Letter to City Council regarding Milton

Dear Mayor and Council members,

We are writing to share thoughts about widening Milton Road between Riordan and Phoenix streets. We share Mr. Overton’s concern about this, as reported in the Daily Sun:

“I do question a little bit why we would put 15 percent of the projected funding into Milton,” Councilman Scott Overton said. “We know it’s a challenging road, but to spend $40 million on a road that we know is very challenging, I think it might appease the community members that feel like that road’s not performing, but I’m concerned that it’s never going to be performing.”

We agree that widening Milton would seem to be a “feel-good” measure that would not have a long-term positive effect on the congestion on Milton. Additionally, it would tend to speed up traffic and make it feel less safe for pedestrians and cyclists. We have read, in our studies on walkability, livability and community-building, about how widening streets like Milton to attempt to make them high speed roads improves traffic flow only in the short term. Wider streets allow congestion to simply build back up to previous levels in the long term and make a dangerous street even more dangerous.

We would propose a different approach to improving Milton. Instead of attempting to increase speed on Milton, consider transforming it into an attractive gateway into the city.  In other words, rather than make it a fast street, make it a beautiful street.

We see the chance to improve Milton as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. As a community, we can accept that traffic will necessarily slow as it enters the busy historic downtown area, and make it an interesting drive that welcomes visitors to our unique Flagstaff community. Trees and other landscaping, a green barrier between the street and wider sidewalks where possible, would create greater safety for pedestrians and cyclists. Public art and thematic signage could create greater community interest on the stretch between Riordan Road and Humphreys. 

Flagstaff’s downtown area will always tend to be the busiest part of town. Related traffic congestion is a burden which sometimes beauty can lighten. But there are also significant benefits to slower traffic: It is safer for those not in cars; it meets the community’s goal of increasing walkability; and it improves exposure to the business community, an important feature in a tourism economy. $40 million would be better invested in creating a welcoming entry to Flagstaff than in helping drivers to speed through it.

We recommend that the study commission mentioned in the Daily Sun article include local architects, landscape architects, artists and involved community members with the skills and insight to envision how streets can contribute to community character rather than detract from it.

Stand Up for Flagstaff

Political will—not a game

When we were kids, we loved playing the home version of a tv game show called Concentration, a reveal-remember game. Basically, tiles are arranged in a grid, numbered sequentially, say 1 to 36. Players take turns choosing two numbered tiles to flip, seeking a match. If number 17 reveals a spoon and 4 a bus, no match. Later, when 26 reveals a spoon, if you remember 17 had the other spoon, match and remove the tiles. For obvious reasons, the game gets easier as you get farther along.

Fighting the Hub reminds me of that game. Early clues seemed to point to a developer who wasn’t following the rules. When hundreds of people showed up at the Planning and Zoning Commission hearings, which took place 4 days after the staff report had been publicly released, the basis of our argument was that the Hub was just wrong, that the commissioners should see that, and deny it. We had two clues that we hadn’t put together yet: errors in the staff report which we had yet to digest, and information about how the city attorney had advised the commissioners. We lost the P&Z round.

By the time everyone showed up en mass at city council hearings, we’d digested the staff report clues and successfully made the argument that it was in error. With the help of the supermajority petition, the Hub 1 was denied. But we knew Hub 2 was coming.

When Hub 2 was approved by city staff as expected, we appealed their decision to the Board of Adjustment. Our argument continued to be that staff had erred in their findings, and we added additional clues about the specific ways they had erred. But we hadn’t fully addressed another clue: the fear of litigation that the city attorney and the developer presented. And so we weren’t successful arguing this before the board. But we knew the next step was superior court.

We’re now only partway through the process of uncovering and matching clues. We can still only guess exactly how the Hub happened. But we know that the developer only did what developers do: look for ways to get what they wanted. The developers are experienced with this type of battle, which they’ve fought in other communities. They have the benefit of deep pockets, promises of high profits, and complete concentration. Early on, before we knew we were even involved in a game, they’d been working city staff. And even if we prevail at superior court, we expect a Hub 3.

Clues we saw early in the process make it hard to believe that city staff didn’t understand the intention of the zoning code. So why did they respond to the Hub the way they did? Did they feel pressure from the city attorney to avoid potential litigation? Yet the notion that the city attorney—or some other person behind a curtain pulling levers—also doesn't sound correct. So at this point, what the clues point to is a lack of political will.

The intelligent, well-educated, involved citizens of Flagstaff have proved their ability to create regulations and policies that are clear and concise in their intention. The failure to carry out those regulations and policies we saw with the Hub didn’t begin with city staff, planners or attorneys. It began with the leadership guiding the direction those professionals take in their work.

Stand Up for Flagstaff is a non-profit corporation that does not endorse political candidates. We do, however, encourage citizens to ask their candidates what steps they're willing to take to preserve our vision for Flagstaff.

You can link to some of that information at the bottom of our page here.

A supporter analyzes the Board of Adjustment hearing

by Jim McCarthy,  August 21, 2016
(note: please see original document here which includes source footnotes.)

The Flagstaff Board of Adjustment held a hearing on August 17, 2016 to determine if the city correctly interpreted the zoning code for The Hub. The hearing was not about if we dislike the Hub, it was a quasi-judicial review of the technicalities of the zoning code. 

It might seem reasonable to use “T4” as shorthand for the Hub zoning parcel. Unfortunately, this can lead to confusion because there are several T4 zones.

The zoning for the eastern Hub parcel is T4N.1-O. (The 1 is bolded here to stress its importance.)  The allowable building types for this transect zone are defined in the Flagstaff Zoning Code, Paragraph 10-40.40.070, Table C, “Allowed Building Types.”  

None of the listed building types allow a building similar to the Hub. The developer wants a Commercial Block building, which is not listed in the controlling table. A different T4 zone, T4N.2-O, allows Commercial Block buildings.

At the hearing, attorney Bill Ring discussed where, and where not, Commercial Block buildings are allowed. These massive buildings are not allowed in T4N.1-O, the Hub zoning. But, the developer contended that this is not binding because Table 10-50.110.030.A lists T4 as “allowed” for Commercial Block buildings. This confusion likely contributed to the Board voting 3:2 against the appeal.

The developer’s reference, Table 10-50.110.030.A, does not give the specific zone, but only a general section of the code, T4. The “Building Types Overview” is a list of building types that may or not be specified where the requirements for a specific zone are defined. It lists T4; there is no such zone on the zoning map. There are map designations such as T4N.1-O, but not T4. There is no T4 zone defined in the code, only designations such as T4N.1-O and T4N.2-O.

Saying that T4 means T4N.1-O is like saying that Chevrolet means Corvette. Some Chevrolets are Corvettes, but some are Impalas and some are Suburbans. Likewise, some T4’s are T4N.1-O and some are T4N.2-O. An Impala is not a Corvette; a T4N.2-O is not a T4N.1-O. When enacting the zoning code map, the city specified T4N.1-O, but The Hub wants to deliver a T4N.2-O. They want to deliver the wrong Chevrolet.

The table listing T4 as allowable for Commercial Block buildings includes the meaning that it is allowed for some T4 zones, but not necessarily for all T4 zones. The T4 listing is general. The tables that list the allowable uses for T4N.1-O (Paragraph 10-40.40.070) and T4N.2-O (Paragraph 10-40.40.080) are explicit, clear, and precise when listing “Allowed Building Types.”  

It is interesting that Commercial Block buildings were not allowed in any T4 zones until February 16, 2016.  At that point, city council added several building types for T4N.1-O and several additions (including Commercial Block) for T4N.2-O. The change document also discusses the relationship between Table 10-50.110.030.A and the Allowed Building Type tables, again showing Commercial Block being added to the one zone but not the other. It is apparent that City Council made a precise and deliberate decision; Council deliberately allowed Commercial Block for T4N.2-O and not for T4N.1-O, the Hub zoning.

Therefore, Commercial Block buildings are not allowed in Zone T4N.1-O. The Zoning Code does not authorize The Hub to build a Commercial Block building on the eastern part of the site.

On another point, the developer contended that since the T5 part of the parcel is proposed to have ground-floor commercial, even though the T4N.1-O part of the parcel would not, that the requirement for ground-floor commercial in the T4N.1-O segment is met. This is absurd.

If this were a valid concept, then any characteristic of either zoning parcel could be attributed to the other parcel. This would in effect negate the whole concept of zoning that council enacted.

When council recently rejected the proposed switching of the T4N.1-O and T5 segments, it was implicit in that discussion that where the lines are drawn matters, and that each segment must meet its specific requirements. If this were not true, then the whole council discussion, including the developer’s presentation, would have been completely unnecessary and inappropriate.

I will not now take the time to evaluate the compatibility-review requirements, although these requirements should be significant. Even without that discussion, I conclude that:

  • The Hub is not authorized by the Zoning Code to build a Commercial Block building on the eastern part of the site,
  • and that even if it were authorized, the need for ground-floor commercial is not being met.
  • Each of these errors is a violation of the zoning code independent of the other.
  • Therefore, I believe that this case should be taken to Superior Court so that the requirements of the Zoning Code can be enforced.

There is an additional interesting point that likely does not affect the legal technicalities of the Hub appeal, but is related. When the Hub tried to get a zoning change in February 2016, it was portrayed as a proposal to switch the T4 and T5 zones to make the Hub a better project. Actually, the proposal also included changing T4N.1 to T4N. 2.

As discussed above, that change (in combination with the zoning code changes enacted by council that month) would have allowed a Commercial Block building, while T4N.1 does not allow that building type. It is fortunate that a super majority requirement was established by adjacent property owners filing the appropriate petition, and that the zoning changes were rejected by council. If the zoning changes had been approved, there would be no basis for the appeal of the Hub project.

High occupancy housing vs high density

Stand Up for Flagstaff welcomes the public meetings being held by the city planning department on the subject of high occupancy housing, or HOH. The HUB is the first HOH proposed within the original, historic downtown core. The Standard has been permitted adjacent to La Plaza Vieja neighborhood. The Grove is in the Aspen Place redevelopment. If the Hub is permitted in that location, it is likely more HOH projects will be proposed throughout the Southside historic neighborhood.

It is important to distinguish between high density and high occupancy. 

High density refers to the number of people living in a particular area, say 1 acre. The Flagstaff Regional Plan: Place Matters encourages high density in Flagstaff as a way of accommodating anticipated increased population while protecting natural areas and preventing sprawl. The transect zoning option in the Flagstaff Zoning Code encourages high density in the urban transect zones (T4, T5 and T6) in order to accommodate people who would like to live in the walkable downtown areas of Flagstaff in smaller, more efficient residences. This includes students. High density living has always been a part of the historic downtown core. Single family homes, duplexes, triplexes and apartments woven into the fabric of the Southside, La Plaza Vieja and Townsite neighborhoods have accommodated students for decades.

High occupancy implies a particular building type: many people, living close together, in a large building—like the Grove: specifically, private, off-campus dormitories. Let’s call them PODs. PODs are a very profitable economic model right now. That’s because universities, experiencing budget cuts, are foregoing the cost of building of dormitories in favor of other programs, services and facilities that will attract enrollment. Private developers are stepping in to provide the university housing needs. This economic model can’t be controlled by government. PODs are in the sights of developers right now and Flagstaff is a prime target.

When the city’s planning department holds public meetings about HOH, they are really talking about PODs. While we might also need conversations about how to live with small, high density units in our neighborhoods, the compelling issue is really large, high-density projects: POD.

The planning department should start by noting the regulations that already limit PODs in Flagstaff, especially our historic, downtown core. For example, in the urban transect zones, regulations that limit the size and scale of buildings, if properly interpreted, would prohibit PODs. PODs designed with traditional zoning rather than transect zoning would be limited by density, open space, civic space and parking regulations. Other new regulations that have been proposed include more restrictive lot combining, automatic P&Z appearances for large projects, among others. It is only after acknowledging current regulations can we notice where the deficits are, and then address them.

To start, the conversation about housing needs in Flagstaff needs to differentiate between high occupancy housing, high density housing and workforce housing.

Polarization doesn't work

A polarizing atmosphere is created when issues are over-simplified. This is happening with the Hub and also with the Mogollon Public Works Yard.

The Hub case begins with an ongoing need for student housing. A developer who specializes in large off-campus private dormitories wants to build a project that would help fill the need and be very profitable. The problem is that the location they choose is in a beloved historic neighborhood which their project overwhelms. Those opposed to building the Hub in this location are accused of being anti-development and anti-student.

The Public Works Yard case starts with public land that is being de-commissioned from its current public use. The city wants to sell the land for private development to make money. The community wants to keep it for public use and as part of the city park it is connected to, as designated by bond election (1922) and ordinance (1957). Those opposed to selling this public land for private development are accused of being anti-development and elitist.

The deeper issue in both of these cases is not whether development should happen in Flagstaff, but what is appropriate development. Flagstaff is going to grow. The historic, original parts of the city will fill in with denser projects to accommodate more people and more economic activity.

As a community Flagstaff has created and approved policies, goals, plans and regulations designed to usher in growth while preserving our resources—natural, historical, cultural. Those who insist these policies and regulations be interpreted as they were intended—and improved when they don't—are planning for their grandchildren.

The pressure of immediate needs like student and workforce housing would seem to be relieved in the short term by giving away or selling our precious cultural gems, like a one-of-a-kind historic neighborhood, or a key piece of public land within another historic neighborhood. But these are giveaways we will come to regret after they only partially, and probably poorly, fill immediate housing needs.

Polarizing forces act as if those are the only opportunities for housing: And they may be the only opportunities for giant housing projects, but certainly not for creative, contextual, culture-enhancing infill projects which add density to neighborhoods in manageable ways.

These are complex issues with layers of information. Oversimplifying and polarizing them doesn’t work. Open minds without hidden agendas willing to listen does work.

How Neighborhoods Disappear

Step 1: A huge project, such as the proposed Hub on Mikes Pike, succeeds in getting a permit.

Step 2: Smaller-scaled properties around the large new project lose their history- and character-based value in the shadow of the huge new project. Their remaining value, because of their proximity to the huge new project, is based on potential for height and density.

Step 3: Surrounding property owners, to get whatever value their property has left, sell to high-occupancy, large-scale housing developers.

Step 4: A second huge Hub, or another similar project, is built next to the first one, then a third and so on. 

Result: The land use pattern is completely changed from its historic pattern to an entirely new one.

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Who we are and why we oppose the Hub

This piece was originally published on March 31 2016 in the Coconino Voices guest editorial section of the Arizona Daily Sun.

For over 10 months — since May 2015 — hundreds of community members have expressed concern about the proposed high-occupancy (660 beds) student housing development known as the Hub. During the first several months, numerous individuals met with City staff and wrote letters to the editor, City staff, and City Council. Over 1,400 people signed an online petition to request that the City deny the developer’s rezoning request.

The concerns about the Hub involved density and size, scale, compatibility with the Southside neighborhood, safety, noise, parking and traffic — all issues which have been brought up repeatedly.

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