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Developer Concedes, Will Keep Giant Pine Trees at Controversial Alhambra Project

The historic Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, at 15th and Maryland avenues.EXPAND
The historic Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, at 15th and Maryland avenues.
Elizabeth Whitman

Nearly two dozen 50-year-old pine trees that were on the chopping block as part of a controversial development behind Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Phoenix's Alhambra neighborhood will not be axed, after the developer ceded to outcry from nearby residents.

At a community meeting Tuesday night at Washington Park, Ed Bull, an attorney with the firm Burch and Cracchiolo, representing developer Residential Pursuits, told the 40 or so residents in attendance (mostly white seniors, and many of them vocally miffed) that 18 of the 23 trees would remain as is. Five unhealthy ones would be cut down, and 38 new trees — half of them pine, the rest either elm or a similar species — would be planted.

It's a minor win for tree-huggers in a city whose Master Plan to plant more trees has all but stagnated in the decade since it came out.

Last year, the historic Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, which sits at the corner of Maryland and 15th avenues, began the process of selling about half of its 8.3-acre parcel to Scottsdale-based Residential Pursuits, which has plans to subdivide the lot and build a gated community of 34 two-story, single-family homes.

Church attendance, which boomed in the 1960s, has been dwindling since the 1990s. These days, its massive parking lot doesn't come close to filling up on a Sunday, which is precisely why the church is selling the space.

The church, in "survival mode," considered merging with another congregation, selling the entire lot, church included, or using the land for social services, Pastor David Marz, who joined the church four-and-a-half years ago, told New Times.

Ultimately, it settled on selling the parking lot. Marz declined to disclose the sale amount.

The whole project is, unsurprisingly, controversial in the neighborhood.

Some of the church's longtime, devoted attendees, like Tom and Gail Berggren, support the project. They told New Times that they wanted the church to continue well into the future.

"It's the way that the Lutheran tradition of Christianity is going to be retained," Tom said.

"We think this is wonderful," Gail added.

But the development's initial plans, which included cutting down the giant trees that skirted the perimeter of that parking lot, have incensed others living in the surrounding neighborhood.

The pine trees around the church are about 50 years old.EXPAND
The pine trees around the church are about 50 years old.
Elizabeth Whitman

Ever since the church placed a suspiciously inconspicuous demolition-request sign in front of its entrance last August, those residents have called the city, including the office of District 5 Councilmember Betty Guardado. They have also called and emailed Marz, the pastor, wanting to know why the church had been incommunicado with its neighbors about its plans.

Those efforts gave way to the developer and the city changing the buffer around the perimeter of the property to allow the trees to stay, Bull told attendees on Tuesday night.

It also led to the community meeting itself, which is unusual for this kind of project, because it doesn't involve rezoning. The parking lot that the church is selling is already zoned for residential homes.

Over a marathon two-hour session, Bull laid out the developer's plans, showing renderings and sketches of the entrance to the gated community and the various house facades.

Attendees — mostly older, mostly white — were not pleased, even after they learned that the trees would stay.

One man wanted to know why the developers were putting a gated community in one of the last few neighborhoods in Phoenix that isn't separated by walls and fences. 

"To put something walled there ... It's continuing the Balkanization of the city," he said. "This is a walled, gated community right in the middle of our open neighborhood."

An elderly woman asked if she would be forced to look at other people's decor, like window curtains. Someone else raised concerns that someone from California might swoop in and buy all 34 single-family homes and turn them into AirBnBs.

Bull tried to placate the audience. The 34 homes "will be a very nice part of the overall area," he said.

The community meeting on March 3, 2020.EXPAND
The community meeting on March 3, 2020.
Elizabeth Whitman

Mostly, though, people were angry that they have no say in the matter, despite being granted the unusual courtesy of a community meeting.

"Are we wasting our time here?" one man said. "Why are we here today?"

Chris Brown, the statutory agent for Residential Pursuits, pointed out that the developer had already made a concession to the locals, by leaving the trees. That, he said, was "a substantial change," he argued.

In response to an attendee who said he'd repeatedly tried to contact Marz, the pastor promised that the lines of communication would be open. "I welcome you to call me about anything," he told attendees.

Toward the end, one woman stood up and faced the back of the room, where Brown, Marz, a city representative, and others stood.

"You have devalued our property. That is the bottom line," she said.

She offered her sympathies to the church for the hard times it had fallen on, but begged the developers to "go back to the drawing board and rethink the development ... and give us a development we appreciate and respect." 

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