Local First Arizona Forum discusses vacant lot activation

Michael McMahon, co-owner of Agave Environmental Contracting and organizer of Agave Farms, speaks during a Local First Arizona forum about temporary activation of vacant lots in downtown Phoenix. (Stephanie Morse/DD)

Community members discussed the role that activated vacant lots have played in shaping downtown and how the city can foster more of these projects at an Urban Design Week forum Thursday.

Local First Arizona hosted the forum at the Ro2 pop-up park next to MonOrchid. Discussion focused on the process and challenges of temporary activation as well the positive impact these types of projects have had on downtown.

Temporary activation is a relatively new occurrence in Phoenix, with most of the projects discussed during the panel dating back to around 2012 or after. Kenny Barrett, co-owner of Growhouse and leader of the Valley of the Sunflowers project, said at the time there were more vacant lots in Phoenix which negatively impacted the area.

“All of these buildings were vacant lots,” Barrett said in reference to some of the buildings in the Roosevelt area. “It was a huge issue and people felt like it really impacted their quality of life and walkability and the vibrancy of this community.”

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This inspired Barrett and Dorina Bustamante, director of community engagement for Downtown Phoenix Inc, to each start various temporary use projects to improve the community. Bustamante has worked on several temporary activations including Ro2.

“Initially, there is this goal to activate empty space,” Barrett said. “But then there has to be some other goal that you’re addressing or problem you’re trying to solve to make the projects really interesting and important.”

When Bustamante first started the Ro2 pop-up park in 2012, she said she was able to rally the community around the idea, but ran into challenges when working with the City of Phoenix. The city did not have guidelines or procedures in place for this type of activation.

“Every time that I would go to the city to ask for permits or approvals, they had no idea what we were trying to achieve or what we were trying to do,” Bustamante said. “I wanted to do things in a legal way to create precedent and also to create a path for others to follow.”

After the start of several temporary activation projects, City of Phoenix Planning and Development Director Alan Stephenson said the city did not want to stand in the way of these ideas. So the city streamlined the process to make this type of activation easier, including adding interim vacant land use as permitted use in the downtown zoning codes.

“It was something that, as a planner, I had read about it in other cities,” Stephenson said. “We hadn’t done anything here related to that, so we really went back and looked and talked to staff.”

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Both Barrett and Bustamante were impressed by the community involvement and impact of these projects. Bustamante said the projects and events Ro2 has inspired in the community were “light years beyond what we could of ever anticipated,” and Barrett said Growhouse became a community gathering spot where long lasting friendships were formed.

Moving forward, Stephenson said he hopes these kinds of temporary use projects continue to pop up around Phoenix and said the city needs to continue to help make them possible.

“Phoenix has to figure out our own little niche of how to develop some of those things,” Stephenson said. “I see these kinds of little pop-up parks and community activated spaces as something that fills some of that gap. It will be great to see this continue as other development happens and moves around to other places.”

Contact the reporter at Stephanie.M.Morse@asu.edu.