Phoenix partnership presents code to regulate construction near light-rail stations

(Map courtesy of ReinventPHX)
The new code would promote construction density around transit stations in areas such as uptown, midtown and Eastlake-Garfield, as labeled on this map. (Map courtesy of Reinvent PHX)

Reinvent PHX, the collaborative partnership committed to growth and sustainability in Phoenix, is working with the city to develop a proposal to adopt a new form-based code that would regulate development around light-rail stations.

The organization has been developing what they call a “Walkable Urban Code.” The code would promote “mixture and density of activity” around transit stations in areas specified by Reinvent PHX, including uptown, midtown, Solano, Eastlake-Garfield and Gateway. It would aid in increasing the use of the light rail in general and along the central Phoenix to East Valley light rail corridor in particular, promoting multiple modes of transportation, according to the draft proposal.

Katherine Coles, a member of the Reinvent PHX project team, presented the proposal in front of the Historic Preservation Commission Monday, focusing on the goal of establishing a transit-oriented model for urban planning and development along the city’s light-rail corridor.

“We want to promote a more walkable, vibrant, dense environment,” Coles said. “The code is designed to promote an appropriate mixture of density and activity around the light-rail stations.”

Sandra K. Hoffman is the deputy director of the Planning & Development Department for the city of Phoenix, the division overseeing the proposal. She said she believes the proposal will be accepted and that her department did a good job of modifying some of the text that the original contract company created.

“That way, we can address some really specific items that we really want to make sure are covered, such as historic preservation,” Hoffman said. “It’s critical for downtown, it’s our history. We want to be thoughtful in how we build around it.”

Reinvent PHX wants to make the distinction that regulations already in place for historic preservation should always take precedence over the new code. This would be achieved in several ways, including by making sure there are buffers in the development, like a landscape strip between the anticipated construction and where historic property is located.

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While similar to the current downtown code that was established 10 years ago, the new code would replace current transit-oriented district overlays along the light rail, which were put into place before it was even constructed.

This would be done by enacting “transect-based” planning, which Coles noted many cities around the country have already implemented. This splits up zones on a 6-unit scale from rural to intensely urban. The scale for this proposal would start in the middle and go up, from single-family homes to thriving urban settings.

According to the proposal draft, “One of the principles of transect-based planning is that certain forms and elements belong in certain environments … a deep suburban setback destroys the spatial enclosure of an urban street. It is out of context. These distinctions and rules don’t limit choices; they expand them. This is the antidote for the one-size-fits-all development of today.”

Coles said that a key component of the proposal is regulating building height and placement, rather than use of the building. There would be a broader scope of what can be done with buildings in each zone.

Through creating these denser urban areas, the project team hopes to increase population and employment through infill development, forge a more friendly pedestrian, bicycle, and public-transit environment and institute better connectivity of pedestrian and vehicular routes. This would also mean barring the impact of building and land uses that do not support transit ridership.

David Krietor, CEO of Downtown Phoenix, Inc., a community development group dedicated to the continued revitalization of downtown Phoenix, said the light rail is contributing significantly to the urban core, especially as it relates to downtown Phoenix and downtown Tempe.

“In downtown Phoenix, there is strong demand for new residential development that has an urban feel to some extent because of access to light rail,” Krietor said. “Walkability is very important to downtown residents. Being sensitive about super-block development, creating more shade and providing interesting things for pedestrians to see at street level are all important to walkability and we should support these efforts.”

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