An audacious premise

f674671b-d986-4a10-a85a-61fb086e5770rs_840-hThe Sustainable Communities Collaborative began with an audacious premise.

In a culture that emphasizes competition, it would ask people to set aside their self-interest and work toward a common goal. It would bring diverse interests into the room and ask them to share ideas, stretch beyond where they were comfortable and accept that getting less than they wanted was still a win.

The emphasis would be on GSD – getting stuff done, to use the polite translation – and not keeping score or paying much attention to who got the credit. This would be true collaboration.

Right. Like that’s going to happen.

“I thought it was too idealistic, that it would never work,” says Tommy Espinoza, president and CEO of the Raza Development Fund. Only after co-founder Shannon Scutari showed that she could bring three mayors – Hugh Hallman of Tempe, Scott Smith of Mesa, and Greg Stanton of Phoenix – together on short notice to work toward a common goal did he agree to put up $10 million.

“This is the only collaborative we’re involved with,” he says. “I’ve not run into anything like it.”

Perhaps it happened because it started organically. People in state government, at Arizona State University and in the non-profit community were thinking and talking about smart growth as light rail was under construction. They started talking to each other and sharing ideas. They organized loosely to bring structure to their conversation.

Former Valley Metro executive Ben Limmer was involved with the group then, in what he calls its nameless “garage band” days.

“It was a group of people who wanted to do the right thing,” says Limmer, now assistant general manager of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. “We were never really an official anything. But we brought a new way of thinking about how we’re a region. Everyone is city-focused or street-focused. We were focused on the 20 miles of light rail line and that was it.”

This core group shared certain characteristics. They wanted to see housing, health centers and community gathering places built along the corridor to capture the benefits of light rail. They all recognized that, individually, none of them had all the answers, but collectively they might.

The collaborative gene

Teresa Brice, who led the Local Initiatives Support Corp. office in Phoenix, saw the possibilities as the recession deepened and construction activity shriveled. She convinced her group’s leaders to put up $10 million to support transit-oriented development along the light rail corridor, which was matched by Raza. Under guidelines created by the collaborative, the $20 million fund was able to encourage developers who might never have considered such an approach to take on pedestrian-friendly, transit-focused projects.

The two funders would retain control of the money, but Brice knew they needed more.
“LISC was not well understood,” she says. “We needed to rely on our partners to create a groundswell.”

And those partners were ready to go. Kristen Busby, today a director in the Urban Land Institute’s Arizona District Council office, was part of the core group. “When the money came, it was a big catalyst,” she says.

How big? Limmer says it “was nearly as exciting to me as when we opened light rail. The concept was so out there. When I had told my bosses what I was working on, they’d be like, ‘that’s great, now get back to work.’”

The Collaborative would not become a stand-alone legal entity. It would have no turf, giving it greater credibility when it advocated for sustainable practices.

And it would be a safe place to gather and talk through issues. Competitiveness was out. Only those with a collaborative gene would thrive here.

“Some people definitely have more of a disposition than others to do collaborative work. It’s not easy. Successful people tend to be more competitive,” says Silvia Urrutia, director of housing for the Raza Development Fund.

“But I’ve learned that when I work with other people I’ve had more success.”

Learning a new language

The Collaborative brought together people who weren’t used to talking to each other, Urrutia says, calling that one of its major accomplishments. “It encouraged people to share ideas, to talk about creating a different vision across three cities. We put the best of us into it.”
Doing that required learning each other’s language. It’s natural to look at things through your own lens and experience. But by bringing diverse interests together, it allowed everyone involved to see a bigger picture of how the cities’ plans and developers’ projects fit together.

It also required developing a new language, one that emphasized working together and how a project in Tempe, for instance, could enhance Phoenix or Mesa.

The language of collaboration sometimes co-opted the language of competition. Scutari recalls a Phoenix staff meeting as the city considered a request to close and narrow streets for Union at Roosevelt, a signature transit-oriented development. Street and fire officials blanched at the idea of narrower streets. Attorneys worried about liability. The discussion was focused on all the reasons not to move forward.

And then Scutari pointed out that Tempe had been narrowing streets to accommodate urban development for over a decade. Mesa changed zoning rules to encourage downtown infill projects on a narrower Main Street. Immediately, the tone of the conversation changed. If Tempe and Mesa – Mesa! – could do this, then Phoenix could.

A group of middle doers

A diversity of backgrounds helped feed collaboration. But so did the personalities in the room.

There were high-profile elected officials, whose presence gave the Collaborative heft. But there were also what Phoenix village planner Katherine Coles calls “middle doers. Not middle managers. Middle doers – people who are assigned to projects and getting things done.”

They’re the people you rarely hear of, so they have no political need for credit. “We can talk about what’s in the hopper, the things we’re trying to complete, and ask if anyone can offer help with this. There’s a cross pollination of ideas.”

Jeff McVay, Mesa’s manager of downtown transformation, agrees. “It was a real benefit to be in the same room with all the partners, sharing ideas. Everyone is working toward the same goal on a regional scale. We could share best practices.”

And there was a side benefit for Mesa, which has long fought against a view that it is a city of wide streets and narrow minds.

“Being able to share what we were working on helped change the perspective of Mesa in the professional realm. When Phoenix calls and says we want to see what you’re doing downtown, that’s a change.”

Those conversations also helped get stuff done by breaking inertia, the Urban Land Institute’s Busby says.

“People would talk about an idea, they’d discuss where to get additional support,” she says. “It was a real help to have staff people be able to come and talk to the group, to have a ready network to engage to be at hearings and write letters.”

And meetings were always safe. No one had to fear that something they said could cost them their job.

“Shannon has a real ear for political sensitivities,” Brice says. “She understands that many times city staff needs cover. So everyone is allowed to talk through issues without attribution to any individual. Everyone understands that what is said is confidential.”

Stretch beyond comfort

There was one more requirement. “Our mantra was that everyone has to stretch a little beyond their comfort zone,” Brice says.

For LISC, that meant working with private developers, something it hadn’t done before.

For Mesa, almost everything the Collaborative did was a stretch. “There was a giant pushback against affordable housing, on the assumption of what it would do to neighborhoods, crime and schools,” McVay said. The Collaborative, though, helped support political leaders. Affordable housing was built, and the fears never materialized.

For Dan Klocke, vice president of development at Downtown Phoenix Inc., the stretch was looking beyond the urban center. “For someone who is so geographically focused, my concern was about working with Tempe.”

It’s not that he disliked the city or the people there; he feared that development efforts would be watered down by including so many areas. “We missed some opportunities but gained others.”

To Brice, that point goes to the heart of what collaboration is all about.

“We all have answers, but none of us have all the answers,” she says. “By incorporating everyone’s answers, the result may not be the best and highest use of a piece of land, but it’s one all people can embrace.”

She cites Gracie’s Village in Tempe as an example. The developer went in with a proposal for a six-story building. The neighborhood objected with a ferocity that would have led to City Council rejection. Collaborative members helped negotiate a solution and reduced the height to three stories with a small fourth level. It kept onsite health services and child-care.

No one got everything they wanted, but “collaboration resulted in serving the community’s needs,” Brice says.

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