AZ Central – Phoenix plans to smooth road for infill projects

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Phoenix officials plan to upgrade the city’s permit system and overhaul portions of its zoning ordinances, which could help the city bolster infill development.
In addition, the City Council last week approved the creation of an advisory group that will create a pilot program to offer “relief and incentive for infill development,” city officials said.
Planning officials say there’s demand now to develop on the city’s old lots either by renovating buildings or constructing new ones.
Cindy Stotler, planning and development’s assistant director, said there could be a variety of reasons for the uptick — maybe people don’t want to drive so far because of high gas prices, maybe the infrastructure costs more on the outskirts, maybe light rail has made the urban areas more attractive.
“People want to live in town and live the urban lifestyle,” she said.
The department doesn’t keep statistics on interest in infill, but staffers noticed the growing demand starting in 2010, said Derek Horn, planning and development’s acting director.
“There’s a lot of work we can do in urban areas,” Stotler said. “One of the things we want to do is promote broken development in areas where we made investment in light rail. And, also, we have existing infrastructure. So, we don’t have to leapfrog development and build new waterlines.”
Leapfrog development happens when developers build on the fringes of existing communities, “leapfrogging” over existing land that can be developed.
Developers historically are hesitant to undertake infill projects because they can be cumbersome, Stotler said. Neighbors can cause roadblocks. Investors see hassles and smaller rates of return. Permitting and zoning take longer.
“If you (redesign) a lot to change the lot lines, all these new rules and regulations kick in, sometimes making your lot unfeasible and making your project not pencil out,” Stotler said. “It costs more money. You never know what you are going to find when you dig in the street. This size waterline, that size waterline.”
Infill recommendations
The City Council endorsed ideas to spur infill development and smooth the building process overall:
City officials will select advisory-group members. The panel will make recommendations to the council later this year.
The city will ask the advisory panel to identify barriers that cause developers to bypass potential infill opportunities, Horn said. Infill has advantages such as access to existing public services like schools, utility lines, police and fire.
The advisory panel would consist of developers, design professionals and neighborhood representatives.
Phoenix wants to upgrade its permitting system. The department plans to spend as much as $3.5 million on a software program that would allow access to plan reviews, remote inspections, planning cases, historic-preservation processes and permits.
Workers would be able to use smartphones and tablets with the software program, officials said. This process would reduce the time it takes to issue a permit, Horn said.
When people apply for a permit today, they submit an application on paper and must appear in person downtown, Horn said.
Planning officials would like to overhaul the city’s zoning ordinances.
City officials want to combine related chapters to reduce inconsistencies and streamline uses in certain zoning districts, said Alan Stephenson, planning and development’s acting deputy director.
Reaction
Several people who deal with the city often on development issues said they like what they hear so far.
Paul Johnson, a former city mayor who has been building since he was a teenager, said it’s quicker to get a building permit to construct something outside of Phoenix.
A permit in a suburban city might take six months, but one in Phoenix can take as long as 18 months, Johnson said.
He offers advice to Phoenix: “How do you keep the infrastructure low? How do you create cool, hip places along light rail in the city? Reduce the amount of time to get them done. If it’s not done in time, the market will go somewhere else because it is more efficient.”
Phoenix already has been fast-tracking its process for building-plan reviews and inspections by expanding a self-certification program that allows architects and structural engineers to review their own building plans to ensure that they comply with city code.
Once building plans are submitted through the program, a permit is guaranteed within 24 hours.
David Wetta of Wetta Ventures LLC bought a 2-month-old vacant lot on the northwestern corner of Osborn Road and Seventh Street. The site once housed the Bethel Methodist Church congregation, which had a church and school buildings dating to the late 1800sand 1940s.
The project, called “Old School 07,” is an example of adaptive reuse, — renovating existing buildings — and an urban-infill project.
The property will have three stand-alone facilities that will house a Z’Tejas restaurant, retail stores and a Starbucks.
Wetta said they had to do a lot of work to prepare the site that they might not have done on a new build: removing asbestos, clearing out materials from an unexpected basement, and replacing the aging sewer and water system.
“Surprises translate into extra time and money,” Wetta said. “The beauty of it is, you take the church building, you reinvent the building. You end up with the history of the old building and make that important connection to the past and you bring it up to code. It can work, and it takes a lot more patience.”
The developer said he received a permit in less than four months, which he attributes to thorough planning. However, he, too, offers advice to Phoenix.
“The zoning code and the building code have not been updated to deal with the unique issues and challenges of infill sites,” Wetta said. “We must implement changes now. My concern is that if the codes aren’t revised soon, important opportunities will be lost.”
Longtime Valley zoning attorney Paul Gilbert said he has faced another challenge with infill projects: Many of the zoning records are old and confusing.
“Sometimes, the (property) records are incomplete,” Gilbert said. “It takes a lot more time to research to know what restrictions you have on the property. There are so many overlay zoning districts that it’s very confusing.”
Stotler understands the challenges.
One step at a time, she said.

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