How Phoenix, AZ is using transit-oriented development to reinvent downtown

Phoenix, AZ

Phoenix residents can soon look forward to more housing and lifestyle choices, thanks to Reinvent PHX, a collaboration between the City of Phoenix, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Arizona State University, St. Luke’s Health Initiatives and local organizations aiming to develop “sustainability action plans” for the areas along Phoenix’s existing light rail line.

This process, carried out in consultation with the public and with funding from HUD, is intended to create an attractive investment environment for transit-oriented development (TOD) projects along Phoenix’s light rail line, Valley METRO, which opened in 2008. By 2014, Phoenix will develop and begin to implement sustainability action plans for each of the areas adjacent to light rail stations. Soon a “car-free” or “car-lite” lifestyle will be available to more and more Phoenix residents through TOD development.

Before light rail’s arrival and the subsequent planning for walkable and bikable communities, transportation options were few. “If you don’t own a car in Phoenix, you’re at a pretty severe disadvantage to living your daily life with any kind of convenience,” said Curt Upton of the City of Phoenix’s Planning & Development Department.

That’s already beginning to change.  Developing more walkable neighborhoods is a long term-goal for a city long inhibited by low-density zoning. However, says Upton, cyclists are already making areas in and around the light rail corridor their own, with some help from the City: Bike parking facilities have already improved, and bike share is coming. Among the residents embracing bicycling, Upton says, there is a growing realization that “Hey, we could actually live a pretty good lifestyle without a car.”

The reaction of the business community to Reinvent PHX has been overwhelmingly positive. The Discovery Triangle Development Corporation, which works to attract new investment to Phoenix and to Tempe, AZ, has emphasized light rail in its promotion of the area, touting that “opportunities for creative infill solutions abound and new projects can be launched speedily.”

The City of Phoenix has a profound financial incentive for undertaking the kind of urban development that will result from Reinvent PHX. “During the depths of the recession, our downtown tax area actually saw an increase in tax revenue,” says Upton. This increase stood in stark contrast to areas with a comparatively lower density of shops, businesses, and housing, which produced less revenue during that period.

Upton specifically cited the work of Smart Growth America on the fiscal benefits of smart growth outlined in the Building Better Budgets report released earlier this year, as inspiration toward improving development in Phoenix: “By concentrating growth in places with infrastructure in place…it’s an obvious benefit.”

Evidence of pent-up demand for greater density in Phoenix can be found in a number of real estate sites that have popped up to cater specifically to those who want to live and work in close proximity to transit. One such site, Light Rail Connect, offers not only apartment and real estate listings, but advertises jobs and entertainment opportunities also along the Light Rail line as well.

In giving advice to other cities attempting a similar TOD planning process, Upton emphasized that each community will have unique challenges to overcome, but urged always putting sufficient resources into engaging the public and gauging its vision for the future – a strategy that has been a hallmark of Reinvent PHX. This engagement should include countering misconceptions about smart growth, and particularly letting hesitant residents know that “density can mean a variety of different kinds of buildings.”