The amazement has not faded

Six years later, Tommy Espinoza’s amazement has not faded.

Phoenix City Hall

Phoenix City Hall

The CEO of Phoenix-based Raza Development Fund recalls the press conference when the Sustainable Communities Collaborative was announced. “I was blown away because every mayor was there. So were council members and elected officials from each city.”

That was the plan. The Collaborative’s founders knew lasting change would have to start incrementally within city halls. The support and commitment of mayors and city managers was crucial, so that’s where they turned first.

The mayors of Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa had plenty of incentive: Development had dried up in the Great Recession. So they were lined up to meet Michael Rubinger, president and CEO of Local Initiatives Support Corp., when he came to town to decide whether to invest $10 million.

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon was eloquent in describing the potential of light rail. Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman built on that vision. And Mesa Mayor Scott Smith was at his oratorical best.
Each pledged that supporting the Collaborative was a top priority and their city staff would be fully engaged.

Tempe City Hall

Tempe City Hall

The deal was done. Raza matched LISC’s amount. “That $20 million lit a fuse for Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa,” Espinoza says.

It wouldn’t have happened without the Collaborative, believes Ben Limmer, one of the founding members and a Valley Metro executive at the time. “Getting three cities on the same page is not easy. You needed a group able to cross jurisdictional boundaries,” he says.

Transit-oriented development required moving away from the suburban mindset that had been prevalent for decades. Equitable development along the light rail required denser, urban approaches that placed residential units above ground-floor retail. The carrot of money to support development helped spur code changes, especially in Phoenix.

So did a significant change at the state Department of Housing under Director Michael Trailor. He adjusted the formula for awarding affordable housing funds to favor applicants along transit corridors — what he calls location-efficient housing.

“It’s not just about putting a roof over their head,” he says. With an apartment near light rail or bus routes, a family can get by without a car, saving $10,000 a year. “Now, for the first time in their lives they have a savings account. People can continue to progress in their lives and no longer need affordable housing.”

The cities-first approach did what it was supposed to do. It slowly changed the conversation in ways that the next election couldn’t reverse. It promoted sustainable development that capitalizes on existing infrastructure.

Mesa City Hall

Mesa City Hall

“Once the cities were on board — relieving developers’ greatest fear — they were going for projects they never would have considered before,” says Teresa Brice, who led LISC’s Phoenix office at the time.

The character of some neighborhoods changed. The revitalization of Phoenix’s Roosevelt Row accelerated as new apartments began sprouting up to meet the demand for more downtown housing. Vacant lots along Apache Boulevard in Tempe are starting to fill in with mixed-use development, bringing energy and vitality. Downtown Mesa saw its first new construction in more than two decades.

“The Collaborative was able to change the conversations in the cities,” says Dan Klocke, vice president of development for Downtown Phoenix Inc., “to get them to really begin thinking about what kind of an economic tool they have running through their backyard.”

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