Whither Trees

Trees are a good thing. Except when they’re not maintained and we lose them in midtown Phoenix.

[editor’s note: If you’ve checked out the edwardjensen.net website lately, you’ve noticed that it’s changed its look. A lot. We will write more on the transition for this week’s installment of the Friday Five.]

A quick hit for a Monday… Last week’s storm that brought a downpour to inner east Phoenix and Tempe and perhaps, even, a tornado (!!) south of downtown Phoenix (but also brought wind and fury without rain to Midtown had a casualty: this tree in front of Tapestry on Central on Central Avenue.

There is, correctly, a push for putting new trees in central-city Phoenix. I applaud it. But if there isn’t a push to maintain trees properly, then is it worth it? How many more trees must we lose before the City realizes that proper pruning is imperative?

More on this later.

Friday Five: 427 Days

It’s been 427 days since I’ve last posted. Let’s change that. Here are 5 things that have been on my mind.

It’s been a considerable time since I’ve last posted – 427 days to be exact. That won’t happen again. Anyway, here are five of the many things that have been on my mind in the last sixty-one weeks and will be the focus of the next few additions to this blog…

1. Still thinking about Chromebooks. This one’s fitting since my last post was about Chromebooks and how I’ve been playing around with them. In the intervening fourteen months, I’ve been off-and-on with mine but I’m still using it. It’s amazing to see how much it’s matured over that time period and how well it plays with Windows infrastructure via a Google-provided SMB share connector or a third-party RDP app. VPN connectivity is interesting with it but that’ll be the subject of a future post.

2. HOAs and IT. One of the big projects I’ve been tackling lately is the IT needs for a midrise condominium complex in midtown Phoenix. This will certainly be the focus of many posts down the road for sure; in the meantime, one theme that’s quickly emerged is that communicating technical issues and needs in non-technical terms is a skill that IT leaders need to embrace.

3. Midtown Phoenix. In 2016, I became disillusioned with the state of downtown-centric advocacy organizations and made a conscious decision to focus on the part of the world where I live and work: Midtown. As a means to that end, I’ve been elected to the board of the Midtown Neighborhood Association. August 2017 will mark the 17th anniversary of when I started to observe Midtown and the 11th anniversary of moving here from the suburbs. This renewed Midtown-centric advocacy focus is part of my love letter to Midtown.

4. Fifth-largest city. The big thing that’s got Phoenix “thought leaders” excited is the news that’s come around that the City of Phoenix proper is now the fifth largest city by population, overtaking Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. How many square miles of desert have we sprawled into to accomplish this “feat”? I mean, where do we collect our prize? What is our prize? Meanwhile, central-city Phoenix continues to suffer and the policy shifts from both Washington, D.C., and our own State Capitol won’t help that cause.

5. The Downtown Phoenix Podcast. I know there have been a few false starts of the resuming of The Downtown Phoenix Podcast and that’s frustrated me. This is a project that needs to happen to bring serious conversation to the issues facing central-city Phoenix. I think I’ve identified a couple new individuals who will help in bringing this back. Stay tuned.

Friday Five: Different Urban Talking Points

The Friday Five for September 26: Some different urban talking points when we consider Phoenix’s urban renaissance.

friday five logoWe love talking about urban design in this city.

As we learn of other suburban cities or, in fact, suburban parts of Phoenix, taking jobs and economic development away from central-city Phoenix, we still think about how to make a better design for our streets, sidewalks, and bicycle lanes.  That’s nice, to be sure, but I still maintain that if we don’t have the economic activity to support those physical amenities, then what’s the point?

So here I offer five different urban talking points that we should be discussing about in addition to urban design:

1. Downtown Phoenix’s lack of corporate headquarters. I have written several essays on this topic and I will certainly refer you to those.  As a supposed rebuttal to this, one reader pointed out the then-just announced expansion of WebPT in the Warehouse District, as though that was the ultimate panacea.  That’s great; but why is that the exception to the rule instead of the rule?  While I’ll admit it’s not a perfect measurement, there are 13 companies on the Fortune 1000 list based in the Phoenix metropolitan area.  Two are based in downtown Phoenix (Pinnacle West Capital Corporation and Freeport-McMoRan), making downtown’s Eddie Number -11, not good.  It should be the number 1 priority of civic, business, and governmental leaders to make that number closer to zero.

2. Downtown Phoenix needs to be family-friendly. This takes many different interpretations. When we think about adding residential density to central-city Phoenix, we can’t just think about studio or one-bedroom apartments for young single people to live in, even if that’s the fastest growing demographic.  We have to make sure families with young children can not only live here but thrive here.  We need to think about diversity of everything.  And that also means making sure that there are opportunities for families to enjoy the same amenities that those living alone enjoy.  While I’m glad that there are fantastic restaurants, coffeehouses, and bars in central-city Phoenix, those can be a bit expensive for those who aren’t necessarily independently wealthy or exactly welcoming of families.

3. Quality public educational opportunities for children need to exist. I have heard too many times from new parents who live in central-city Phoenix that when their child needs to go to school, they’ll need to move out to the suburbs where good schools exist.  Even if central-city school districts aren’t as bad as people make them out to be, there is still a perception that they are.  The Madison and Scottsdale districts will always have the perception that they’re better than Phoenix or Osborn school districts.  And unless local charter schools can create spaces for those within a specific geography, those will never be the answer.

4. Maybe downtown Phoenix shouldn’t be treated as a special-case silo. The new draft of the Phoenix General Plan has five key thematic areas to shape City Hall’s philosophy of the City of Phoenix: communities and neighborhoods, the economy, sustainability and “green” living, connectivity, and making downtown vibrant.  The talk in urban circles, certainly in some conversations and groups I’ve led, is to break down the silos in City Hall and to foster interdepartmental collaboration, something unfortunately rare.  I fear that if we make downtown its own special case, we’re making it its own silo, which runs anathema to what we’ve tried to accomplish.  The first four thematic areas are certainly true for just all parts of the city but have a different interpretation and vernacular in the urban context.  All that makes downtown special is that it is the civic, cultural, and commercial core of both the city and region, something that this general plan document doesn’t affirm.

5. We need to stop thinking of a downtown with specific boundaries. I live in Midtown Phoenix near the Heard Museum; as I write this, I’m looking from my office window of my third-floor Midtown apartment and I see the various towers of Midtown.  By any definition, it’s just as urban than, say, Central and Van Buren.  I will freely admit that it was a massive planning mistake in the 1950s and 1960s to allow dense development to happen outside of downtown.  These are, though, the historical cards that were dealt and we need to find ways to celebrate the fact that we have, as I’ve commented before, a linear downtown.  But our talk about making downtown better ends south of McDowell Road.  The same problems that plague Downtown also affect Midtown.  Empty or underutilized lots?  Transit-oriented development?  We’ve got it all.  Before you say what I think you’ll be saying, I am not saying that we should immediately abandon our labels of what is “downtown” and what isn’t nor am I saying that, for instance, 24 St and Camelback is downtown (it’s not and never will be).  Phoenix’s urban core runs along Central Avenue from Camelback to Jefferson.

Statement on the Central & McDowell proposed apartments

My statement to the City of Phoenix Site Plan Review team concerning the proposed apartments for Central & McDowell in midtown Phoenix.

[editorial note: The following statement was given to the Site Plan Review hearing regarding the proposed apartment complex at Central Avenue and McDowell Road in midtown Phoenix earlier today. For additional context and comment, please read the “Almost Missed: Central & McDowell” essay, published 18 July 2014.]

Central & McDowell siteAs we have seen this afternoon, a siteplan for an apartment complex at a key corner in the City of Phoenix has been presented.

Many people here have talked about where this building is but I want to explore a different dimension: when this building is in the Phoenix urban story. Recently, Downtown Phoenix played host to two large-scale music festivals attracting thousands of people, the VIVA PHX festival on March 7 and the weekend-long McDowell Mountain Music Festival at Hance Park at the end of March. Today also marks the return to classes for the students at Arizona State University, including the almost-20,000 students studying at the downtown Phoenix campus alone. Major events of the February 2015 Super Bowl will be sited in Downtown.

Speaking of Hance Park, over two thousand people showed up at Hance Park on March 27 to see the unveiling of the new Hance Park Master Plan to get a feel for what public space and the urban ethic in Phoenix will be. Part of the success of that plan depends on increased density around the park; while this project provides modest density, it is nowhere near what it can or should be. Actually, the success of many urban-focused initiatives depends on increased density in our urban core. There is interest from both current and future urban dwellers—and from those in the urban academy—that the City of Phoenix get this urban moment right.

The City of Phoenix’s zoning scheme cites this area as a “downtown gateway” as part of the Downtown Zoning plan. I see it, too, as a midtown gateway, welcoming people to midtown Phoenix and our grand street, Central Avenue. As part of the Downtown Gateway, buildings are allowed to go up to 250 feet. While I am keenly aware that height and good urban design are not always congruent, a good urban design makes gestures to its geographic place and its moment in history. This is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put something of quality compatible with place and time on this site…but this project falls woefully short.

As City Hall and community leaders work through their approval or disapproval processes, there is only one question that should be considered: “Is this project worthy of being a gateway to downtown Phoenix?”

Thank you.

Almost Missed: Central & McDowell

An apartment complex is proposed for a key corner in midtown Phoenix. This is a good thing, right? Think again. This is a missed opportunity.

[ed. note, 18 August 2014: Today at 2pm at Phoenix City Hall, there is a site plan review hearing on this project. Come to voice your opinion.]

photo credit: skyscraperpage.com
photo credit: skyscraperpage.com

There has been much excitement lately about a new apartment complex that is proposed for the northwest corner of Central Avenue and McDowell Road at the southern boundary of midtown Phoenix, situated in the heart of the Midtown Arts District, near the McDowell Road light rail station, and near the excitement surrounding Hance Park. As such, the design and architecture of the building will celebrate not only this location but this unique moment in urban Phoenix history, right?

Oh, if only that last sentence were true.

The design foisted upon us by the developer and architect fits in more to a suburban context in Anytown USA than this geographic place and historical moment. The building doesn’t even attempt to make gestures to its geography or its moment in history; it is a four-story building that makes no design cues to anything but its own parking lot.

Given what’s proposed, the fact that this project is garnering excitement from civic leaders and neighborhood interests is very disappointing. I’ve frequently said on this blog that “we must do better” in Phoenix and this is one project that needs to do better. But in thinking about what “better” means, I’ve only thought about one thing: This project must be stopped before it gets farther along in approvals and the building process. Such a grand re-design is needed that scrapping what is proposed, hiring an architect with an acute knowledge of the urban Phoenix condition, and coming up with a different plan is the only solution.

For any project that will go on this site, we must ask this fundamental question: Is this project worthy of being a downtown and midtown gateway?

As part of the downtown Phoenix zoning overlay, the northwest corner of Central & McDowell is designated as “downtown gateway,” meaning that buildings can go up to 250 feet in height and, more importantly, be built right up to the street. This design is neither of those. Its setback from Central Avenue is in the neighborhood of 20 feet and its height is, as mentioned above, four stories.

I am keenly aware that height doesn’t necessarily equal design quality. In fact, I’m more in favor of buildings that are 10-12 stories in height (a consistent and continuous density) than building really tall-for-Phoenix buildings for the sake of being really tall. But consider: One of the requirements for the true success of Hance Park’s redesign will be density on and near the park. My friend Tim Sprague’s Portland on the Park project will provide good density; no, I’m not being paid or encouraged to say that.

Many have said that a grocery store will make this project work and although downtown Phoenix desperately needs one, integrating a grocery store with this project won’t save it. Phoenicians should look at the new Lunds store in downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota, recently opened and integrated with new apartments in the former Saint Paul Public Safety Building (which was a façadectomy), as a model. An all-stick frame construction, as is proposed, will not fit a grocery store…full stop.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put something of quality on a key vacant lot. To put the proposed project here is a waste of a lot of things.

I will say it again, Phoenix: we must do better. We simply must.

Failure to Launch: Downtown Phoenix edition

Downtown Phoenix still isn’t ready to take off. Parking lots for cars — the enemy of density — is still a priority. Grr.

In the midst of re-doing my blog, I’ve gone through and looked at some old posts of mine. (Unfortunately, I’ve lost almost everything I’ve written before 2011, which happens to be a lot of content. But that’s okay, I guess.) Anyway, one of those posts was my year-end retrospective post I wrote before the New Year 2011, in which I said:

We’ve learned that downtown Phoenix just isn’t ready to take off…yet. We’ve seen steps forward and backward with CityScape. Even with light rail access, parking spaces are still important to downtown Phoenix planners, as evident with the demolition of the Sahara/Ramada Inn for a parking lot (even with better alternatives) and an extension of a parking lot’s life in the heart of the urban core. [from here, written 27 December 2010]

Keep in mind that this building at 2200 N Central Avenue is less than a block away from the Encanto / Heard Museum METRO light rail station. But no, we have to consider car parking. If we have to consider that “abundant parking” is a key feature for anything in central Phoenix, then what we have here is a failure to launch.

Unfortunately.