Downtown community revitalizes vacant lots with new businesses and events

This empty lot at 408 E Roosevelt St. has been turned into the A.R.T.S. Market, which is filled with artists, food trucks and vendors on First and Third Fridays and is also available for private events. This lot exemplifies Phoenix’s attempts to revitalize the city’s empty lots.  (Madeline Pado/DD)

Due to high vacancy percentages in Phoenix’s past, the city, businesses and community organizations are creating new venues and events to fill the unused spaces.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton estimated that a significant portion of the land in the Phoenix area is either a vacant lot or a vacant building, due to the recession and city’s history.

“Vacancies make up around 42 percent of Phoenix,” Stanton said. “You compare us to almost any major American city and we have the most.”

Stanton’s estimate is based on combining aerial views of vacant lots with U.S. Census data on vacant properties. Sandy Hoffman, principal planner for the city of Phoenix said she stands behind the mayor’s estimate.

Locals in the Phoenix area say vacant spaces have been prevalent in the city for as long as they can remember. However, Norman Fox, a commercial real estate agent for Infill Realty Services, said that Phoenix — especially downtown — has come a long way.

“Ten years ago there was absolutely nothing here,” Fox said. “Now we have the ASU Downtown campus, the METRO light rail, the expansion of the Phoenix Convention Center and 10 years ago we were not even close to that.”

The push to fill vacant lots along Roosevelt Street, between First and Seventh streets, has been made easier with events such as First Friday art walks, which bring entertaining events to empty spaces for the locals and the growing student population.

With the recent influx of students that live downtown, the need for housing in downtown Phoenix is in high demand, Donte Brock said, community manager for Roosevelt Point, a new housing community located along Roosevelt and Fourth streets set to open in the fall of 2013.

Brock said housing for students is a necessity in keeping more residents in downtown Phoenix, which will ultimately lead to having more successful local businesses.

Even with the current projects in action, Stanton said there is still more to be done to enrich the Phoenix landscape.

“I’m unafraid to say we need an identity downtown,” Stanton said.

Stanton said that with all the vacant spaces that Phoenix has to offer, there should be projects in place that will help give the city much needed national attention. He said Phoenix would benefit from the construction of a standout feature much like the Space Needle in Seattle.

“We did make the front page of the New York Times because of a project that is filling up a piece of vacant land on northeast corner of Central Avenue and Indian School Road,” Stanton said. “This is exciting stuff.”

Measuring downtown vacancies

The vacancy rate of residential housing units in downtown Phoenix — approximately the area from McDowell to Buckeye roads, from Seventh Avenue to Seventh Street — was 24.4 percent in April 2010, according to the Census.

Max Enterline, planner for the City of Phoenix Planning and Development Services Research Team, said that he believes this number was skewed because around that time, large residential towers like 44 Monroe on First Avenue and Van Buren Street were mostly vacant. Now that new residential towers have filled up, the vacancies rating should have gone down, Enterline said.

Enterline conducted a geographical analysis of the vacant acres in downtown Phoenix, and referenced two other ways of measuring vacancies. In terms of land area by the acre, 6.36 percent of downtown Phoenix is vacant. In terms of commercial and residential parcels, Enterline said 13.84 percent of downtown Phoenix is vacant.

“These vacancies are decreasing each year and look like they will keep decreasing,” Enterline said.

New businesses to fill vacant buildings

Shane Copeland and his wife own 8th Day: Coffee and Culture on Second and Garfield streets. The building 8th Day now inhabits was vacant from January, when Just Breathe yoga studio moved to another location, to September, when Eighth Day opened.

Copeland said that when he and his wife first planned to open shop, there was not much around that location. Angels Trumpet Ale House was beginning construction across the street and Matt’s Big Breakfast moved to nearby First and Garfield streets as Copeland prepared to move into his new building.

With the sudden flow of new businesses in the area, Copeland said he is hopeful that his business will succeed in this location.

“I had my eyes on coming and investing in downtown Phoenix since 2002,” Copeland said. “I started hearing of plans for the ASU campus around 2006. I heard about a lot of promising plans for the downtown area, but when the economy crashed in 2008 everything was put off, even my own plans.”

With the recession fading away and with projects like ASU Downtown now complete, businesses like 8th Day may now have a fighting chance, Copeland said.

“I don’t think we could have made it if we started four years ago,” Copeland said. “I was so anxious to start my business in downtown around 2007, but in the hindsight I’m better off having had waited until now.”

Phoenix gets innovative

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said he knows the city still needs work and that the old version of downtown Phoenix that was once empty can and will be revitalized.

“The question we ask now is when will downtown stand on its own? The answer is not yet,” Stanton said.

He said that downtown Phoenix was not originally built as a walkable city and, as a result, there is a need now to reshape a lot of the existing streetscapes that are currently empty lots.

“No one wants to walk by an empty lot, they want to walk where there are buildings, restaurants and coffee shops,” Stanton said. “These vacant lots are a killer.”

The PHX Renews project began on Nov. 19 of last year and continues today.
Photos by Thomas Hawthorne

Stanton said he is happy that some of the vacant lots are pushing businesses to get creative. PHX Renews is a project that Stanton said he has been avidly planning. This initiative kicked off in late November on the northeast corner of Central Avenue and Indian School Road and is revitalizing what used to be a 15-acre vacant lot into a community garden.

This community garden can be beneficial for all Phoenix locals and include international refugees, Stanton said.

“This area will bring art, life and farming into our community,” Stanton said. “There will be dozens of refugees from all over the world, including African nations. These people came here because they had to escape wars, among other situations, and we’re giving them this land to farm. We hope they can put food on their table and even take that food to farmer’s markets to sell. Agriculture has been their trade and they can now take that trade and help it grow in Arizona.”

The community garden will also showcase pieces from local artists such as Hugo Medina.

“We’re going to take an empty lot and turn it into something beautiful,” Stanton said.

Contact the reporter at