In May, Phoenix New Times published "Dirt Wars," a look at why downtown Phoenix feels so soulless despite the ongoing building boom.
Since then, we've heard from a number of readers saying that it summed up what they've been thinking for a long time. Which is great (we love being right about stuff!) but also kind of depressing, because it means that a lot of you agree that downtown pretty much sucks.
So what should you do, if you're one of the people looking around and wondering why everything seems so, well, blah?
Glad you asked! Here's an easy-to-follow, five-step guide:
1. Get involved with advocacy groups.
There are already several groups actively working to make downtown, and Phoenix in general, the kind of place where people actually want to spend time.
The Urban Phoenix Project, Downtown Voices Coalition, Phoenix Spokespeople, and This Could Be Phoenix are all grassroots organizations that welcome new members, and attending their events is a good way to get a crash course in Urban Planning 101. Keep showing up, and eventually you, too, will enthusiastically be talking about the benefits of transit-oriented development and mixed-use spaces.
2. Then, start weighing in on proposed projects when they come up for public hearings.
Let's say that someone wants to buy a house on Garfield Street and have the property rezoned so that they can open up a Viking-themed strip club.
Unless you own neighboring property, your first chance to express your concerns will likely be at a village planning committee meeting. Each of Phoenix's 15 "urban villages" has its own committee, which typically meets once a month. The Central City committee covers all of downtown, and you can find their agendas here.
At this stage in the game, there's still plenty of room for negotiation. So even if you're enthusiastic about what's being proposed, you can still suggest ways that it could be even better: asking the developers behind a proposed apartment complex to set aside a certain number of units for affordable housing, for instance, or telling the people who want to build a new coffee shop that you'd like to see them plant trees along the sidewalks.
Next, the project gets considered by the citywide planning commission, which meets on the first Thursday of each month. Finally, it goes to the city council. Each of these steps is an opportunity to let city officials and developers know why you like (or don't like) a project.
When developers apply for a variance, they can generally skip over meeting with the village planning committee and go straight to holding a hearing with a zoning officer. Agendas for those hearings can also be found on the page listing all public meetings for the city.
3. Show up at budget hearings.
Every spring, before officially approving the next year's budget, the city holds a series of community meetings and invites the public to give their input.
Often, these meetings are sparsely attended, which makes them a perfect opportunity to let city leaders know what your priorities are. Do you want the city to spend more money on bike lanes? Shade trees? Let them know.
This year's budget hearings took place in early April, which means that right now is the perfect time to start thinking about what you'd like to see in next year's budget and letting your city council member know about it. Which brings us to our next point ...
4. Get to know who represents you on the City Council (and hold them accountable).
If you're not sure which city council district you're in, you can start by checking here. Then, once you've figured out who your rep is, make a habit of calling and emailing them to let them know what you're thinking. Don't want yet another generic chain hotel to get a multimillion-dollar tax break? Tell them so.
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This doesn't just apply to people who live downtown. As we discussed in Step No. 2, any time developers ask for a rezoning, they'll eventually wind up in front of the city council. Same thing if they want to tear down a historic building, or ask for a tax break in exchange for completing a big project.
In those situations, your council member's vote carries the same weight as everyone else's — so don't hesitate to let them know why you support (or oppose) a plan.
Most Phoenix city council members host regular events to hear from constituents, which is a great way to make sure that they're not just ignoring your emails. If you haven't already, sign up for your rep's mailing list and follow them on Facebook so that you know when the next one is coming up.
5. Arm yourself with research.
One accusation that frequently gets leveled against Phoenix is that no one has a coherent vision for what it should look like or feel like.
That's definitely been true in the past, but, in recent years, city leaders have come up with a whole lot of plans that lay out their goals for the future. There's a tree and shade master plan, a bicycle master plan, a Central Avenue beautification plan, a downtown plan, and a general planning and development plan, just to name a few. In fact, one could argue that there are too many plans.
It's not the most exciting way to spend a Saturday night, but actually taking the time to read through some of these plans can make you a much more effective advocate. That way, the next time you offer a suggestion, you can point out how it fits in with the city's own goals. Who's going to say no to that?