Urban Phoenix Neighbors Push Back on Luxury Gated Homes Next to Uptown Light Rail

A new housing development proposed along the western edge of Steele Indian School Park has all the trappings of classic Phoenix suburbia.

Except that it's not in the suburbs. It sits squarely in uptown Phoenix, just north of midtown.

Some argue the project is considered infill development and not an escapist utopia for people who want their suburban-style life.

Either way, the area has received significant taxpayer money for pedestrian-friendly transit development.

And other developers with a significant stake in building dense urban communities nearby make the project stick out like a sore thumb, critics complain.

The new project, led by a local developer, is billed as a “luxury,” gated community. It would consist exclusively of attached townhomes, each with its own two-car garage and private roads to connect the community, including an exclusive entrance to a well-known public park.

That wasn’t the first iteration of the land though, just the latest. Quite a far trek from affordable condos before the economic collapse of 2008.

Across Central Avenue, and the Indian School light rail train stop, construction workers are meticulously building a different luxury high-rise complete with retail on the ground floor stretching an entire city block.

click to enlarge
There are dense multifamily projects nearby the proposed townhomes.
Kristen Mosbrucker

The 8-acre site was sold in recent years for nearly $18 million for the land alone. The 402-unit, four-story tall multifamily building has been under construction for months. Just south of the proposed townhomes would be a massive mixed-use development with high-rise apartments, a movie theater, and a pedestrian plaza, renderings show.

As it stands, there would be upwards of 1,000 new urban apartments next to a townhome community where residents have personal garages for their vehicles.

“That site is such a prime location," said Ryan Boyd, president of Urban Phoenix Project, a local urbanist advocacy group.

Some neighbors claim that there are tensions about whether single-family townhomes fit in a community centered around public transportation. Especially when Phoenix residents voted to approve a tax hike for light rail train development in recent years.

Others in the neighborhood, though, argue that the pushback could delay a needed new source of housing in the area.

The 4.5-acre development would include 72 attached townhomes, each living space more than 2,000 square feet. The homes would have several bedrooms and possibly private yards. In its plans for the area, the development called them “luxury” homes.

While townhomes are a denser housing development than a neighborhood of detached single-family homes complete with a culdesac, the project has struck a nerve with those fighting for fewer vehicles on the road.

Some activists and neighborhood groups are frustrated by the plans for a luxury development within walking distance of a bustling light rail train station.

"It is between light rail stops. It is next to a major city park. It's a point of pride,” Boyd said.
click to enlarge
Cresleigh Homes is proposing a 4.5-acre housing project in uptown Phoenix.
City of Phoenix

It would cut off access to the park, neighbors said, and bring lower-density homes to an area that needs affordable housing. It also represents a departure from the city's plans for the site.

“This is the place where you can actually put dense housing that’s in a walkable environment,” Boyd said. “And if we fail to do that, we’re basically just going to continue to build this sprawling suburbia.”

Over the past several years, the city of Phoenix has set lofty goals to leave unrestrained suburban sprawl in the dust.

City officials have repeatedly paid lip service to encourage a more walkable and sustainable future. Some developers have followed their lead to make it a reality, as is the case nearby Steele Indian School Park.

But as property values spike and housing developers rush in, critics worry that Phoenix is falling short of its goals.

click to enlarge
Plans include 72 attached townhomes and an exclusive entrance to a public park.
City of Phoenix

In this case, despite opposition from some nearby neighborhood groups, the developer — Cresleigh Homes — has been given a green light by two city planning commissions. This week, the proposal is now headed to the city council.

Laura Pastor, the council member who represents district four, which includes the development, has not signaled her stance on the plan. Two representatives from her office did not return queries from Phoenix New Times and it was not immediately clear why.

Wade Kempton, senior vice president of Cresleigh Homes, as well as other of the developer’s staff, did not return New Times’ inquiries for this story.

But the developer submitted extensive documentation to the city of Phoenix about its plans and argued that the project is pedestrian-friendly and in line with the spirit of the city's transit plans.

click to enlarge
The townhome project had zoning cases in recent months.
Kristen Mosbrucker

The project would create an "inviting community experience" with shade, gathering areas, and a bicycle repair station, according to the developer’s plans.

And it would adopt a design that "enhances comfort, provides shade, and promotes multiple walkable connection points to the project and the greater Central Avenue public corridor."

The property is owned by a real estate shell business, Midtown Central Hotel Corporation. According to Arizona Corporation Commission records, Midtown Central Hotel Corporation is a subsidiary of a hotel property development company headquartered in San Francisco called Stanford Hotels.

The company operates one of the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton hotels in Phoenix.

Back in 2006, Cresleigh Homes announced a project to build 256 condos on the parcel — four times more units than the current plans. The group touted the plans as a way to provide “attainable” housing to the nearby community.

The original plan was also conceived as pedestrian-friendly after tearing down an old hotel at the site.

"No one will ever be confronted with a big sea of cars," Brad Bull, who worked with the original architecture firm on the project, told the Phoenix Business Journal back in 2007.

The plans never came to fruition. Instead, the developer has hung onto land, records show.

click to enlarge
A sign of the public park nearby a new luxury townhome development.
Kristen Mosbrucker

In 2015, the city of Phoenix announced its “Reinvent PHX” plan — partly a result of a partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

City planners spent more than $3 million in federal funding trying to reimagine a radically different future for an otherwise car-centric city.

Along the light rail line, the city would encourage walkable neighborhoods, accessible shopping, and denser, more affordable housing, the plan said.

At times, neighborhoods have struggled to make sure developers lived up to the goals of these plans. In South Phoenix, residents said that without a stronger policy, they have feared displacement as investors try to get rich in a hot market.

Nicole Rodriguez, a member of the Encanto Village Planning Committee, expressed similar sentiments regarding developments along the light rail in uptown Phoenix.

“What is the point of all that human capital that went into [the plan] if we're not going to honor it?” Rodriguez said, noting that the Reinvent Phoenix district plans took years to draft and were hundreds of pages long.

“This sets the stage for developers to go down a similar avenue,” Rodriguez said.

The city worked with community groups and individual residents for years to draw up plans for multiple districts around the city, all under the umbrella of more sustainable, dense development.

The city defines the uptown district as spanning from Indian School Road up to Missouri Avenue, between Seventh Street and 15th Avenue.

click to enlarge
The City of Phoenix's master plan lays out urban centers.
City of Phoenix

In its plan for the district, back in 2015, the city professed its plans to create a “walkable, opportunity-rich community,” and to provide neighborhoods with “new urban living choices in a city planned almost entirely for the automobile.”

The parcel of land now slated for a gated community was meant to be — ideally — a “walkable urban center,” according to the plan, full of small businesses and urban housing.

But city officials have pushed back on activists for focusing on blocking a single development when there will be plenty of high rises for urban dwellers in the coming years.

“From my perspective, we have to evaluate things holistically," said Joel Carrasco, a planner with the city of Phoenix who specializes in transit-oriented development. “I can see, from a community perspective, looking at one or two things, it might not appear that a lot of progress has been made.”

That's not true, Carrasco said: The adoption of the new transit plans had helped usher in new federal dollars in grants and has promoted new, urban developments along the light rail.

"Phoenix has always been deemed the car city," he said.

To start to move away from that was a “huge lift.”

click to enlarge
The transit-oriented neighborhood has several bus stops and a train station.
Kristen Mosbrucker

Justin Johnson, who sits on the city planning commission and is a developer himself, said that he is skeptical that there is widespread opposition among the community nearby — dismissing the concerns as alarm bells raised by relatively few zealous urbanist advocates in the city.

“The community seemed to support the project,” Johnson said, though acknowledged “some opposition” raised by village planning members like Rodriguez.

Rodriguez countered these claims by noting that no neighborhood residents had called into the local village planning meeting to support the project. New Times could not immediately independently verify this claim and is waiting for a records request for such information.

In a city whose housing pool is fast drying up, Johnson said, the development would provide an important new resource.

“There is a really big need right now for for-sale housing,” he said, noting that most of the high-rises that have cropped up along Central Avenue in the last several years have been apartment rentals.

Furthermore, he said, townhomes were less dense than apartments, but still an urban design.

As for the city’s lofty transit plans?

“It’s an idea for what we want,” he said.

It didn’t mean that developers couldn’t deviate from the plan.

Carrasco expressed a similar sentiment.

“These are community-based visions,” he said of the plan.

click to enlarge
The view inside one entrance of Steele Indian School Park shows housing development nearby.
Kristen Mosbrucker

Developers might not have to comply with new zoning codes suggested by the city, but the plans, he said, were a sign that the “community is going to hold their feet to the fire.”

In the case of the uptown development, Ed Hermes, vice president of the Carnation Neighborhood Association, does not agree that the opposition to the project is coming from just a few activists.

Hermes lives with his wife and two young daughters in the Carnation neighborhood, which is located directly across from the planned site on the other side of the light rail.

“We’re pricing out teachers. We’re pricing out the people that work in our community,” Hermes said. “It’s a huge concern.”

It's not immediately clear what it means for neighbors as luxury developments pop up in a mixed-income neighborhood.

"People move into Carnation neighborhood because they love the walkability,” he said. “These projects are going to shape the neighborhood for the rest of its life, so it's a bit of a battleground here.”

Hermes said he met with the developer to express his concerns about the project. After hearing opposition, some changes were made — like adding porches on some of the townhomes that connected directly to the street. But Hermes was not yet satisfied, saying that the design was “copy-and-pasted” from other parts of the city.

The proposal is slated to go before the city council at its March 2 meeting.