Zone Defense

The streets of Rio Salado's south bank are lined with sagging fences, steel girders and looming metal silos. Innards of defunct supermarkets, carcasses of abandoned cars and twisted strands of rebar huddle behind barbed wire. The odor of machine oil clings to the dusty air.

But South Phoenix is on the verge of change. City planners have a vision for this area -- an $85 million vision that some local entrepreneurs say does not include the small industrial businesses that have operated here for decades. What the city calls a development project, many business owners claim is anything but.

Leonard Moreno, owner of Moreno Welding, sees a dismal future in store for his business on Third Street and Victory. After 22 years, he is finally poised for expansion. He's just received a letter from Inc. Magazine naming him as a finalist for its annual list of fastest-growing businesses, an honor that he's not sure what to do with now. Four months ago, he secured a $700,000 small-business loan, purchased some property across the street, and planned to add a new work site that would allow him to go after big contracts. "But not anymore," he says.

What he fears will cancel his plans is the Rio Salado Overlay ordinance, which the Phoenix City Council is expected to approve next Wednesday. City officials say the overlay's main purpose is to prevent businesses like pawnshops or slaughterhouses from moving to the district, while enhancing the area's curb appeal.

If the ordinance is approved on October 17, new businesses would be subject to the zoning regulations of a commercial park, rather than the current industrial standards. Existing businesses, meanwhile, would not be able to expand without meeting the new rules, which would include setbacks from the street, screening around properties and a ban on outdoor storage. In addition, within 500 feet of the river, any plans for expansion that don't fit the new regulations would require a special-use permit, which involves a four- to five-month review, a cost of nearly $3,000, and no guarantee of approval. So for entrepreneurs like Moreno, the future may hold a choice between growing their businesses, or moving elsewhere.

The overlay plan is the latest phase in the Rio Salado Project, which promises to restore the river and create an urban oasis complete with willow groves, an environmental education center, and 10 miles of hiking, biking and interpretive trails. Although federal funds have already been secured for the project and some construction began in June of last year, city planners still don't have the project completely mapped out. A master plan that would guide the city council in its decisions is still "two to three years away," says Michelle Dodds of the Phoenix Planning Department. So all Moreno and his neighbors have to rely on are the promises of city officials who assure them that the ordinance has their best interests at heart.

But Moreno's not buying it. He fears that revitalization, and the restrictions that go along with it, will kill his business just when it's beginning to thrive. "The city wants to restrict the way we do business and keep us from growing," he says. "Once you stop growing, you start to die."

For him, the potential restrictions -- as well as the hurdles he would have to jump to override them -- seem prohibitive. Under the new regs, expanding onto the property he recently purchased would require him to construct a new building large enough to fit 100-foot girders, a move that may forestall any other expansion plans and drive the company even further into debt. But his only alternative -- going through the permitting process -- would require a substantial amount of time, money, and faith in the city, all of which Moreno has in short supply.

"For me to beat the overlay, I'd have to put something up next week," Moreno says.

Ralph McCannon and Jim Dixon bought their first piece of property on Pioneer Street 35 years ago, a ramshackle metal barn in which they fabricated plastic trash cans for the City of Phoenix. As their business grew, they began purchasing the property around them. Today they own a string of buildings they lease out to a variety of light- and heavy-industrial businesses. Although the current tenants would be grandfathered in under the overlay, any new tenants who do not comply with the standards would automatically have to undergo the long and costly permitting process.

"We will never get the new tenant because they'll never wait to get the permit. They'll go somewhere else," McCannon says. "I don't have a problem with upgrading the neighborhood. I do have a problem with jumping through hoops and spending thousands of dollars every time I want to change tenants."

Michelle Dodds has been listening to complaints like McCannon's and Moreno's since the first public meeting on the ordinance was held September 6. "People are suspicious every time you do anything," she says with a sigh.

While she has been tweaking the language of the ordinance to accommodate some of the business owners' concerns, she says, the fact remains that protecting the Rio Salado Project and enhancing the appearance of the area around it are her office's primary goals -- goals that should ultimately boost property values in the area. "When you look at some of those outdoor uses, there are piles of material that have been there for 10 years," she says. "There are areas that are just not very pretty. The idea is for there to be trails along the north and south banks. Who will walk along the trails if it's not pretty?"

Looking pretty is not what Leonard Moreno is worried about. "I've put everything I have into this business in order to leave something for my children and my grandchildren," he says. "If the overlay goes through, I'll have to close my doors. I don't want to move. I don't want to sell. I just want to be left alone."

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Susy Buchanan