Neighborhood associations protest alley abandonment

Alleys, like the one picture above, have been getting increased scrutiny as a result of a proposal to build an apartment complex on Central Avenue and Fillmore Street. That proposal has been approved, with no alleyway included in the design. (Nicole Neri/DD)

The development of an apartment complex, which will be owned by Hines Real Estate, is sparking debate about alleyway abandonment between neighborhood associations and the City of Phoenix Planning and Development Department.

The development under fire is a proposed multifamily apartment complex, 601 Central, located on the northeast corner of Central Avenue and Fillmore Street. As it stands, the property is approved to take up a full city block, with no alleyway included in the design.

This seemingly mundane issue is considered a necessary point of discussion by neighborhood associations because they say it pushes alleyway functions such as housing utilities and trash collection onto the street and sidewalk, which threatens the walkability of the downtown area.

The Thunderdome Association for Non-Auto Mobility, along with other community groups such as the Evans Churchill Community Association (ECCA) and the Downtown Voices Coalition (DVC), wrote letters to the Planning and Development Department in late August voicing their concerns.

The letters detailed the threat that abandoned alleyways impose on city inhabitants without vehicles. The groups were in firm protest of the proposal for alleyway abandonment by Hines, which the city approved Aug. 29, a few days after receiving the letters from the community groups.

“Of primary concern is what the loss of this alley does to the surrounding downtown streetscapes: It pushes out toward the public those elements that alleys were specifically designed to house,” DVC member Tim Eigo wrote.

According to Eigo, beyond their functionality, alleyways are also used by pedestrians as a right of way. He says “superblock” developments such as 601 Central poorly serve pedestrians.

In an emailed statement from Hines, the developer explained that the project would not be feasible logistically without seeking alleyway abandonment. Hines does not own the property now, but is in a due diligence period.

For a developer to formally abandon an alleyway, it must submit an application to the city and hold a public hearing. There is also a $1,930 fee the city collects in association to abandonments.

Hines held community meetings in July and August with these neighborhood advocacy groups to address their concerns, but discussions did little to sway each side.

“Hines has spent a considerable amount of time, during and in between eight meetings, providing options and concessions based on feedback from the Downtown Voices Coalition, Thunderdome Neighborhood Association for Non-Auto Mobility and Evans Churchill Community Association,” a representative for Hines said in the emailed statement.

One option Hines offered to quell concerns over walkability was to replace an alleyway with a public promenade surrounding the property. The developer suggested this alternative would still provide benefits for the city.

“The proposed development plan creates public space equal to the alley’s square footage along street frontages, including a public promenade with large public plazas at site corners, decorative paving, seating areas and shade,” the statement from Hines said.

The City of Phoenix has emphasized increasing walkability when developing the urban core. It specifies many regulations for developers in its Walkable Urban Code, including rules on alleyway abandonment.

Sean Sweat, president of the Thunderdome Neighborhood Association for Non-Auto Mobility, cited this code in his letter to the city, saying “an abandonment here would force the electrical boxes and their servicing onto the street, which violates section 1207.K of the Downtown Code.”

This section of the Walkable Urban Code is the only legal element protecting alleys according to Thunderdome vice president Jeff Sherman. He says the Planning and Development Department has worked diligently with citizens to make sure non-auto mobility is retained by establishing these guidelines.

According to Sherman, some believe Hines’ alley abandonment may be in violation of Section 1207.K since utilities provider Arizona Public Service would be forced to service along the street.

Sherman says specifications regarding Hines’ alleyway abandonment are still in the works. He is currently working with the Planning and Development Department on a committee with other community members to draft new guidelines for alley abandonment and activation.

Correction: September 14, 2016: An earlier version of this story misidentified Hines Real Estate as the owners of the property. It has been updated to reflect the company’s status in its due diligence period.

Clarification: September 14, 2016: The photo used for this story is a general alleyway photo, and does not depict the alley on Central Avenue and Fillmore Street.

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