'Hood Winked

Phoenix neighborhoods revitalization efforts run into trouble at City Hall

Last August, about 30 residents of Central City South, a few city officials and some interested outsiders gathered in the steamy summer heat at the Valley Christian Center at 13th Avenue and Hadley Street to hear what the city planned to do about this neighborhood in need of help.

Stuck between the railroad tracks downtown and I-17, from Central to 19th Avenue, Central City South comprises dozens of city blocks that for years have been mired in poverty, degradation and environmental blight. The area is an unsettling mix of housing and industry. It's close enough to Sky Harbor International Airport, just to the east, that residents are inundated with jet noise. It takes in nearly half of all of Phoenix's city-owned public housing. But city leaders have largely ignored the area.

So residents were angry -- though perhaps not too surprised -- when Deputy City Manager Jacques Avent began telling the crowd last summer that their neighborhood has always been run-down and the city had no plans or money to improve the situation.

Ethel Lane, who heads a local neighborhood organization, says city leaders have neglected Central City South for years.
Paolo Vescia
Ethel Lane, who heads a local neighborhood organization, says city leaders have neglected Central City South for years.

Avent didn't get far in his public dismissal of Central City South before Ethel Lane, a longtime businesswoman who heads a local neighborhood association, cut him off -- and down a notch or two, by most accounts.

"After Jacques said the neighborhood had always been inferior," Lane says now, "I asked him how long he had been in the city of Phoenix to make that statement. I think he told me seven or 10 years. I just didn't think that was long enough."

"He was supposed to come down and give the people hope," she says. "Instead, my perception was that he more or less looked down on the entire area."

Lane told him to take a seat. And that's putting it kindly.

People who witnessed the tongue-lashing say it might still have been on Avent's mind last month when he insisted on quashing a federal National Endowment for the Arts grant proposal that could have started the neighborhood on a path toward renewal.

Whatever the reason, this top city official whom some community organizers privately call "Darth Avent" has consistently blocked meaningful assistance to this troubled community. His actions have gone against the wishes of a city council subcommittee and councilman Cody Williams, who represents the area. He's alienated nonprofit groups like the Phoenix Revitalization Corporation (PRC) and ASU's Joint Urban Design Program, which have worked with Williams and area residents to reverse years of decline.

A respected city planner who worked on the recently scuttled federal grant proposal has quit, in part, some say, because of Avent's obstruction of comprehensive planning in Central City South and other beleaguered neighborhoods.

Now, Avent's boss, City Manager Frank Fairbanks, is scrambling to soothe tempers around City Hall and Central City South. Fairbanks met with the PRC board last month -- the first time he'd visited the eight-year-old nonprofit organization -- to reassure members that the city intends to help.

Late last month, to mollify Williams and community organizers concerned over the killing of the NEA grant application, Fairbanks told Avent to rush together an application for another grant, a highly competitive $35 million HUD award that could help revive the area around Central City South's public housing.

Avent had been opposed to using that HUD money in Central City South. He and the city's housing director, Manny Gonzalez, think the dollars would be better spent at the Foothills housing project at 7th Avenue near Southern, although, according to local HUD officials, that project probably won't meet the grant's stringent criteria.

Fairbanks defends his lieutenant, saying Avent's actions haven't been out of line or against city policy. He says Avent's position reflects a genuine concern about the wisdom of building homes in the flight path -- an issue the city still needs to resolve.

But Williams and community organizers say Avent and city management have used the airport as an excuse to avoid facing other difficult issues that would accompany efforts to revitalize Central City South.

Many of those problems were raised last April by neighborhood residents, urban planners, architects and landscape architects at a neighborhood urban design workshop co-sponsored by ASU and the PRC. The workshop recommended developing a specific plan for the area to improve street lighting, traffic, housing, shopping, environmental quality and other urban basics. The workshop recommendations were endorsed last November by a city council subcommittee headed by councilman Williams. That endorsement led to the NEA proposal.

The saga of the grants demonstrates not only the conflicting agendas of elected city council members and the un-elected officials at the city of Phoenix. It shows the powerful influence that top-level bureaucrats like Avent have on public policy.

"This is nothing new," says Ethel Lane. "This has been going on ever since I've been over here. Jacques is just the latest.

"But he works for someone, doesn't he? And he shouldn't be free to say yes or no to anything without the okay from his supervisor. Frank Fairbanks should be his boss. And as far as he goes, we elected our councilman to hold him in tow."

Avent, one of the six deputy city managers under Fairbanks, has held that position since 1992. He's been with the city since 1989. He is considered a savvy administrator whose oversight of the city's Housing, Public Works and Neighborhood Services Departments gives him power over the city's increasing number of blighted neighborhoods. His influence over policy in minority neighborhoods is bolstered by his urban roots -- he headed the National League of Cities in Washington, D.C., for nine years and oversaw the formation of Phoenix's Neighborhood Services Department in the early 1990s -- and the fact that he's one of just a few African Americans at the high end of city management.

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