OUTING INFILL

PHOENIX'S INFILL HOUSING PROGRAM IS SUPPOSED TO ENCOURAGE RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT IN THE CITY CORE WHILE CURBING URBAN SPRAWL. BUT WHEN IT SUBSIDIZES LUXURY HOMES IN EXCLUSIVE NEIGHBORHOODS, THE PROGRAM FILLS THE WALLETS OF BUILDERS

"There was a lot of political bullshit that flapped from the lips of council people publicly, that behind closed doors is not at all what they want to have happen," Stapp says. ". . . They don't want affordable housing in the infill program."
Vice Mayor Craig Tribken, who represents the center city, is the most obvious example, Stapp says.

Tribken counters: "All affordable housing doesn't need to be in central Phoenix. Central Phoenix has its fair share."

He says he didn't want poor people living in Stapp's houses. And he didn't want cheap wooden fences, either. "We don't want to build new Maryvales," Tribken says.

Stapp's subsidies will only turn out to be about $550 per house, because water and sewer hookups were already in place. He questions the value of subsidies at all, pointing out that the more expensive projects will be built regardless, and that even for his project, the city funding didn't make a difference.

Urban designer Michael Dollin admires Stapp for undertaking his housing project. Dollin believes the infill program is "a meager attempt," a "buckshot" approach that would better utilize resources by directing them to one neighborhood.

He's shocked that homes at Third Street and Osborn can sell for $80,000 and says some of the prerequisites "almost make the program unworkable."

But the infill program is not without enthusiasts. One of them is Greg Brownell, a sales associate with Elliott Homes. Brownell admits that the eight houses his employer built through the pilot infill program probably would have gone up without the subsidies. The eight homes are being added to an Elliott subdivision on 16th Street between Southern Avenue and Baseline. Brownell has nothing but good things to say about the pilot infill program. Perhaps that's because Elliott is trying to cut a deal with the city to build 97 more homes adjacent to its existing subdivision, all with city subsidies. "Two thousand bucks is a lot of extra money," Brownell says, particularly for marketing purposes.

Particularly when it's multiplied by 97.
Another big fan is Russ Conway, who might be the putative father of Phoenix's pilot infill program. Long before Rimsza and the city council approved the program, Conway, land development manager of Classic-Steller, a custom homebuilder, created Central City Estates. Homes at the 14-unit development on Central Avenue north of Missouri are priced at around $320,000. The site presented some difficulties because it had been home to a restaurant and hotel, so Conway persuaded then-councilmember Rimsza to consider expediting the building process for infill developers.

The result was the pilot infill program, which Conway took advantage of for Lincoln Vistas, a 28-home development north of Lincoln Drive, near 20th Street. Lincoln Vistas was already in the works, so the fee waivers Conway's received on four homes (so far) are just icing on the cake, although he says Lincoln Vistas is difficult to sell because of traffic and a few older homes in the area. Conway says the infill program was a factor in his decision to build Meadowlark Manor, a 12-home development at 15th Avenue and Orangewood. He's received a fee waiver for one home so far.

How to promote infill in the true inner city? Conway says it would be difficult to pinpoint target areas on a map, excluding areas that don't need incentives. "That kind of map would be impossible to draw," he says.

Conway laughs when asked whether some fee waivers are undeserved. "Probably no different from our welfare system," he says.

John Meunier, ASU's architecture dean, agrees that Rimsza deserves some credit for making infill an issue. But, Meunier wonders, "Does he have the ammunition to actually fight the battle he wants to fight?"

Rimsza keeps a dog-eared legal pad scribbled with lists of suggestions to promote infill--from offering free garbage pickup, to encouraging city employees to live in Phoenix, to securing a capital-gains tax break for people who build in the city. Many of Rimsza's ideas depend on other governmental bodies--particularly the Legislature. Phoenix officials covet a state sales-tax break for construction costs on infill housing, to benefit the home buyer. The city would offer a similar break, Rimsza says. Phoenix Intergovernmental Affairs Coordinator Norris Nordvold says the city tried to push it through the Legislature last year, but failed.

House Ways and Means Chairperson Lori Daniel, a Chandler Republican, says she'll kill such a bill if it comes up again next year.

Daniel says, "You're making people from Chandler or other various cities pay sales tax for Phoenix's infill. . . . I think it needs to be beneficial across the state. I think infill's great. I think what the city's trying to do is fine. But I think they can waive their own fees, waive their own taxes on a city level and accomplish the same thing without getting into the state tax dollars."

Rimsza doesn't hold out much hope. "The Legislature has little interest in urban communities today," he says. Craig Tribken's more blunt. He says, "The political will is not going to come from a Legislature that is more concerned about grazing rights than they are about home values in the central city. These guys take an almost perverse pleasure in watching cities fail, because cities represent to them the failure of liberal policies."

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