Lessons learned

Union @ Roosevelt groundbreaking (Photo: Downtown Phoenix Journal)

Union @ Roosevelt groundbreaking in the Roosevelt neighborhood, Phoenix (Photo: Downtown Phoenix Journal)

As a director of the Urban Land Institute’s Arizona office, Kristen Busby talks to her counterparts around the country. The subject of the Sustainable Communities Collaborative comes up regularly. Two years ago, it was featured for the 12,000 attendees of the Transportation Research Board conference in Washington, D.C.

“People all over the country look to the Sustainable Communities Collaborative as a model” for how to get things done in transit-oriented development, she says.

Any effort that is a model for others has lessons to impart. The Collaborative has many, starting with this one from Jeff McVay, Mesa’s manager of downtown transformation. “We can’t accomplish what the Valley needs without collaboration. It’s easier to make difficult decisions if we’re working together.”

Other lessons:

Leadership

“These things only work with a great leader,” says Tommy Espinoza, CEO of Raza Development Fund, citing Shannon Scutari’s work in co-founding and leading the group as its executive director.

“Shannon has the total gift,” Espinoza says. “She’s humble enough to be able to engage folks, but then to push them when needed. This is especially important when you’re dealing with multiple interests.”

It’s not just leadership, though. It also takes the right personality, someone willing to suppress ego and create a new language of collaboration. It means giving more than lip service to the admonition that it’s amazing what can get done when the credit isn’t important.

“This was a great experiment in quantum physics,” says Scott Jacobson, a change consultant. “When two atoms run into each other, a new energy is created. What you do with that energy is the question. With Shannon at the helm, there was no question the energy would be put to good. You could see people seeing the light and absorbing the light.”

Keep it simple

The Collaborative never incorporated as a not-for-profit organization, and thus it never had an organizational structure or turf to defend. Mission, not survival, was the focus.
“Keep it informal,” advises Silvia Urrutia, director of housing for the Raza Development Fund and an original member. “You went because you wanted to.”

Build momentum

Being successful is important. So is being successful quickly.

“Quick wins were important as we continued to bring people together,” says Dan Klocke, vice president of development for Downtown Phoenix Inc. “It helped attract more people and resources.”

Success begets success. “People got something from going,” Jacobson says. “They were able to return to their organizations and report interesting information about projects in other cities. It put them in a positive light.”

The partnerships that developed allowed people to take what they were working on to a higher level, often because the connections they made led to additional money or expertise.

Which leads to the next lesson:

Embrace unexpected voices

The Collaborative began with a focus on transit-oriented development, for which Scutari’s background was well suited. And then St. Luke’s Health Initiatives (now Vitalyst Health Foundation) came with an interest in advocating for healthy communities along the light rail line.

“There was a willingness to have unusual voices at the table, with everyone on an equal footing,” says C.J. Eisenbarth Hager, director of healthy community policies for Vitalyst, which contributed to the Collaborative’s operational expenses.

Recognizable names were members, but so were people the general public didn’t know — the people who do the day-to-day work of government. Phoenix village planner Katherine Coles, for instance, started going because her boss was too busy. “Who attended evolved, based on who had something to offer, not their title,” she says.

And Scutari nurtured these members.

“Shannon didn’t just give people an opportunity to sit in a room and share. She sat with them, visited, and understood their role in the world probably better than their managers did. By the time they showed up, she knew them and they trusted her,” Jacobson said.

See the world — or at least the Valley

It would have been easy to meet month after month in a comfortable, central location. Instead, meetings moved across the three cities. Members saw the issues and successes in various places.

“For us, getting out to Mesa is like going to another world,” Eisenbarth Hager says. “But I’m happy I saw what they were doing.”

Share successes

The old model of regional competition was a zero sum game. If one city won a car dealership or corporate headquarters, every other city lost.

The Collaborative instilled a new way of thinking. “Every city gains by the efforts of other cities along the light-rail line,” says Bonnie Richardson, a Tempe transportation planner. “It opens up other opportunities. Collaboration is the only way we’re going to improve our communities.”

Don’t be shy

One of the Collaborative’s guiding principles was GSD — get “stuff” done — without worrying about who gets the credit. And a lot of stuff got done. As Jacobson notes, “light rail will owe this group for decades to come for bringing people together who should be on the corridor.”

But GSD had an ironic side effect: the Collaborative itself went largely uncredited.

Insiders and people in the industry knew about its role and successes. The general public? Not so much. Check out news coverage of some of its biggest successes, and you’re likely to find no mention of the Collaborative’s involvement.

“We told our story in our circles,” the Urban Land Institute’s Busby says. “We could have told our success stories more, to a wider audience. Instead, people looked around and said, ‘when did this happen?’”

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