Land use and zoning attorney talks about sustainability at East Valley Partnership event - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Land use and zoning attorney talks about sustainability at East Valley Partnership event

June 13th, 2017 development
Land use and zoning attorney talks about sustainability at East Valley Partnership event

By Wayne Schutsky

The Valley is not the poster child for sustainability, but if Grady Gammage Jr. has his way, it soon could be. The noted Phoenix land use and zoning attorney literally wrote the book on why Phoenix and its surrounding cities, including Chandler, should be commended for prudent planning and development.

Gammage, who recently authored “The Future of the Suburban City: Lessons from Sustaining Phoenix,” delivered the keynote address at last month’s SRP 2017 Forum, which focused on sustainability and development in the East Valley. Salt River Project hosted the event along with East Valley Partnership.

Gammage spent the bulk of his speech at the Tempe event addressing what he claims are five incorrect indictments of Valley cities, such as they have no water, they consume too much energy, and they rely too heavily on automotive transportation and urban sprawl.

He countered many of the claims by illustrating the ways in which local governments and utilities in Arizona have planned for the desert’s unique conditions over time. For instance, Arizona has regulated groundwater since 1980 but California only began doing so in 2015.

He also pointed out that Arizona has a water management system designed to deal with variability.

“What the SRP reservoirs do, and SRP’s groundwater (supplies) that they still have, is they take a highly variable input and smooth it,” Gammage said.

He also cited a Brookings study that showed Phoenix, long criticized for urban sprawl, actually converted rural land to residential use at 1.48 acres per new home between 1980 and 2000, which is below the national average of two acres during the same span.

“The last criticism that you’ll hear a lot is that Phoenix is just a giant Ponzi scheme where people just sell real estate to each other; that’s really kind of true,” Gammage said, eliciting laughs from the audience. “This is the one that I think is maybe the most justifiable criticism.”

Gammage then pointed out that Phoenix’s economy is actually more diverse than those of New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, according to information from Urban Land Institute. Though he did note that in-migration and homebuilding have buoyed the local economy historically and that will likely have to change.

While Gammage’s speech focused on traditional sustainability topics such as water scarcity and energy use, those are not the only factors that affect long-term sustainable development. In Mesa, for instance, education, efficient economic development, and public health also play roles in it.

City of Mesa Development Services Director Christine Zielonka addressed the subject as part of a four-person expert panel following Gammage’s speech. The panel also included Steve Sossaman of Sossaman Farms of Queen Creek; Steve Betts, senior advisor to the Holualoa Companies and Hines Development; and Marc Campbell, manager, Sustainability Policy and Programs at Salt River Project.

Zielonka focused her opening remarks on city leadership’s top-down approach to developing a resilient economy that can grow sustainably over time. She noted that getting residents to buy into the program is imperative, though the biggest challenge comes from the development community.

“One of our biggest challenges… is getting developers to get on board with the concept of a more resilient economy,” Zielonka said.

She went on to discuss the ways the city, for the past decade, has attempted to bring employment into the city to help residents avoid long commutes to other municipalities for work, and has had difficulties bringing developer partners to the table.

Betts, an experienced developer, agreed. However, he does see this paradigm shifting in the post-recession economy as developers rethink their standard economic model to focus less on home building and “building outward” and direct more resources towards infill development, building inward and upward, and creating walkable urban spaces.

“This (recession) was different,” Betts said. “I think this one was so severe, and for Arizona and the Valley it was so severe, that it caused all of us to grow and rethink a little bit how we grow and how we build.”

Infill projects provide a variety of advantages for developers and communities. Namely, they take advantage of existing infrastructure at a time when developers do not have the funds to build new infrastructure, he said.

Gammage, who also moderated the panel, posed a question as to how cities like Mesa can deal with “shopping centers that are dying” as a result of many forms of retail moving to the Internet.

“I think you get really creative and really flexible,” Zielonka said. “You find ways, not necessarily just by putting money on the table, to incentivize the reuse of those buildings.”

Those methods include revisiting building codes to remove or modify prohibitive regulations. The city worked with Ross, Dollar General and other retailers that will occupy the old Kmart building at Main and Lindsay streets to develop a phased-in approach to some improvements. Mesa City Council recently approved a development agreement for that site.

Two major examples of adaptive reuse success in Mesa are Santander and Benedictine University. Santander occupies a formerly empty big box store on Southern Avenue. The company revamped the interior and made façade improvements to convert the space to support office operations.

Benedictine University worked with the city to completely revamp the former Southside Hospital site. Since that time, the campus has exceeded growth projections and is looking for additional space, Zielonka said.

Another way the city attracts business is focusing on the “quality and speed” of how business gets done, she said. One example of this is the city’s interactions with Apple, which chose to turn its 1.3-million-square-foot facility on the Elliot Road Technology Corridor into a global command center after the previous tenant, an Apple supplier, went out of business.

Apple chose to continue working with Mesa, in part, due to ease of doing business with the city, Zielonka said. For instance, Mesa allowed Apple to start a phased occupancy of the facility while it continued to make upgrades to the building.

Part of attracting new businesses is providing quality utilities and infrastructure. SRP, for its part, views a push towards sustainability as a smart business move as it provides better costs and less risk for consumers.

“Fundamentally, we need to remember that people do like reliable and low-cost energy resources and water resources,” Campbell said.

However, despite the buy-in from city leadership and SRP, the city faces challenges. One such barrier is education.

“I will say the thing I get pushback on a lot is our education system,” Betts said. “They keep hearing a lot about the fact that we’re down here at 48th or 49th (ranked) in terms of our education system, so I oftentimes have to defend that.”

Betts went on to note that industry professionals he interacts with are impressed by Arizona’s university and community college systems.

Still, Zielonka recognizes that Mesa must show prospective employers there is a political commitment to education in Arizona. “When you look at high-tech companies, they want high-tech kids,” Zielonka said.

In addition to education, jobs and development, Zielonka also made a point to signal out public health as a key cog in Mesa’s sustainable development and emphasized the need to create recreational spaces for residents and promote healthy living.

“How do you provide those opportunities for people to have a healthy lifestyle – to have healthy air, to have clean water?” Zielonka said.

This move toward public health could include the creation of pocket parks but also includes focusing on developing urban agriculture like the Agritopia community in Gilbert as a way to provide those walkable outdoor spaces.

The number of acres used for agriculture in Arizona has not changed much in recent years, but farming increasingly has moved away from cities, Sossaman said.

A push to increase urban agriculture could not just increase those walkable spaces but also cut down on the carbon emissions caused by transporting food long distances and also work to fight the problem of hunger in the community.

“How can we truly be a sustainable community as long we have hungry (residents) in our midst?” SRP’s Campbell said. “When we start to think about that — how do we really play our assets to, water in particular, to bring some local farms back into the community, so we can address some of those food deserts? That is a really big area that I have thought a lot about.”

In the end, the panel did not come up with a magic bullet. Rather, it compiled a list of potential solutions to the problems facing Valley cities attempting to foster sustainable, healthy growth.

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