Five Ways To Reuse Vacant Lots In Downtown Phoenix

Wynwood Yard, a vacant lot-turned-community gathering space in Miami.
Wynwood Yard, a vacant lot-turned-community gathering space in Miami. Massion Liang
Spend 10 minutes walking around downtown Phoenix, and chances are good that you'll pass by at least one vacant lot. Despite the construction boom that's happening right now, there's still plenty of land right at the middle of the city's center that's just waiting to be developed.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Elsewhere in the country, planners and developers have found creative uses for empty lots that will actually bring people downtown — rather than driving them away. San Diego, for instance, has Quartyard, an "urban playground" with a cafe, beer garden, dog park, event space, and farmers market, all built in empty shipping containers on a formerly vacant lot.

Granted, turning vacant lots into public spaces brings up logistical issues, such as who's liable if someone trips and falls and gets hurt. But other cities have made it work. All it requires is a bit of effort, and a little imagination.

Here are a few ways that downtown Phoenix's vacant lots could be repurposed:

1. Bring in community gardens.

Back in February, gardeners at PHX Renews were told to clear their plots so that the land could be turned over to the U.S. Department of the Interior. It was devastating news for the many community members, including refugees from Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who'd spent the past five years helping to revitalize the space.

The good news? There are plenty of vacant lots in downtown Phoenix that could serve the same purpose. It wouldn't be a permanent solution, since eventually the lots will have to be cleared to make way for more development. But in the meantime, it would be a lot nicer to look at than gravel and dirt.

click to enlarge A giant game of chess in Sydney. - SHEILA THOMPSON/FLICKR
A giant game of chess in Sydney.
2. Create playgrounds and kid-friendly spaces.

"Cities should offer places to play and we don’t have anything like that near downtown," points out Ray Cabrera, Director of Downtown Environment at Downtown Phoenix, Inc.

Done correctly, those spaces could be fun for adults as well. Sean Sweat, the founder and president of the Urban Phoenix Project, suggests giant chessboards and checkerboards, as well as basketball courts.

click to enlarge An outdoor concert in Austin, Texas. - JDEERINGDAVIS/FLICKR
An outdoor concert in Austin, Texas.
3. Host gatherings and events.

Downtown Phoenix currently has no central gathering spot. As Cabrera points out, Block 23, the vacant lot just east of CityScape, used to be the place where large events would set up shop downtown. It's now being developed, and will hold downtown's first grocery store.
But there are still plenty of other vacant lots that could be used to fill that role. And in addition to hosting performances and concerts, they could be a space for displaying public art.

click to enlarge Wynwood Yard, a vacant lot-turned-community gathering space in Miami. - MASSION LIANG
Wynwood Yard, a vacant lot-turned-community gathering space in Miami.
Massion Liang
4. Allow "pop-up" retail and restaurants.

"Downtown could really be transformed," Ray Cabrera of Downtown Phoenix, Inc. points out. He envisions mobile vendors like food trucks and beer gardens popping up in vacant lots while the land's owner waits for something more permanent to come through. Temporary spaces could be constructed using cheaper materials like shipping containers, he points out. 
In Miami, a similar concept has been incredibly successful: Wynwood Yard, a formerly vacant lot which has been temporarily repurposed with an urban garden, outdoor bar, patio space, and food trucks, is one of the most popular spots in town.

click to enlarge Owen Memorial Garden, Portland, Oregon - RICK OBST/FLICKR
Owen Memorial Garden, Portland, Oregon
5. Add trees and picnic benches to create informal public plazas.

At a bare minimum, Sean Sweat of the Urban Phoenix Project says, owners of vacant lots should be required to replace dirt and gravel with sod and grass.

"The first and most basic step that should be taken is that all vacant lots should be required to have grass, trees, and picnic benches," he says. "There are native and drought-tolerant versions that could be used, along with some shade trees. Nothing fancy — no need for landscape architects and over-designed spaces—  just grass, trees, and picnic benches."

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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.