The alleyway behind the historic Barrister Building has become a subject of contention.EXPAND
The alleyway behind the historic Barrister Building has become a subject of contention.
Antonia Farzan

Proposed Alleyway Abandonment in Downtown Phoenix Draws Criticism

Alleyways don't get a lot of love. When they're in the news, it's usually because someone's found a dead body, or gotten sick of cleaning up used syringes

But Sean Sweat, the president of the Urban Phoenix Project, argues that downtown needs its alleyways.

In urban areas, he points out, having an alley means that stuff like electrical transformers and dumpsters get placed there, and not on the street. That, in turn, makes getting around on foot more appealing, and helps create a more walkable downtown.

Getting rid of the alleyway means that all that unsightly, unappealing, and occasionally smelly stuff has to go somewhere else — typically, out on the street.

If you've ever walked down First Street past the Cronkite building, you've probably caught a whiff of the dumpsters out by the loading dock. That, Sweat says, is "a prime example of why we should be using alleys."

He cites an urban planning maxim: "The dirtier your alleys are, the cleaner your streets are."

Currently, the Urban Phoenix Project is lobbying to try and save one specific alleyway, which is located behind the historic Barrister Building on Central Avenue and Jefferson Street.

If that name doesn't ring a bell: The Barrister Building is the one that appears in the opening scenes of Psycho. (For obvious reasons, developers have resisted the temptation to nickname it "the Psycho building.")

Last June, the Phoenix City Council's downtown subcommittee approved a plan to turn the building into condos, which will be known as Jefferson Place.

"The plan didn't include abandoning the alley," Sweat says. "But afterwards, the developers came back and said, 'Oh, by the way, we're going to abandon the alley.'"

In September, Phoenix's abandonment hearing officer approved their request to abandon the alleyway. The Urban Phoenix Project has appealed that decision, and the Phoenix City Council will hold a hearing on Wednesday.

Representatives for Crescent Bay Holdings, the developer behind the Jefferson Place project, declined to comment for this story, citing the pending appeal.

To be clear, abandoning an alleyway doesn't mean letting a bunch of used mattresses pile up there — at least not in this context.

Instead, it means that what had been a public right-of-way becomes the property of a private owner. It's then up to the developer to decide how that space should be utilized.

In this specific case, Crescent Bay Holdings wants to place pillars that will support a parking garage in the alleyway.

You might think: Who cares about this one building? How much of a difference can it make?

"That's what we hear with all of them," Sweat says. "Just one more building adds up to lots of buildings. It's a death of a thousand cuts, and we need to stop the bleeding."

There's also larger questions at stake about the transfer of public land into private hands. Private businesses have more latitude to force out the homeless, Sweat notes — which does nothing to solve the underlying issues of homelessness.

Meanwhile, last year, the city council approved a set of Downtown Abandonment Criteria, which, among other things, notes that the abandonment of alleys "should be avoided, and occur only in special circumstances."

In their letter of appeal, the Urban Phoenix Project claims that abandoning the Barrister alley violates three out of those five criteria.

"The question is: Are they going to uphold the policy that they put in place last year?" Sweat asks. 

Update, 10/19: The Phoenix City Council voted unanimously to reject the Urban Phoenix Project's appeal last night.

"Vice Mayor Laura Pastor was the only councilperson to ask any insightful questions about the abandonment, but it's disappointing that in the end the Council all chose to protect their RFP rather than uphold City policy and the zoning ordinance," Sweat says.

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