How Does A High-Rise Change A Neighborhood? Expert Weighs In As City Council Votes On Phoenix County Club Project

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Wednesday, March 20, 2019 - 12:45pm
Updated: Wednesday, March 20, 2019 - 2:47pm

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height is blight poster
Justin Stabley/KJZZ
"Height is Blight" poster placed on a Phoenix roadside in 2019.

LAUREN GILGER: "Height is blight." That is the rallying cry behind a group of homeowners campaign to  stop construction of a 12-story $75 million tower in central Phoenix. They say this type of development will fundamentally alter their neighborhood which consists of mainly single family historic homes. But proponents of the development, which would be built in the parking lot of the Phoenix Country Club on the corner of Seventh Street and Thomas Road, say it will boost property values and tax revenue for the local school district. It's a battle that's also taking place in the upscale Phoenix neighborhood of Kierland and in Old Town Scottsdale in the Valley recently. And it's the same debate that's going on around the country as cities feel the pressure to centralize. What does building a high-rise do to a residential neighborhood? So with the Phoenix City Council set to vote on the Country Club Tower today we turn to someone who can shed some light on that question. David King is an assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences at ASU and he says this debate goes to the heart of a neighborhood's identity.

DAVID KING: In some ways, the issue with the high-rises is an emotional one with the neighbors that are concerned that it's this character issue, that they are going to change the character of the neighborhood and that is a hard discussion to have for a number of reasons. But one thing that I like to think about when I think about this is it's the neighbors that exist now that are concerned. But eventually those neighbors will move on and there'll be new neighbors and then there'll be a high-rise nearby and they won't know any different.

GILGER:  And it won't mean anything.

KING: It won't mean anything; it'll just be part of the neighborhood. So it's really about balancing the needs of the present with the needs of the future.

→ Phoenix Country Club Becomes A Battleground Over Development

GILGER: Is there a way to do that though when you're talking about a high-rise I mean you can make it a little bit lower but a high-rise is a high-rise in a neighborhood that doesn't have any that's the historic single family homes in some of these cases right?

KING: It is a high-rise and there's no getting around it, but ultimately it's  not that many, a single building, is not that many more units of housing. And of those units of housing, you know, depending on how the building is constructed, but if it's filled with studio apartments or one bedroom apartments, it's not going to have a lot of families. It's going to have a lot of singles. It's going to have young adults and they don't have that big of an impact on the neighborhood other than they go to all the coffee shops and restaurants and everything else that the people in the single family houses actually enjoy.

GILGER: Yeah. So the city like you said takes into account a lot of these things when they'll approve development for a high-rise in an infill kind of situation like these are but are those legitimate concerns? When they're looking at traffic congestion and parking concerns are those real things that will significantly change when you put this many new people into an area?

KING: So traffic and parking are the two things that really set off a neighborhood. And these are real concerns because more people will result in more travel. But one of the hopes with infill development one of the hopes with denser development is that we put people closer to the places where they want to go, in which case there's not as much need for driving. And when people are complaining about traffic and when people are complaining the parking, what they're really complaining about is cars. They're not complaining about the individuals who are doing this travel. So one of the hopes of denser development is that we'll build cities where we'll have choices will have choices that we can walk or bike or take transit or take a scooter take an Uber or Lyft or whatever else. And we're not going to necessarily have to drive our own car everywhere we go.

GILGER: And that's what the city has really been pushing for, this sort of car light kind of environment.

KING: And they're pushing for that not across the whole city but in certain neighborhoods they're definitely pushing that, there's a lot of cities in the valley.

GILGER: Yeah well and you're seeing this across the country right as urban density becomes more and more in demand. And like people want to live in the center of the city. I guess my question is, is this kind of debate inevitable when a city like Phoenix that has been so traditionally an urban sprawl kind of city is really centralizing?

KING: I think I think this to this sort of debate is absolutely inevitable. It's happening everywhere. And Phoenix is having it, Tempe, Mesa and Scottsdale, just about everyone in the valley is having it to some degree. And it's really about providing choices for people. It's about providing choices for people who don't necessarily want to maintain a single family home. They want to live in an apartment. They want to live someplace where they do have the option of walking or biking or taking a scooter around and they don't feel like they have to drive everywhere all the time. Cities are really about choices. That's why we like them. And that's really what this this is. And there are certainly you know we have historic districts of single family homes, but those are in desirable neighborhoods. Those are close to the action. Those are close to downtown and those neighborhoods are going to have a lot of pressure for development. There's no question about that. But it's whether or not that development can happen in a way that is incremental enough for sort of gradual enough not to set off neighbor concerns that the whole thing is changing overnight.

GILGER: Is this gradual enough? Based on how other cities do this or what you've seen happen in other cities or models, even is what's happening in Phoenix really drastic?

KING: I think the big issue is getting that first new building in. Once you get that first new building and people realize that having an apartment building nearby is not terrible than having a second one is less problematic. But there is a point that people don't like their neighborhoods to change quickly. When we look for a place to live, one of the things that we consider is what the neighborhood is like. And that's why we pay for that in our rent or mortgage or something else. So it's a legitimate concern that you don't want your neighborhood to change too much. But the city has to grow. The region is one of the fastest growing in the country and we can't continue to grow further and further out on the edges of the urban area without jobs and other activities spreading out. So there is going to be this pressure to build closer to where stuff is.

GILGER: What about the other side of the argument. We've talked a lot about the arguments against this right what the opponents are saying, but the people who are for this are saying that this is good for property values it will bring in more money, tax revenue for the local school district things like that are those also legitimate arguments?

KING: Those are legitimate arguments. Developers build in places that are desirable and the more they build the more desirable those neighborhoods become in which case property values will go up. More people means more amenities and more taxpayers to support more things and the homeowners that are nearby will benefit from that.

GILGER: What is the role of the city in this. I mean they can approve the high-rise they approve the zoning right. So city planners are involved in planning what the city will be like in these areas in the future, but when they get this kind of pushback what should a city do in terms of striking that balance?

KING: Well so a city definitely needs to hear the concerns of the community. But the city also needs to serve its own needs and the needs of everybody, and a city that doesn't grow will decline. And that is problematic. So Phoenix or any city in the Valley needs to be able to capture some of the growth that's happening. And since they're already built out they need to grow up they can't grow out. That said, the cities also need to balance changing transport technologies, changing consumer preferences, changing ideas about how we live. The city does not want to continue to approve development that is just going to continue to put additional vehicles on the road, that's going to then put more pressure for them to build more roads that they then have to maintain, which then they will get complaints about because they don't have the money to maintain what they have now. So it's a real it is a challenge but there is a balance there.

GILGER: That sounds like it's a little difficult to strike.

KING: it's a situation where you want to make everybody a little bit happy you're not going to make everybody super happy and you don't want anybody to be super unhappy.

GILGER: Yeah but it sounds like from what you're saying that this is sort of like you're standing in front of a freight train right? Like this development is coming this you know the city is going to change and the market forces are going to make that happen regardless. Is this is there anything left to be said for preserving what's there and the people who are already there?

KING: Well if the city doesn't it if the city doesn't approve developments like this, then it becomes stagnant and then you will see increases in housing values and the city will become unaffordable. This is what is happening in San Francisco and Los Angeles and New York where they're just not building enough housing, and multifamily housing, it has to be part of the solution to be able to keep Phoenix affordable.

GILGER: All right. David King is an assistant professor in the school of geographical sciences and urban planning at ASU. David, thank you so much for joining us.

KING: Yes, thank you.

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