Concerned by blighted neighborhoods, vacant lots, lack of identity or complicated land use and real estate challenges, municipalities seek advice from experts at the Urban Land Institute and experience transformative and lasting results.
The Urban Land Institute (ULI) is a nonprofit research and education organization that provides leadership in responsible land use and real estate development. The Arizona Technical Assistance Panel (AzTAP) program, fueled by members of ULI, was formed to give expert members an opportunity to help communities thrive.
“The thought leadership and perspective provided by ULI members during an AzTAP endeavor helps strengthen the foundation of Arizona communities in their quest to create blueprints for change,” says Deb Sydenham, executive director of ULI Arizona, “ULI engagement guides cities and towns to not only think big, but to think ahead.”
Based on recommendations from an AzTAP, a stretch of 32nd Street in Phoenix, once drained of its vitality by SR 51, is now an energized, identity-rich community that continues to draw housing and businesses to the area. In Goodyear, a comprehensive strategic plan brought growth in education, recreation, aerospace and medical corridors.A branding campaign for the rural mining town of Bisbee transformed its image into its greatest asset, earning the community national accolades.
ABOUT THE PANELS
Experts on the panels are diverse, with a good cross section of people with deep experience from the land use and development world, office, industrial, retail and marketing, explains Charley Freericks, ULI Arizona District Council chair and principal of Freestone Holdings, LLC.
“With more than 1,000 local members, we can almost always find somebody for every assignment just in our membership,” he says.
Among ULI members are developers, investors, land use attorneys, designers, planners, engineers, market and financial analysts and members of public and nonprofit sectors.
“It is a great affordable resource for communities and nonprofits to use to solve complicated situations. Land use has gotten exceedingly complicated so public outreach – public education and processes in general to get people engaged constructively and move projects forward – is a common need. We have a lot of people who specialize in that public arena,” he says.
Freericks says each municipality presents unique challenges. Therefore, each volunteer panelist is chosen based on talents best suited for the task. Common threads for most panels are providing necessary reality checks and unifying voices to those needing assistance.
“Communities don’t always understand that they need to resolve specific issues before embarking on a new project,” he says, “While viewpoints will be different, there needs to be a way to find common ground or nothing will get done.”
HOW IT WORKS
Communities and nonprofits interested in leveraging the expertise brought forth in an AzTAP, complete an application where they identify a particular issue or set of issues and opportunities they would like the panel to explore. The ULI AzTAP Committee works with the community to assess and identify key issues and refine objectives.
Freericks says it takes 90 to 120 days to organize a group, tackle a situation and establish a panel. Then the comprehensive report is presented with a summary of findings and recommendations for next steps.
The sponsor organization is then responsible for its plan of execution.
Freericks says the panel generally is not involved after the presentation, but may be called back to do an updated report, answer specific questions, assess progress or address areas of concern.
Some sponsor agencies have large development improvements while others take smaller steps, such as image improvement that leads to slow, organic growth.
TRANSFORMATIONS IN PROGRESS
The city of Goodyear approached ULI with an abundance of challenges that focused on an area of the city south of Interstate 10 between Litchfield Road and Estrella Parkway.
“In economic development you don’t just focus on retail or industrial,” says Goodyear City Manager Brian Dalke, “We had to be more specific to include aerospace, what about our infrastructure, transportation corridors… We threw a lot at them knowing that their input would help guide us in some of our recommendations to our city council.”
“Eleven panelists coming from different backgrounds with different ideas came up with a game plan, priorities of what we should focus on and we built a lot of that into our economic development strategy,” Dalke says.
After the panel’s recommendations, Goodyear started implementing change. There are plans to develop around the Goodyear Ballpark area. An aquatics center, recreation center and park are also in the works.
“We started to look at changing some of our design guidelines to make it easier for development. That has been a major focus of ours and that came directly out of the plan to focus on Estrella Parkway,” Dalke says, “It is a combination of retail, high density housing, and commercial.
“At city center area on Estrella Parkway, we recruited BASIS school. It is a K-12 charter school. Education was a key point from this group. It also recommended we go after higher education and keep Franklin Pierce University here, which we have. They are looking at expanding as well. That has been a success.”
The Goodyear ULI AzTAP also suggested providing more infrastructure to make sites “shovel ready.” This assisted in landowner EJM Development Co. investing more than $6 million in infrastructure, which drew in The Michael Lewis Company. Still more advancements have been made in aerospace and medical corridors.
Dalke says he would highly recommend the program to others. “It is absolutely a very valuable and excellent program for cities. The cities could not afford the talent they put on these panels and they are all experts in their related fields, sharing their observations and different viewpoints. It was just absolutely amazing to have a roomful of experts share their time and talents with us.”
There is a cost recovery fee associated with the program that typically ranges from $5,000 to $15,000 depending on the complexity of the assignment, Freericks says. Typically, AzTAPs are underwritten by the government or agency involved and grants may be available.
“If somebody can’t afford it, we’ll help them try to figure out how to underwrite it,” he says. Panelists are not paid for their technical expertise, but on occasion, additional experts are hired.
In Phoenix, ULI was approached to address issues along North 32nd Street between Shea Boulevard and Union Hills. The AzTAP Committee sought a technical panel member who understood street design, so they included a traffic engineer to assist in the early discussions, Freericks explains.
“I commute by 32nd Street regularly and I remember driving by there after the freeway opened and watching businesses just shrivel up and die because traffic faded,” he says.
Maricopa County Supervisor and former Phoenix Councilmember Bill Gates was involved in the North 32nd Street transformation.
“North 32nd Street used to be one of the most vibrant areas in North Phoenix. Traffic supported a lot of the retail, but when the 51 came in, which a lot of people were excited about, it created a situation where people were bipassing 32nd and you didn’t have the traffic for the retail anymore. We started bringing folks together from the community to see what could be done and it was recommended to us fairly early on that it would be great to get ULI involved.”
The panel recognized the differences in each intersection along the stretch of North 32nd being studied and suggested the group focus on one intersection at a time.
“I thought that was a fantastic recommendation and it is one we acted upon,” Gates says.
“Part of the reason that I identified this area as a focus area was the dynamics of the neighborhood. There is a lot of neighborhood pride. When they reached out to the community for feedback, Gates says about 250 people showed up for the first meeting.
Based on the recommendations of the panel, changes began. “We needed to bring new energy into the neighborhood (at 32nd Street and Shea Boulevard). That translated into new residents. Now at that corner there is a project being built, a class A multifamily property by Watt Communities called View 32. More than 200 units are going up. Watt Communities is fully engaged and invested in the success of the corridor, which is really exciting.
“Clearly, ULI’s AzTAP Program helped us by getting us to focus and not have this scattershot approach of the whole corridor but instead to target our efforts. I have no doubt Watt Communities would not have invested in the area if it wasn’t for the energy generated by ULI and the AzTAP. I am sure of it. They could invest anywhere. They are an infill builder. Something in the energy of this and the ULI stamp of approval made them decide yes, this is where we want to invest the money,” Gates says. “Success begets success. That is what they are seeing right now. We need the new energy, which will then lead to new retail, the restaurants, the new amenities we want to have in the neighborhood,” Gates says.
Gates pointed to another successful area at 32nd Street and Greenway Road where Arizona Sunrays Gymnastics & Dance Center is building a new facility and Great Hearts Academies charter school just opened. The North 32nd neighborhood also was nominated for a Phoenix New Times Best of Phoenix Best Neighborhood award.
AzTAP recommended improving infrastructure and bike lanes were installed along North 32nd Street. Near 32nd Street and Cactus, single-family homes are going in and BASIS Phoenix opened.
“We are changing as a Valley. We are evolving, becoming more mature. Now it is less about building brand new neighborhoods and more about revitalizing existing neighborhoods,” Gates says. “ULI’s strength is they can come in with a wealth of experience from different projects that they have worked on. They are not so close to the situation so they have more of a perspective on how does this fit into the larger tapestry of the entire Valley.”
Goodyear and Phoenix are just two of the communities influenced by ULI’s AzTAP program.
Freericks offered some examples of AzTAP’s impact in other communities:
GLENDALE: Glendale wanted to start planning for the incoming light rail and sought advice from AzTAP about capitalizing on its arrival. The expert panel agreed that the incoming light rail would impact the community but suggested that Glendale focus on resolving some issues before its arrival. It became a conversation that unified the group, allowed them to recognize the potential of the city, its authentic downtown area and its caring community. They decided to use the light rail as a catalyst for growth and to take steps in preparation of its arrival that resulted in cleanup, beautification and bolstered civic pride in the downtown area.
APACHE JUNCTION: Apache Junction wanted to improve their downtown and get new businesses to come in and create a unique experience but the ULI AzTAP review indicated the city had bigger issues to focus on. Apache Junction was lax on code enforcement with properties in disrepair, dirty, vacant and run down. They had crime and failing schools. ULI stepped in as a neutral third party without a stakeholder position and identified the issues that needed to be addressed before the city could accomplish its goals. Apache Junction bought land, developed some infill parks to clean and beautify the city and they increased code enforcement. They focused on improving the city’s image to outsiders and stakeholders.
BISBEE: Bisbee, once a mining town that evolved into an artist and retirement community, has seen declining population and approached ULI AzTAP to look at its economic and housing potential. The AzTAP focused on a rebranding campaign that marketed Bisbee as a cool, eclectic place to visit throughout the year. The panel suggested rebuilding their visitor websites. After the shift in image, Bisbee was named Sunset magazine’s best small town to live in in the west. Bisbee also was selected for best small historic town in the United States by USA Today. AzTAP suggested working on image first, to brand Bisbee as a cool place. The town has made good progress and continues to work on its image as a destination town.
“Phoenix is a diverse collection of cities and towns and as you broaden out, you have vastly diverse communities spread all over the state with a lot of them fairly isolated. Through the ULI AzTAP programs, small and large communities have been able to tap into great resources to refine their thinking and get started on something good,” Freericks says. “It’s a great way for convening, finding a common purpose, defining the big plan, reasonable objectives and getting started. It’s not free, but it is very affordable and for the talent you can tap into, it’s a great way for an agency or a municipality to tackle a big project quickly with a lot of expertise and access to ULI’s global talent.”