City Hall: Planning Commission Commends Apartment Developers, Despite Neighbors’ Objections.

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By Brian Mori, Publisher and Realtor(R)

Facts and process:

The Phoenix Planning Commission unanimously approved a zoning change last Thursday that will allow a 402-bedroom apartment complex be built at the N.W. corner of Indian School Road and Central Avenue.

The change is likely to be approved in final at next month’s regular City Council meeting.

Toll-Brothers, the national developer, received compliments by two commissioners for their efforts to adjust their designs following heated criticism from area residents and boards.

“I can tell that you added some good value to our community,” said Planning Commissioner Justin Johnson. “I think it’s a testament to working with the neighborhood that they’ve made so many changes to help appease some of the comments made at the Village.”

The developers were slapped pretty hard in public by the Encanto Village Planning Committee in July (read about it), and some lingering concerns were enumerated by neighbors Thursday night.

“When they run out of parking at that complex there’s going to be nowhere to park on my street, where I’ve lived for nearly twenty years,” said John Cavenaugh, a neighbor who lives about four blocks away.

The apartment project includes a surface parking lot in its rear, but no communal garage.

In response to public outcry, Toll Brothers and the City agreed to remove individual unit garages from 3rd Avenue and to prohibit drivers from exiting to the north through the residential neighborhood.

Much more of the public negotiations, however, revolved around aesthetics.

“The concern we heard was ‘this doesn’t have a wow factor,” explained project attorney Stephen Earl, of Earl, Curley, and Lagarde. “Now, we have provided that pop and it’s completely different than anything in the area.”

Earl highlighted some of the changes he said came out of negotiations with Encanto, specifically including design elements from the Phoenix Financial Center at Central Avenue and Osborn Road.

“This is an iconic, mid-century modern building,” Earl Said. “That’s exactly what we brought into the architecture, and we also brought in a lot of verticality.”

Meanwhile, one of Phoenix’s last, remaining examples of true mid-century modern architecture sits right across the street from Toll Brothers’ lot.

The former Valley National Bank which is now home to Devenney Architects.

“Valley National Bank” currently home to Devenney Architects at Indian School & 2nd Ave.

If Devenney’s building was taken into considering in the final Toll Brothers apartment renderings, it is not obvious.

Unless an appeal of the Commission’s recommendation to change the zoning to the “Walkable Urban Code” is filed by a member of the public by the end of this Thursday, the zoning change is almost certain to succeed without further discussion.

If no further formal hearings are held, the final decision will most likely be included on the Consent Agenda for the next Phoenix City Council meeting.

Consent Agenda items are rarely discussed publicly prior to vote.

(Read more about Village Planning Committee’s critique in July.)

More Spoke in Opposition than in Favor at Planning Commission Hearing:

Margaret Deitrich lives near McDowell Road just off Central Avenue, about two miles from the proposed project.

“This is such a huge improvement from what we started with,” she told the Commission. “It’s turned out really unique, I think it will work well.”

She was the only person not officially associated with the project who spoke in favor.

Deitrich was originally opposed to the five story project because it was not as tall as the zoning actually allows.

She has since changed her mind, stating she understands the developer doesn’t want to go taller.

Cavenaugh, who lives four blocks up from the site, said he liked Toll Brothers’ design but wasn’t happy with more apartments.

“I like growth, I like change, but I want proper City Planning,” Cavenaugh told the Commission. “There has to be a balance between the services and the population who resides there.”

Cavenaugh said he called seven complexes that had been or were in the process of being built within a one mile radius.

He claimed there’s been 2,199 apartment bedrooms added in the last four years.

“It’s supposed to be retail,” he said of the corner at Indian and Central. “In those four years, we’ve had zero gas stations, zero dry cleaners, no clothing stores, banks, or hair salons, and no grocery stores (have been added).”

Commission Chairman John Glenn chose to respond directly to Cavenuagh.

“I sincerely hope that developments like this would actually discourage more car use because there’s a light-rail station right there,” he said. “I think that was kind of the driving force of Reinvent Phoenix.”

Glenn asked Cavenuagh if he’d participated in the 2015 citywide General Plan campaign.

Cavenuagh said he had not because he was working 70 hours a week as restauranteur.

“I love the light-rail, I think it’s great,” Cavenuagh responded to the Commissioner’s jab, without skipping a beat. “But there’s a tipping point, when I need groceries where am I going to go?”

No one discussed that Fry’s and Sprouts grocery stores are within a mile.

There Were More Bumps Than Acknowledged by Commissioners:

There can be no doubt that Toll Brothers got the message from the Encanto Planning Committee that they had better demonstrate public support for what they want to build.

Commissioner Johnson’s favorable characterization Thursday may reflect Toll Brothers’ eventual efforts to pacify the area, but it was hardly reflective of the history of this zoning case.

Encanto Chairman Jake Adams lives within a half-mile of the site and characterized the project as “terrible” in July, before later approving the project once changes were made.

In the interim, Toll Brothers sent envoys to knock doors and get neighbors to sign form-letters of support.

They submitted over 90, not including favorable letters from two commercial investors who own large properties immediately adjacent to the premier corner in midtown (read more about letters of support).

Although public support is not technically required, it was a smart move on the part of Toll Brothers‘ attorneys after Encanto all but accused them of avoiding their neighbors.

(…not to mention whatever they did or said to get Margaret Deitrich on their side.)

Still, while there were no angry mobs carrying torches and pitch forks Thursday night – not for this project anyway – there was also no explicit support from neighborhood leadership.

Not a single person from the Carnation Neighborhood Association, or any of the homes near which the project sits, showed up to vocalize support.

Sometimes silence speaks more than words.

While Misters Johnson and Glenn of the citywide Commission might interpret the lack of public objection Thursday night as a “success,” others with a bit more familiarity with this specific part of town might wonder why there was so few positive comments.

The square mile unofficially known as “Melrose” had a history of civic involvement so impressive that public money was spent to erect a metallic, art-deco arch with that name to span Seventh Avenue, a quarter mile from Toll Brother’s lot.

No one from the immediate neighborhood gave the Commission an in-person thumbs-up Thursday.

“The extent they reached out to me was a door knock with a clip board, saying we’re building this thing, do you support us,” Cavenaugh told the commissioners. “The answer was ‘no’, and they walked off. This is not working with the community.”

Carnation Neighborhood Association President Tamiko Garmen said as much in her formal opposition.

“(I) was a tad bit frustrated they never reached out to the Association nor any other members,” she wrote in a letter to the City. “Securing signatures in a pre-written letter is not getting actual neighbors’ input nor approval.”

Garmen highlighted some of the changes that did come from discussions with the Village Planners, including the removal of individual unit garages from along 3rd Avenue, and limiting exit traffic from the complex to left turns only (directing drivers to the light at Indian School instead of through the residential neighborhood).

Carnation resident Dave Jenkins elaborated on that concern Thursday night.

“Is there going to be police there every day,” Jenkins asked rhetorically. “Don’t tell me people aren’t going to go right, and cut through this residential neighborhood to Seventh Avenue.”

No Commissioner publicly acknowledged the points made by Cavenaugh or Jenkins, the only residents who spoke during the hearing from the actual neighborhood where the project is to be built.

Toll Brothers stipulated they will work with Planning and Development staff once the developer has paid for a traffic impact study of the project.

Publisher’s Opinions Specific to This Project:

Whatever the extra costs Toll Brothers’ incurred by having to go back to the drawing board on their apartment project (probably nominal in the overall scope), they can’t rightfully blame the public nor the zoning process.

Toll Brothers might have saved themselves the money, hassle, and red cheeks if they had done a bit more research, returned the right phone calls and e-mails from the beginning.

(T.M.L. knew whom to call, why didn’t they?)

Technically, private property developers don’t need their neighbors “approval” to build what they want, but if they want to change the zoning, the law requires that those in the affected area must be heard.

Historically, zoning was limited to deciding the appropriate uses of land in certain areas of cities, not the way buildings look.

Ironically, aesthetics have become an often hairsplitting negotiation of zoning cases today.

As a matter of pure opinion, T.M.L. preferred the original design for the apartments, the one Toll Brothers came up with themselves, over what impressed the appointed public representatives on the Encanto Board.

Cave Creek based Biltform Architects provided an original design that was symmetrical and stately, without being obtrusive.

It was, in a word, classy…even if some felt it was conventional.

And while T.M.L. recognizes that it was public involvement that resulted in a specific designation for a coffee shop at that corner – the developers should have thought that up themselves – the new design seems little more than an infusion of the eye-catching concepts used for the Muse Luxury Apartments down the road at McDowell.

Perhaps its no coincidence that Toll Brothers’ most vocal proponent, Margaret Deitrich, changed her stance from definitive opposition to definitive support once the Muse-esque themes were introduced into the new design at Indian School Road.

Deitrich, a regular at Encanto Village hearings, lives nearby the Muse and has referred to it several times during other hearings, specifically her reports that Muse has not increased traffic in her neighborhood.

Meanwhile, live-work spaces like those added to the Toll-Brothers re-design, aren’t taking off as people in the City might hope.

Dozens remain empty along lower Central Avenue closer to downtown.

Who’s to say what Toll Brothers will gain or lose by adding them from public suggestion at Central and Indian School?

T.M.L. wonders what we’re going to think of this project in ten years, or even five…we hope we will think very highly of it.

After all, Toll Brothers did blend in elements of the Phoenix Financial Center – an interesting choice – in their second set of renderings for Indian & Central.

Not that Phoenix Financial Center is the most attractive building in this town but it is certainly unique, and cherished by many.

If Toll Brothers’ apartments are built as proposed Thursday they are sure to grab attention.

Publisher’s Opinion, Carnation Resident On-Point with Questions:

Carnation resident John Cavenaugh was really the only person who spoke publicly in this case about anything that legitimately pertains to the police powers of zoning, specifically how the land is used.

“Once that vacant land is gone,” he told the Commission Thursday night. “There’s no where else a grocery store can go.”

It’s too bad the Commission ignored him – they didn’t even thank him for the data he provided – even though he spoke some unpopular truths about this part of Phoenix.

Density is great but Midtown is becoming a very crowded place, and fast.

Cavenaugh was not the first to complain about increased traffic during public hearings, and certainly won’t be the last.

Central and Indian School is a nightmare at rush hour and on weekends.

T.M.L. asked former Phoenix Mayor and current Congressman Greg Stanton what the City’s plans are for the traffic results from all the new apartments going up in the city’s various urban cores.

“I’m not sure there is a comprehensive plan,” Stanton said succinctly, shortly before leaving City Hall.

As much as the City wants to justify the light-rail, especially after the recent campaign to effectively dismantle it, the system simply doesn’t serve the volume of professionals for which it was intended.

Unless someone works or goes to school downtown, or is ideologically dedicated to mass-transit, most feel it takes too long to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time.

The Publisher of T.M.L. lived at the Station on Central Apartments for two years (immediately north of the Toll Brothers property) while studying real-estate development at the W.P. Carey School of Business.

Like Mr. Cavenaugh, T.M.L. supports light-rail but there is no express train.

(Enough said.)

Publisher’s Opinion is that Good Development is Done with Neighbors, Not to Them:

Property owners shouldn’t have to kiss babies just to build buildings, nor should they have to forfeit what they believe is profitable just to make politicians happy.

But it doesn’t take a genius to see that most Arizona development hearings are more about transparency than they are dictating what actually happens.

Good development is a balancing act between owners, users, and neighbors.

More to the point, Toll Brothers did not really seek out input from the immediate neighborhood in any meaningful way, at least not until the Village Planners forced them to do so.

If they had, these questions would have been addressed long before City Hall hearings.

While T.M.L. disagreed with the Encanto Village Planning Committee’s initial, surprisingly emotional reaction, we truly respect their frustration and are happy they made it known publicly.

If only the “real” news media did its job better we’d have a lot more intelligent discussions about designing this town, before developers must bow down to public boards.

Perhaps private developers should look into investing in platforms for such conversations?

(…T.M.L., for example, knows a bit about explaining development matters to the public.)

Anyway, Encanto Village Planning Committee may have overstepped a bit here because zoning laws weren’t really intended to hinge on the way things look.

Even if that is what happens in many cases, and is the effective goal of “form-based-zoning-codes” like “Walkable Urban”, there may have been a Catch-22 for the City from the start.

Arizona law prohibits municipalities from regulating zoning to the point where it costs private property developers reasonable profit.

What that means in any given case is a “who-knows” question most of us want to keep out of courtrooms.

It’s not even clear in this case why Toll Brothers needed a zoning change in the first place, as apartments have been entitled by law for that corner for over a decade.

It’s not a far stretch of the imagination to envision City Staffers encouraging the zoning changes to bring Midtown in conformance with the new “urban” designations passed after 2015’s Reinvent Phoenix campaign.

Even if the Toll Brothers is successful, they will still have to negotiate the finer details of aesthetics with City Staff to get their permits.

We wish them luck, it’s been a rocky start.

In general, a developer who engages with a neighborhood early and sincerely usually reduces embarrassment, if nothing else.

When developers treat the public as the enemy, they run the risk of inviting public representatives to intervene, many who don’t really understand real-estate.

That can be the most expensive thing that happens before shovels hit dirt, and what can kill a project if not handled with care.

In this particular case, residents in the Carnation neighborhood were given incorrect details about the initial neighborhood outreach meeting that was first required by law in April.

Those were exactly the people they should have contacted first, not only after complaints were filed.

Encanto Village shouldn’t have had to object so loudly.

This area of Phoenix has seen projects fail after heated public outcry before, so is there a lesson to be learned?

Simply put: There’s no real explanation why Toll Brothers’ most vocal ally, Margaret Deitrich, lives almost two miles away from the site.

“Midtown, Melrose, Central Corridor, Central Phoenix, Carnation …” no matter how you  describe the neighborhood surrounding their project, they Toll Brothers can’t mistake that its residents pay attention.

Both Central and Seventh Avenues have their own zoning overlays – the only ones in the city generated by the people who live there – and this is not because they don’t care.

Two years ago, the leadership of this key area stood up in a big way to support the conversion of an all-but abandoned gymnasium into a storage facility, even after its developers also got caught trying to circumvent the neighborhood’s involvement.

Later in that same zoning case, the City specifically thanked the developers for working with Melrose, and passed the zoning approvals unanimously.

Did Toll Brothers or their attorneys reflect upon that case before filing a zoning change for Central and Indian School?

Very probably not, because in the end the Turney Avenue storage project never got off the ground.

Those of us who got to know those developers weren’t all that surprised.  (Read more). 

Despite appearing to work with the neighborhood, and getting it past the City, the owners of that project never quite figured out how to communicate with the people who live and work here.

Their private comments (some T.M.L. agreed to hear off-the-record) didn’t match their public face, so who knows what their investors eventually decided about their project?

Anyone with a brain for either politics or real estate knows it’s hard to put a price tag on the good will of your neighbors, especially after you’ve already insulted them.

There are developers who get this, and those who don’t.

If the market trends hold as we all hope they will, Toll Brothers should do very well on Midtown apartment project.

More power to them!

They’ll bring more people to an area that has many small businesses.

T.M.L. certainly and sincerely wishes them good fortune, because just about anything is better than vacant dirt in the heart of the nation’s 5th largest city…except a vacant apartment building, of course.

T.M.L. is no expert in multi-family housing, but we do pay attention: Toll Brothers’ is coming to the table pretty late into the central Phoenix apartment game.

Literally millions of square feet of multi-family housing have come online in a relatively small area, in the last five years.

That’s not to say they won’t do well, or that apartments aren’t right for that corner, but how things get built in this town is almost as important as what gets built.

As for this Phoenix native, who happens to be a real-estate professional, a teacher, and a journalist, who also just happens to live a few blocks away from the subject property, who also lived next door to it for two years while commuting by light-rail, I just can’t help but wonder what, if anything, Toll Brothers has learned.

I’d love to ask them myself, but neither they nor their attorneys have returned any of my calls or emails.

I wonder who Toll Bros. will call if the winds shift against them down at City Hall on their next project, even beyond what a lawyer can do for them.

Will they call their neighbors for support then?

Brian Mori is an an investor and a Realtor (R) with a Master’s Degree in Real Estate Development from the W.P. Carey School of Business. He also holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Arizona. He lives in the Carnation section of Melrose. 602-575-117. 


  1. Thank you for you insightful article regarding this new development. As a fellow Carnation district resident, I happily welcome the development. In addition, I take issue with Tamiko Garmen’s statement:

    “Securing signatures in a pre-written letter is not getting actual neighbors’ input nor approval.”

    What an ignorant statement. They literally came to my door, gave a description of the project, showed me renderings, then asked if I supported the development–which was followed by an emphatic “yes”. That was all the approval they needed from me.

    At the end of the day, I would prefer that the giant piece of vacant land be used for something rather than nothing. Just look at the Melrose Liquor store and what that has become after “concerned” residents got involved with it potentially being demolished to be a dog park. Nothing. And that’s my point. It’s nothing. It’s not providing a service for the community, it’s not providing any value for the community. It’s a vacant, decrepit building that adds nothing for the community.Thank you and keep up the good work!


    • Thank you for the compliment on my writing. It doesn’t do any good unless people read it. I’m glad you mentioned that about the Melrose Liquor store.


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