd Bowden of Toll Brothers explains parking plans to the Carnation Neighborhood Association 10/26/19.

Todd Bowden, Regional Director of Acquisitions and Development for Toll Brothers, met with the Carnation Neighborhood Association on October 26, about two weeks prior to the final vote.

He explained that Toll Brothers looked to the neighboring Station on Central Apartments immediately north to understand traffic and parking trends for the subject site.

Both lots are unusually rectangular, spanning several blocks from Central to Third Ave.

“A lot of these projects with parking garages work well on square sites,” Bowden said. “The way this site plays out, you get a project where the parking is more evenly distributed.”

There are currently no plans for Toll Brothers to build a communal parking garage.

Instead, Bowden said at least one space is reserved for each unit, and individual garages will be available for rent.

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Surface parking and garages will face inward and to the rear, and Toll Brothers agreed to a stipulation that no garages will face Third Avenue.

“It minimizes how far people have to walk to their cars,” Bowden said. “The ratio is about 1.6 spaces per unit, which is more than required by the code.”

Traffic a Priority for Residents and City: Diversion Promised, but Not Stipulated 

Even after Toll Brothers adjusted plans to remove garages from Third Avenue, several residents living nearby voiced concerns about the traffic the complex will generate.

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Carnation resident Dave Jenkins.

“I want a traffic diversion,” Said Tamiko Garmen, president of the Carnation Neighborhood Association in August. “I am still concerned about the traffic.”

Dave Jenkins lives in Carnation about three blocks away from the project site.

He asked the City Council Wednesday to require Toll Brothers to build a physical barrier that will prevent drivers on site from turning north onto Third Avenue.

“Our concern is real, and we need more than a sign,” Jenkins said. “Without a physical traffic diversion, my neighbors and friends will be at risk for a fatal tragedy.”

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Jenkins submitted a hand-drawn schematic to the Council before Wednesday’s meeting, which he said he based on existing diversions in other Phoenix neighborhoods.

“Drivers trying to avoid the heavy traffic on Indian School will drive through our neighborhood, which was not designed for heavy traffic,” he told the Council.

Councilwoman Laura Pastor, in whose District Four the project will be built, acknowledged Jenkins’ hand-drawing during the meeting.

“I am asking for a high, physical diversion so that if anybody wants to make a right, they will damage their car,” She said. “I believe Mr. Jenkins concerns have been addressed.”

Technically, a physical diversion was not added to the stipulations approved by Council, because Wednesday’s hearing was not an appeal of the Planning Commission decision.

Those recommendations did not include a physical traffic diversion specifically.

However, Planning and Development Director Alan Stephenson told the Council that Jenkins’ drawing will be used to help City Staff and Toll Brothers design one.

“The comments (Pastor) just provided are really direction for Staff in my department and Street Transportation,” Stephenson said. “I’ll put together a meeting with my Staff and bring the exhibit that Mr. Jenkins provided (…) so we can make it as difficult as we can legally for people to turn north (onto 3rd Avenue).”

Whether or not a traffic diversion on the Toll Brothers property will help keep cars out of the neighborhood, or create complications of its own, is a matter of opinion.

Project attorney Stephen Earl told the Council that traffic research indicates most people will not want to turn north, as feared by Carnation.

“Virtually no one turned into the neighborhood,” Earl said Wednesday. “The highly predominant movement was down (south) to Indian School Road.”

Earl told the Council Wednesday that the existing stipulation requires Toll Brothers to work with the City to “effectively control the traffic.”

“We are committed to this neighborhood,” he continued. “We’re going to work with the Street Transportation Department to come up with a design that physically diverts people toward Indian School road.”

IMAG0731During the October 26 Carnation meeting, Bowden displayed renderings that included a curved, cement exit lane onto the semi-arterial road, which terminates half a mile North.

Though not quite what Councilwoman Pastor said she wanted, if built as Toll Brothers presented to Carnation, drivers would exit the property onto Third Avenue at a southwesterly angle, and more difficult to turn north.

Bowden said Toll Brothers did not consider it an option to share an existing private driveway that extends the entire length of the property line with The Station on Central.

Nothing prevents drivers who exit The Station via that drive from turning north.

Politics and the Apartment Market:

It is unclear from public records if Toll Brothers has submitted to the City the traffic study they cited, which is also required by stipulations.

Wednesday’s unanimous, favorable vote ended a public hearing process that began with heavy criticism for Toll Brothers’ original design, and poor community outreach efforts.

After critical reception by the Encanto Village Planning Committee in July, the developer hired representatives to go door-to-door to collect signatures in favor of their project.

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Elevation for proposed apartments

They also adjusted the building’s facades to be more prominent at the highly traveled midtown intersection, and increased the square footage of some public amenity spaces.

Their plans were resubmitted and recommended 8-4 by Encanto in August, and then unanimously recommended for approval by the Phoenix Planning Commission.

A Blessing from the first two boards in Phoenix’s three-tiered zoning change process was not technically required, but Council approval was highly unlikely without both.

“Toll Brothers and the community really worked hand-in-hand on creating the space it will be in the future,” said Pastor. “Toll Brothers did hear the community, and also some of my recommendations that I felt were needed in the architecture, specifically for Central and Indian School.”

District 6 Councilman Sal DiCiccio specifically complimented attorney Stephen Earl and Councilwoman Pastor.

“That you have a complicated case like this and you only have one individual (speaking at the hearing), I want some of that,” DiCiccio said. “Tell me how you did it Laura, you obviously did it right.”

No representatives of the City have mentioned since July that Carnation was given the wrong information for the original outreach meeting in April.

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Left to right: Encanto Village Committeewoman Ann Cothron; Chairman Jake Adams; Planner Maja Brkovic.

“No one contacted me,” said Jake Adams, Chairman of the Encanto Village Planning Committee during the original hearing. “We’re seeing really good projects coming in to this city, but I think this is terrible.”

Adams, who lives about a half-mile away, later voted in favor of the project after Toll Brothers adjusted their designs, and Earl apologized for the communication errors.

“You’re amazing,” DiCiccio told Earl Wednesday. “The amount of work you do, you’re an honorable individual, and you’re working with a great client, Toll Brothers.”

Earl has been the public face of the project during all public hearings, though no one from Toll Brothers or Earl’s law firm spoke publicly with Carnation Association residents until the October 26th meeting.

Nor did they return phone calls or e-mails from T.M.L. prior to October 26th.

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Carnation Neighborhood Association President Tamiko Garmen opposed the project in August.

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

Nearly 90 people signed form letters supporting the zoning change, but that letter did not describe the project.

They were collected prior to the August re-hearing at Encanto.

Since Garmen filed her statement of opposition with the City, Bowden has met with Jenkins privately, and accepted an invitation to attend the October 26 Carnation meeting.

There he answered several questions about the project and the apartment market.

“I’ve been developing residential real estate in some form or fashion for over 25 years,” Bowden said. “I’ve never seen a situation where there is this much demand for apartments.”

According to Bowden, apartment construction is not keeping up with demand.

He said that Phoenix is building on average between 9k-10k units per year, but could probably absorb up to 15k.

“Lots of companies are bringing people here,” he said. “We have very strong job growth and diversified job growth, and all that’s leading to high demand for apartments.”

It’s unclear why a zoning change was required for this specific corner, as the previous commercial designations from 1980 included high density multifamily.

“My understanding from our land-use counsel is that the City is really trying to promote Walkable Urban,” Bowden told Carnation. “I happen to like it because it makes some really good streetscapes.”

Councilman DiCiccio may have hinted the motivation for the zoning change Wednesday.

“The underlying zoning allows uses that you don’t want to see in that corridor,” DiCiccio said. “C-3 could allow multiple other uses that could be problematic for that neighborhood.”

Meanwhile, Bowden said he likes the provisions of “Walkable Urban” that require detached and shaded sidewalks, seating for the public, and enhanced landscaping.

“It’s really just to get the streets and developments to relate to each other in a way that’s more pedestrian friendly,” he elaborated. “As opposed to coming right out to the edge (of the street) with a big wall, and turning our back on everybody.”

Bowden said he wasn’t sure if specific design requirements make units easier to rent, but Arizona law prohibits cities from regulating land use to the detriment of private profits.

“In the fact that it’s a good design, I think it helps,” he said. “I think you always want the best design.”

Bowden said construction should begin in early 2020.

Land Use Regulation and Real Estate Development:

Bowden said he was certain that the decades-vacant corner in the heart of midtown Phoenix should be apartments, and really, who’s more qualified to say otherwise?

Toll Brothers has been building homes and apartments for decades, and trying to bring multifamily to Central Avenue since the early 2000’s.

They have another project snaking its way through approvals at Central and Thomas Road, and given their enthusiasm for the local market, a happy ending is expected.

As for this case, just about anything that activates the corner of Indian School and Central is progress, unless it creates danger or nuisance for people already there.

New, commercial landowners to the north and south, as well as 90 people living within a square mile of the site submitted written support for this project to the City.

All things considered, there was little political motivation for Council to vote against it.

And Toll Brothers had not yet closed purchase on the land.

If the City Council had denied their zoning, nothing of public knowledge indicates Toll Brothers would have been required to fully execute their purchase.

It’s hard to predict what could have happened without looking at private sales contracts, but it’s forseeable the lot would’ve reverted back to prior owners, and remained vacant.

No one has mentioned this publicly, in so many words, but Bowden confirmed the land was still in escrow as of October 26.

Even with their zoning approvals in hand, nothing that’s been discussed publicly would legally prevent Toll Brothers from selling the land to a totally different builder.

Lest the public should be confused, zoning does not require anything specific to happen on a piece of land, it merely entitles what private property owners may do legally.

A Long story short, nothing is a fact until happens: 

This is why good development, like good governance, is done with people not to them.

Pastor characterized the result of negotiations with Toll Brothers “a great agreement.”

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This may be true, and it may result in a cool project, if not also cool projects to come.

However, despite nearly a hundred signed form-letters of support, and echoes of compliments from City representatives since July, the truth remains that allies for this project did not come from the immediate neighborhood surrounding it.

No one who is not in an official capacity has spoken in favor of the project publicly who lives within a mile.

If the specific concerns of Carnation residents go ignored, City Staff should get ready for angry phone calls, and future developers should get ready for more heated hearings.

“This corner is so important to many people because of its history,” said Margaret Deitrich, a resident living near Mcdowell Road. “It deserves a really beautiful property.”

Deitrich was originally opposed to this project but has offered her support since August.

“Originally (Toll Brothers) brought a quality project that was really rather boring,” she said. “They’ve put a lot of effort into remaking a project that’s worthy of this corner.”

Deitrich lives almost two miles south of the project, but has repeatedly said she’s seen no traffic increase since the The Muse Luxury Apartments opened near her home.

Cave Creek based Biltform Architects included some design aspects from The Muse into Toll Brothers’ revision.

Deitrich also reminded the Council that 3rd Ave., north of Indian School, already has speed bumps.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a problem,” she said.

Although Carnation’s request for a physical traffic diversion came relatively late in this case, that should itself serve as a signal to developers to be early and earnest in outreach.

Carnation’s timing notwithstanding, their concern acknowledges physical facts of their own neighborhood, and is the exact public conversation zoning laws should encourage.

According to the public case file, The Phoenix Street Transportation Department identified needs for improved pedestrian access to the Light Rail Station, but nothing is mentioned about the effect of traffic exiting the property onto Third Avenue.

That semi-arterial, known by locals as a dependable escape from Downtown during rush hour, dead-ends half-a-mile north of the approved apartments.

Add the Light Rail, The Grand Central Canal, and two of Phoenix’s most vital east-west thoroughfares (Camelback and Indian School), and “traffic” should’ve been a concern that was anticipated long before public hearings.

“I’m not against apartments,” said Carnation resident John Cavenaugh to the Phoenix Planning Commission when they consodered this case in October. “But I want good city planning.”

Cavenaugh presented data to the Commission on the number of apartments built in the area the last several years, compared to the number of retail and neighborhood services.

No one on the Commission acknowledged his or Jenkins’ concerns Oct. 3, though more than one Commissioner pointed to the Light Rail as a way to reduce driver traffic.

Publisher’s Opinion: This Case is an Opportunity for Everyone to Learn

In truth, the implications of comments made during this zoning case go way beyond Toll Brothers and Carnation, as Councilwoman Pastor also acknowledged Wednesday.

“As many of you know, Central City is growing and it is the core,” she said. “I will continue along with neighborhoods to discuss traffic and cut-through, and how we as a city continue to manage those pieces.”

Contrary to the hopes and dreams of many a Phoenician, Light-Rail does not equally offset the tens of thousands of residents and drivers Phoenix has added in five years.

People who live along the Light-Rail know the reality is not a question of politics.

And while other uses for this prominent corner could be equally problematic, such as Cavenaugh’s suggestion for grocery or retail, it’s important to remember that public hearings are meant to assess the effects of land use, not determine how things look.

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There was much more public debate in this case about aesthetics than either land use or traffic, with original criticisms pertaining to the project’s low height, as compared to what’s already been approved nearby.

 

“We’ve been waiting for years for this proposal,” Enacnto Village Planning Committeewoman Rebecca Wininger said in July. “I would rather be talking about a height waiver than talking about density.”

Historically, Phoenix has endured an international reputation for inconsistent attitudes toward design, with approval trends varying between homogeneity and the bizarre.

This is why some neighborhoods look identical, and why Central Avenue features an upside-down pyramid across the street from conventional office towers.

(We’re not criticizing, but we must remember development doesn’t happen in a vacuum.)

This is also how the Phoenix Financial Center, with golden arches and slatted southern windows became a source of inspiration for Toll Brothers’ revised apartment design.

Appearances are definitely the motivation behind “form-based” zoning codes like “Walkable Urban,” but we must remember the tipping point between form and function.

Zoning laws are justified by a need to balance land uses, not enforce popular trends.

Seeking public input for land-use changes is not only the law, it’s smart business practice.

Toll Brothers’ efforts to go back to the drawing board and spruce up their original design deserve credit for sure, and if built as finally approved, this project will showcase what Toll Brothers can do for its investors, as well as midtown Phoenix.

T.M.L. wishes them, and all responsible developers, good fortune in our hometown.

_DSC0456Personally, we preferred Biltform’s original design for this project, the one the architects came up with themselves,  before the public input.

It was conservative, but stately nonetheless.

Not that we don’t understand why Encanto was so vehement about recommending an iconic project that can be associated with this part of the city, or why Planning Commission and Council have voiced their gratitude Toll Brothers stayed at the table.

Midtown, this corner in specific, has a lot of history.

Toll Brothers has a real chance to educate, and learn from a very involved community.

How much they include their neighbors in the future – T.M.L. is one – remains to be seen.

Bowden told Carnation October 26 they are open to conversations with the neighborhood about naming the project.

They may also consider suggestions for a local coffee retailer, and how to curate the lobby to reflect the unique history of the site.

The corner was once home to the Bayliss Grocery Market and also The Carnation Dairy.

There was even a suggestion from a Carnation resident about incorporating the history of the Phoenix Indian School, across Central Avenue.

In any event, Wednesday’s zoning approval married the development to its neighbors.

This Melrose Life will continue to do what it can to monitor that relationship, and help raise the bar on productive community conversations.

T.M.L. welcomes feedback and assistance from residents, professionals, and leaders.

All ships rise when the tide comes in, and it takes all hands on deck to make sure we don’t capsize.

Brian Mori is a Realtor (R), teacher, and journalist with a Masters Degree in Real Estate Development. He lives in the Carnation section of Melrose and can be reached at thismelroselife@gmail.com, bmori.realestate@gmail.com, or by calling 602-575-1170. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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