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.

There may be those who don’t appreciate the neighborhood for it’s history and character, or the appropriately-scaled, local redevelopment like that happening now on Mikes Pike and Phoenix. For them, the disappearance of the small-scale pattern may not look like a loss. They might view a new high-density student neighborhood and related student businesses similar to downtown Tempe as a positive redevelopment goal. But many others understand the historic, smaller-scale to be characteristic of the irreplaceable soul of Flagstaff. They understand that infill and redevelopment needs to fit in to what exists, not replace it.

Communities nationwide are grappling with the result above in their historic neighborhoods, especially those near universities where the very profitable student housing boom has taken off. In Tucson, property next to the first Hub lost value after it was built, enabling Core to get a better deal for their second Hub. Often, a developer will actually overpay for real estate for their first project, knowing that a greater profit will come after the first property is built and when they are subsequently able to acquire surrounding property for less. This process is described in this article about San Marcos TX.

Core Campus is a large and profitable company and their risks are most likely calculated ones. It would be very surprising if, before actually buying any of the properties they would be assembling for the Hub, such an experienced development company had not talked to senior city planning staff to find out if their project would be supported. In those conversations, the attitude of senior staff toward the values expressed in Flagstaff’s form-based Transect Zoning Code, and in the Flagstaff Regional Plan: Place Matters, would have been critical. 

We pose these questions: Whose idea of redevelopment and revitalization, especially in the Southside, is being pursued by City Hall? What value is placed on the Southside’s history and land use patterns, compared with its potential as a dense, new student housing area?

The only existing Southside neighborhood plan, the Southside 2005 Plan, recognizes the Southside’s value to the whole of Flagstaff. The plan, prepared with significant citizen involvement, aspires to the kind of redevelopment that is actually occurring now along San Francisco, Phoenix and Mikes Pike (see Postcards from the Future here). The plan recognizes that student housing is a historic part of the Southside and includes it in the report, but in smaller-scale units that integrate with existing historic character and without replacing the existing land use.  

Current proposed amendments to the Regional Plan minimize the value of the Southside 2005 plan—ostensibly because it was only accepted but not adopted by council—including a change that would officially discredit it in the Regional Plan wording (see proposed changes to Specific Plans for Areas and Corridors, III-9). Explained as a “clean up” of contradictions in the Regional Plan, the effect is to leave the Southside with no guiding plan whatsoever—and just in time for aggressively-pursued, huge high-density student housing projects like the Hub.

This poses another question: Is there an alternate Southside aspiration within City Hall, different that the one the community developed?

If there were another plan, the next step after dispatching the Southside 2005 Plan might be to interpret the form-based Transect Zoning Code so that very large, high-occupancy student housing projects could be reviewed as conforming to it. Density could be interpreted broadly enough to rationalize a jump from a Flagstaff version of high-density to a Phoenix version, by virtue of one precedent-setting project: the Hub. The staff recommendation of the first Hub indeed took these steps.

Maybe the scale of the Hub caught staff by surprise as much as it did the community. But the inaccuracies in their report and the unwillingness to reconsider whether mis-judgements were made—despite dozens of letters and emails, over a thousand petition signers, and hundreds of participants in both P&Z and Council hearings—prompts us to ask these questions. We are now waiting for the assessment of the second Hub site plan to see if staff interpretation of Flagstaff policies and regulations have changed

Which brings us back to Step 1. 

Stand Up for Flagstaff will continue to support the interpretation of the Flagstaff Regional Plan: Place Matters and the Flagstaff form-based Zoning Code in the way it was intended: to preserve the values and character of our community, and honor our history and our neighborhoods as we grow into our future.  We hope you will join us.