Below is my conversation with Carol Johnson, the Planning Manager at the City of Phoenix about what’s next in terms of codes, walkability and making our city more livable on the whole:

Blooming Rock: What’s your position in the city?

Carol Johnson: My title is Planning Manager.  I oversee our long range planning division, that includes the planners that staff that Village Planning Committees.  We have 15 Village Planning Committees which are like mini Planning Commissions throughout the city to help break it up into more manageable pieces because we’re over 500 square miles.  There used to be one planner per village when things were more active and just because of all the budget cuts in the city and activity levels dropping off, now there’s one planner to two or three villages.

Under my group there’s the transit planning and I do the station area planning, transit-oriented development and the General Plan and other special projects like our Downtown Code and the Downtown Plan.

Blooming Rock: Can you tell us a little bit about the Downtown Plan?

Carol Johnson: The Downtown Plan started out as this strategic vision, I don’t remember how long ago, maybe around 2001.  I remember Kimber Lanning, that’s kind of when Greg Esser, and this whole downtown group started coalescing because they were really upset that the city seemed to be investing only in these mega projects and that was about the time they were looking at acquiring the land for the football stadium.  They basically pushed back a little bit and that’s when they really started to talk about the benefits of local businesses and needing to have the smaller grain to create a sense of authenticity in downtown.  Through their efforts the city decided that we really do need a new plan for downtown and we hired some consultants.  I actually was not at the city at the time, I was working for a private consultant.

So they developed this plan and that was adopted in 2007 by the City Council.  It’s taken us two years after that to take the policies and the plan and actually convert it into a code.

So the Downtown Code was adopted in March and it went into effect in April (of 2010).  It’s a zoning code, we started out trying to do a form-based code and we have so many restrictions in Arizona with what we can do and Proposition 207 restricting how much we can change entitlements on property.  It ended up being more of a hybrid code.  So we focused on the street, and how buildings addressed the street. The quality of that environment is the primary focus of that Downtown Code.

Blooming Rock: What’s an example of this code, of how the buildings address the street?

Carol Johnson: The code that was in place had the same standards that are now throughout the city and it was more suburban.  It dates back to the 1960s where you had deeper setbacks in the street, you were only allowed to cover about half of the lot with buildings.  A lot of it had to be taken up with parking.

The Downtown Code requires that you bring your building up to the street and allows a certain amount of flexibility so you can make room for things like outdoor dining and that kind of stuff.  It allows higher lot coverage and greatly reduced the parking.  Before for a standard office you’d have to have 1 space for every 250 square feet of floor area, now its just 1 space per 1000.

Blooming Rock: How does it (the Downtown Code) address existing buildings and adaptive reuse?

Carol Johnson: If existing buildings come in and add on, the new addition area has to follow the new setbacks and other provisions of the code.  Or if they’re changing the front façade of the building, in some areas it requires that you have old storefront windows, so the new façade would have to match with the new frontage requirements.  That’s our Downtown Plan.

Curt Upton is our primary transit planner and he’s been working on getting our station area process kicked off.  We had tried to get a couple of station area plans going, it was before the light rail was in operation and people just really didn’t understand what it meant.  It was really hard with people who had no experience and couldn’t visualize what it would be like so those efforts sort of fizzled out.

We’re starting up again at Osborn and that’s kind of the first station area.  We’re also making this big grant application to Housing and Urban Development for up to $3 Million to try to do the whole light rail corridor.  That’s my main thrust right now because it’s due August 23 so we’re trying to get that grant application together.  It’s going to be an interesting collaboration.  We’re working with the Stardust Center, which includes Kevin Kellogg and Kurt Creager and some of the other staff that’s been involved with Maryvale on the Move, so Sherry Ahrentzen and Ernesto Fonseca and other staff and faculty and students from the School of Sustainability.  Two of their professors, Arnim Wiek and Cynthia Selin helped us in the Spring with work related to our General Plan and analyzed some of the input we have to come up with for a more robust vision for the future, coming up with some scenarios, identifying best practices, and coming up with transition strategies for how we might get there.  So we’ve had a relationship with both of those groups and we’re going to treat them as consultants on this (light rail) corridor plan.

Blooming Rock: Are you involved with the Green Building Code?

Carol Johnson: No, but a couple of our staff have become involved recently.  Two of our staff are LEED ap.  When the city originally put the RFP out, we didn’t get very many responses back and the fees that people wanted were over $1 Million to do this new code for us and we didn’t have that much budgeted.  There is the model, I guess it’s still a draft, the International Green Building Code.  So the staff are looking at that code and seeing if we need to make any local modifications because so many of those codes are developed for more temperate climates and they don’t reflect our unique issues here.  So that’s where it’s at right now.  And they’re also looking into incorporating a little incentive program.  It’s geared more for single-family, a residential home so if you do things like buying a 14-SEER air conditioning unit then you get a 50% reduction on the permit fees associated with it.  I’m not sure when they’re going to kick-off the incentive program cause that’s not dependent on the (Green Building) Code being adopted.  That’ll probably be relatively soon.

Blooming Rock: Are there incentives for people to do infill projects in the Downtown Phoenix Code?

Carol Johnson: We have a whole section on the Sustainability Bonus System.  I’m trying to remember some of the specifics, it’s pretty broad.  They look at things like energy conservation, or onsite (energy) generation, cool materials, even things like providing more mixed-uses or broader range of housing types, housing product.  So it’s a pretty broad list of things that you can do and you get bonus points and you can use those points to increase the building height, increase the density, reduce your parking minimum more than it’s already reduced now.  And we also put parking caps in this one.  So you can use the Sustainability Bonus Points to increase your parking cap if you wanted to.

Blooming Rock: Is historic preservation part of the Sustainability Bonus Points?

Carol Johnson: Doing conservation easements and doing adaptive reuse is part of the checklist, one of the options of the Sustainability Bonus.  We tried to allocate the points in recognition of how much financial impact was associated with actually doing the things.  There hasn’t been any development since we passed the code, so no one’s really tried it out yet.  There’s a lot of people that have things waiting in the wings, they just can’t get financing.

Blooming Rock: What are some of the efforts the city is making to increase community involvement and engagement?

Carol Johnson: We’re still kind of spinning our wheels a little bit on that because the Planning Department has gotten separate from the neighborhood interaction which is in the Neighborhood Services Department.  So they have Neighborhood Specialists that deal with more of the issues happening on the neighborhood level and build the familiarity and trust of the neighborhood leaders.  In the Planning Department, we’ve been focused on the Village Planning Committees appointed by Council and they may or may not be representatives of a neighborhood group.  So there’s a little bit of a disconnect and we need to figure out how to bridge that gap.  With all the budget cuts and we’ve been consolidated into the Development Services Department and just going through all that turmoil right now we haven’t had a lot of time to really focus on that.

What we are trying though with this Osborn Station Area Plan is kind of a new approach where we identify stakeholders and we go out and talk to people and maybe they refer us to other people.  So more one-on-one communication and small group communication and then focused activities like design charettes.  I think those are going to be a lot more effective than our traditional big public meetings where everyone comes and they get talked at, they don’t have a good forum and mechanism for sharing their viewpoints.  We’ll try it out and see how it works on this station area plan, but I have a feeling that’s going to be a better way to go: design charrettes and also where we work on some kind of interactive exercise or a constructive exercise in smaller groups so it’s not just a big mass gathering of people.

We did a workshop in March on the General Plan that ASU primarily took control of planning and organizing.  What they did is look at the top areas of interest and came back from the open-ended visioning meetings that we had and they created a systems map to show how all those different issues were linked together.  And then they had people come in and look at those maps and see where there’d be some conflicts and what would we do to resolve those conflicts.  It was really an interesting exercise.  It’s not really a design charrette, but it’s a lot more targeted.

Blooming Rock: Who participated?

Carol Johnson: We had around 800 or 900 people on the mailing list for the general plan and we basically said we can only accommodate 120 people and it’s first come first serve.  That mailing list was made up of our Village Planning Committee members, also the list of neighborhood contacts we got from Neighborhood Services, and other people could go online and join the listserv too.  There are still the people that we tend to hear from that are already engaged in the city and we were trying to get new people.  The only way to do that is through a friend of a friend of a friend and going out into the community and talking with them.

Blooming Rock: Do you think there are ways to use social media to engage the community more?

Carol Johnson: I would think there is.  (The City), because of internet security issues, won’t allow us to create Facebook pages.  We did have a Twitter page set up but it’s operated by our Public Information Office.  We have to send them the tweets and they post it, so it’s not as immediate.

Blooming Rock: Sometimes there’s a disconnect between the public and what the city is doing then people complain.

Carol Johnson: People don’t know that they have any influence over their community.  They don’t know how to get engaged, they may not have the time, they may not have access to the internet.  There may be issues that they’re afraid of going to a large meeting just because of everything that’s going on with immigration in this state right now.  So how do we get the message out?  We’re open to ideas and new ways of getting out there to solicit that input from people.  One of the professors (in the School of Sustainability) Arnim Wiek, his expertise is in creating social transformation  but that’s really dependent on community engagement and increasing the involvement and responsibility of citizens in their governments.  The very basic is informing the community, one step above that is listening to their feedback.  A lot of times people never see what happens to their feedback, they don’t know how it was incorporated into anything or how it influenced an outcome.  The step above that is when they’re actually engaged in the implementation, we’re right on the cusp of making that leap.  So (the question is) how we do that.

I think that our population has been so transient, it takes a lot of dedication and hard work, and not enough critical mass was interested in getting that involved.  A positive side effect of the foreclosure crises, people can’t sell their houses and move on, so they’re kind of stuck here, so while they’re here, they’re going to try to make something of it.

Blooming Rock: How are all these codes and plans addressing walkability in Phoenix?

I guess the best example is the Downtown Planning Code because there is this idea of creating a connected oasis.  But we didn’t flush out this idea as much as we need to.  There probably needs to be a second document that talks about that.  Within the boundaries of this new Station Area Planning we’re definitely going to be looking at creating connections that are shaded.  That’s where the idea of creating a connected oasis comes from.  Where it really enhances the walking experience, it’s shaded, there’s vegetation, there might be structural shade, it’ll be a lot more interesting than just walking by blank buildings.

One of the key elements I’m looking at with the light rail planning is that it’s really difficult to get access to the station.  You might be within a half a mile of the station and the route as a pedestrian you have to take it takes you almost ¾ of a mile to get there.  So trying to identify where those barriers are and what interventions might be possible to eliminate them.  This is going to be one of the key components of planning that we do.

The Downtown Code does require that that you shade the perimeter of your property.  The public sidewalk has to be shaded 75% now which is a brand new requirement.  That’s the only code that really goes very far in terms of the shading aspect.

Blooming Rock: How is the City of Phoenix ensuring inclusivity in terms of planning codes, including people with disabilities, low-income residents, people on bikes, people of all walks of life?

Carol Johnson: I think we do really well in terms of universal accessibility.  Bikes are a really a big issue and I push that with the Streets Department all the time.  There used to be a Citizen’s Advisory Committee that provided input to the Streets Department on policy issues, things like complete streets or bike and ped issues.  But they’ve gotten dismantled like about 6 years ago.  Just because of all the cuts and because they don’t get much money that could be used for bike and ped improvements, they really don’t do anything new at this point.

If you looked at the total miles of designated bike lanes, we have a pretty good number, but as a percentage of the total city, I think it’s actually pretty low.  And we’ve got people in the Streets Department, some of them are pretty strong bike advocates, and they try to push from their end.  And in the Planning area, if there’s any way we can influence that policy, we’re definitely trying to promote more of a complete streets idea and balanced transportation system.

We think that’s really important to address that equity issue.  Because we see people, specially with the light rail, it’s great that it’s here, but you still see people, specially the moms and the kids with the strollers and its so hot that they’re trying to juggle and embrella for some shade and they’ve got their grocery bags and everything too.  It can’t be easy for them and it’s probably not safe either.  It’s really easy to lose control over all that stuff.  So if we had just a shaded sidewalk or an easier route to get to the transit station and that would make their lives so much easier.

Trying to come up with an affordable housing strategy is an important element too.  The light rail station area planning effort, especially if we get this grant is going to get bumped in priority above the General Plan.  What we’re trying to do is use it as a demonstration area for a lot of the concepts we would incorporate into the General Plan.  It’ll be easier to visualize a smaller geographic area and the next iteration of it would be to take a lot of those policies city-wide.

Blooming Rock: What’s your advice for people to get involved, in having a voice, in the way planning is done and what’s going on in their city?

Carol Johnson: Most people don’t think about it but going to a Village Planning Committee (meeting) and just seeing what goes on and trying to meet those people and let them know what your concerns are.  That’s really where, at the neighborhood level, the interface is meant to happen at the Village Planning Committee level. You can always contact the Village Planner that is over your area and that’s all online so people know who to talk to.

Blooming Rock: How do people know when the Village Planning meetings are?

Carol Johnson: Those are all on the website too and the Village Planner can let you know when those meetings are.  They have monthly schedules but they’ve been canceling a lot of their meetings just because there hasn’t been much going on.  When things were so busy, they were primarily focused on development review and then we had them working a little bit on the visioning process with us, but there’s been a little bit of a hiatus before the ASU students finish up their work.  And there really hasn’t been much for them to do on the General Plan either.  But we’re hoping to pick that up and start having them look at character issues, defining the character of each of the different Villages.

There are some really good networking groups like Radiate Phoenix for one.  That is a really good way for people to get engaged.  We just need to coordinate with Catrina (Knoebl) on what topics we want discussed.  When we were first starting, a year from now, last August, we had an interactive, it was at Hanny’s.  We had a group of people who talked about the General Plan and what issues the City of Phoenix should be addressing in the future.  We used that as a dry-run to ask the questions that we rolled out at the Village Planning Committee meeting.  So we asked people, what do they really like about Phoenix now and what do they want to see in 2050?  Those were the two questions that we asked.  And they weren’t all that far apart, it was kind of interesting.  We were trying to push it way out there to 2050 to see if we could get some really out there kind of responses.  Like maybe we don’t drive cars anymore.  What we needed to do is to get more younger people involved.  Cause I think if we got more junior high kids or even grade school kids and have them start drawing pictures about what they want to see the city of the future to look like, then we really might have gotten some really neat ideas.  And that’s something we’re still planning to do.

Photo Credit:  photo of the light rail. Photo from propertycube.com

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  1. […] Carol Johnson City of Phoenix Planning and Development […]

  2. […] and less like awful dead zones. The City, lead by the brilliant (and sadly not long for Phoenix) Carol Johnson did an excellent job on the Form-Based Code, which emphasizes putting similar buildings together […]

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