A few weeks ago I spoke with Councilman Tom Simplot, the councilman for District 4 in Phoenix. There is a possibility that Councilman Simplot may run for mayor in 2011, but he did not confirm one way or another during our interview. He did, however, answer questions about many of the things we find important at Blooming Rock such as historic preservation, sustainability, growth and the reversible lanes.
Below is our conversation:
Blooming Rock: Are you running for mayor?
Councilman Simplot: I’ll tell you right now, no one should be saying definitively if they are running for mayor because they would be violating state and local laws. So at this point in time, other than perhaps Greg Stanton, who is free to announce that sort of thing, if you are a City Council person not in your last year in office you cannot declare (that you are running for mayor). I know a couple of folks who’ve formed exploratory committees, but at this point in time no one’s actually declared candidacy.
Blooming Rock: But are you thinking about running for mayor?
Councilman Simplot: I would say that I would never close a door on an opportunity. If the opportunity were to present itself, then I would always be open to that opportunity.
Blooming Rock: What do you think can be done with all the empty lots that we have in the central city?
Councilman Simplot: Well the empty lots, we’ve been dealing with them for forty years. For me the biggest problem is that we have a state law that actually encourages people to demolish their buildings because they can get a reduced tax rate. So long as that law in on the books, we’re going to suffer and (there will be) people who think it’s more advantageous to tear down a building, whether it’s a history building or a mid-century building, or simply a building that is outdated or has exceeded its usefulness. We are going to suffer so long as we have that law on the books. Nothing the city can do is going to change that until we change the tax structure of the Legislature which to me goes to a bigger issue which is: we have a lot of tax loopholes like that that need to be fixed. And we need leadership down at the State Legislature to tackle that. And we haven’t seen that (leadership) yet.
What can the City do? We need leadership in the City that is going to lead the charge on those issues as well. So they not only will it (restructuring the tax law) bring in more revenue to the State, which apparently everyone agrees we need to do, but it also truly levels the playing field and removes incentive for harming our city and our future growth. It’s very frustrating for me but I do believe it starts with the State law.
Blooming Rock: Speaking of this tax structure, what are your views on historic preservation and Prop 207?
Councilman Simplot: You may or may not know I was actually chair of the Historic Preservation Commission a couple of years ago and have lived in several historic districts here in Central Phoenix and have lived in several historic homes in those districts. That’s where my heart is, that’s where my passion lies. And what do I think about Prop 207? It has been difficult to work around. We have not designated any new historic districts since that law was passed and I don’t think we will. So the 30 or 40 historic districts we have today, that’s probably the extent of what we’re going to have on a district level. Property by property you can still do that (designate them as historic) because we’ve created a mechanism where the property owner actually signs a waiver saying they will not sue us (the City) for any diminished value, so we meet the terms of the law.
Unfortunately we knew that (Prop 207) was going to be a problem, but we’re living with it. There’s one potential historic district in my neighborhood right at Camelback and Central that has been wanting to get designated for years but partly because of this law, Prop 207, our hands are tied. So they suffer, they don’t get the advantages of historic preservation designation. Quite frankly it hurts our ability to redevelop Camelback and Central because we want the historic neighborhoods to blend in with the Light Rail and the urban fabric, the high rises and the density and all those things.
Blooming Rock: To follow up with historic preservation, I know the Sahara or the Ramada Inn has been somewhat of a lightning rod and I wanted to know where you stand on that, not only the demolishing of the building but paving a parking lot there.
Councilman Simplot: I’m very upset by it, very upset. Honestly I had no idea we were tearing it down. Nobody brought it to my attention. The first I read about it was in the paper and I saw the pictures and I drove by and I was flabbergasted. But this is my frustration with the city bureaucracy, this isn’t the first time the City has been our own worst enemy. (It happens) when the management and the bureaucracy decide to go in a certain direction regardless of what the policy leaders may want to do. So whether it was tearing down a couple of our old theaters like the Fox Theater our City tore down to build an UGLY transit center, (or when) the City wanted to tear down the building right below here, the Electric Utility Light Company that is now a fantastic, award-winning, example of what you can do to restore buildings and integrate it into the urban fabric, it’s very frustrating.
Blooming Rock: There’s a Green Phoenix plan in place, and I was wondering what you think the priorities are for making Phoenix one o the greenest cities in the country.
Councilman Simplot: Well first, I was thrilled, I don’t know if you ever read Southwest Magazine, but Soutwest had Phoenix as one of the emerging green cities of the West. I thought that was fantastic that they acknowledged that we’re moving forward. We have several different green initiatives that are going on, one of which is the $25 Million grant from the federal government and that focused on rehabbing single family, multi-family and commercial properties a quarter mile of either side of the Light Rail. Light Rail to me is now the spine of the city of Phoenix. And our redevelopment future, I think begins with Light Rail. And so this grant has really been a great stimulus to jumpstarting the redevelopment and rehabbing of older buildings along the Light Rail.
I know a lot of building owners are looking at it. If you’re not familiar with it, it includes a 60% grant and a 40% low-interest loan and if you own a duplex, fourplex or a single family house you can get the loan/grant money to put in windows, insulation and even a water heater. They even provide what’s called a dashboard so you can verify your energy savings. To me, this is how we’re going to get people back into the center of town: we provide them with transportation, we provide them with quality of life, and we provide excellent housing that is energy efficient! To me, it’s a win-win.
Blooming Rock: As a follow-up to that, we as a city are so car-centric and we can’t really claim to be the greenest city in the country or in the West because we’re so car-oriented. What do you propose that we do to encourage people to get out of their cars and walk and bike and take transit?
Councilman Simplot: Great question. To me it’s as simple as removing the incentives we currently give for people to drive their car. So you were talking about the Ramada, we’re building a parking lot and we’re trying to encouage people to ride the Light Rail and mass transit? We’re being hypocritical! This is a ridiculous way to implement a policy of “Green Phoenix”. Now it sounds simple, but politically, it’s difficult. Because so many people are going to want to NOT do the right thing and back away from removing parking lots.
The issue we’re dealing with now is charging people to park in parking lots next to our mountain preserves. It’s a huge issue and my response to that has been: take the bus, ride your bike, carpool! These are great ways that we can encourage people to take transit but we’re afraid to do that. We’re afraid to tell people, bite the bullet! Try transit and you’re going to enjoy it. So we have to get past that, and we’re not there yet. There are some of us in the community that are there, but it’s a struggle.
Blooming Rock: What are you views on growth in Phoenix? And as a follow up to that, can you touch upon City North and Cityscape?
Councilman Simplot: Growth, I think we’re going to continue to see a lot of redevelopment here in the central core. And again, I think it goes back to transportation, cost of living and quality of life. I think those are the basics and that’s what people are looking for now. And quite frankly, the suburbs don’t provide that. It’s expensive to live in the suburbs. You may get a house on the cheap, but then your transportation costs are through the roof! And quality of life, how much time do you spend in your car trying to get to the places you want to go to? So I think it’s a natural flow that we’re going to see back into the central city. And by the way when I say central city, I define that as Camelback to Van Buren.
Now what do I think about City North? I voted against the incentives, I thought it was a horrible policy. Every time we incentivize a development like that out in the middle of the desert, what we do is cannabilize the existing commercial and retail establishments that we had already incentivized ten, twenty years ago. And that’s exactly what we did with City North. Horrible policy, I voted against it, I never supported it. I could not be adamant enough that we should not be incentivizing that sort of development out in the fringes of the city.
Now Cityscape is a different issue. I did vote for that, to provide incentives. And unfortunately I think we have to be able to provide incentives in order to do large-scale developments like Cityscape, much like the same way we provided incentives to develop Arizona State University Downtown and the U of A Medical School. The City has the ability to provide incentives for those sorts of large infrastructure projects. And hopefully we will be able to continue to do that to a certain degree. Each case is different though. And we need to take each development on its own (merit) to make sure we’re getting our investment back for the taxpayer. We invested a lot in Cityscape and I think we’re going to get even more out of it than we invested. We needed that central core, we had to have that. It was missing.
Blooming Rock: I think you’re the only Councilman with this view, but tell me about where you stand on the reversible lanes.
Councilman Simplot: I think the reversible lanes are a horrible thing to do to our neighborhoods and our businesses. I believe they need to be removed and I led the charge with my colleage Michael Nowakowski to get the Council to move forward and at least appoint a citizen’s committee to review options on what we can do to fix the problem. And the problem is this: folks in areas like Moon Valley don’t understand the devastation that the reversible lanes cause to our neighborhoods and to our businesses. And unless you live in the central core, it probably is difficult to understand just how difficult it is to get around certain times of the day.
And why on earth would be do that to our neighborhoods and to our businesses? When we want to redevelop our central core, don’t we want to remove obstacles? Don’t we want to remove red tape? Don’t we want to remove any barrier to success? Reversible lanes are one of the worse things we can do to a local business trying to open and grow on either 7th St or 7th Ave. I’m convinced that we’re going to find enough votes to do something. Now will it be what I want, which is elimination? Unfortunately I think we may not get there. I’m not sensing the support from my colleagues on this. But I think we have enough support in the community to encourage enough of my colleagues to support some change. And any change will be better than what we have today.
Blooming Rock: This is something I ask every public official I interview. In Phoenix, we don’t have a lot of public engagement, I was wondering what would you do if you were to run for mayor to encourage people to be more engaged?
Councilman Simplot: Well first, I’m a big believer in town halls. And I think they work whether you represent a district or you represent an entire city. I think it comes from the top, it comes from the leadership. If you have somebody in the leadership position who’s encouraging participation, I think the public responds. Likewise, if you have leadership that discourages public discussion and involvement, I think they respond to that as well. And I think that’s what we’ve entered into in the course of the past few years. I think the City and the leadership has become complacent, and I’m not referring necessarily to Mayor Gordon. I think it’s all of us who share in that blame. We have become complacent in not reaching out to the public to encourage their participation in our future. And I think every time we do that, that’s when we hear back from the public at the worst times because all of a sudden they rise up and we have to change directions suddenly and violently. I think the way to avoid that is to encourage that discussion and participation early on. So for me, it’s early participation and a lot of participation. And I think that creates a better city.
Note: Speaking of public engagement and the reversible lanes, there is a Public Hearing, the second of three, on the Reversible Lanes tomorrow evening at 6pm at the Sunnyslope Community Center. Click here for more information. Make sure to attend and lend your voice to the debate, especially if you live in the central core!
Photo Credit: Melrose Pharmacy, a small business on 7th Avenue, one of streets with the reversible lanes. Photo from About.com:Phoenix.Tags: 7th avenue, 7th street, arizona state legislature, blooming rock, car-centric, central core redevelopment, City North, cityscape, electric utility light company, empty lots, fox theater, green phoenix, Greg Stanton, historic preservation, Light Rail, mayor 2011, phoenix, Phoenix City Council, prop 207, Ramada Inn, reversible lanes, sahara motel, southwest magazine, taz loomans, Tom Simplot