Proposed north central Phoenix luxury apartments spark neighborhood clash

In north-central Phoenix, one of the Valley’s hottest development corridors, a proposed apartment complex has sparked a classic clash between new development and old.


A prominent out-of-state developer wants to transform 12 aging rental homes and a vacant piece of land near Seventh Street and Maryland Avenue into a 245-unit luxury apartment complex with rents from about $1,500 to $3,000 per month. 


The businesses and apartment complex that immediately surround the project have all lent their support, along with more than 200 other businesses and homeowners near the proposed site. City staff and two citizen planning commissions also recommended the development, which fits with the city’s general plan.


Majority of residents against complex


But a band of homeowners who live in the high-dollar, midcentury modern homes nearby say the apartment complex, which would be denser than any complex in the surrounding area, would not fit with the neighborhood’s character and would increase traffic in an already heavily trafficked area. They’ve garnered nearly 1,000 signatures on an online petition opposing the project.


Of the neighbors who’ve shown up at the public meetings about the project, the vast majority have been opposed to the apartment complex. 


The Atlanta-based developer, Wood Partners, and some neighborhood supporters dispute the narrative painted by the opposition. They say the North Central area is starving for high-end apartments and suggested that the other side is just afraid of change.


After months of fighting and two Phoenix City Council meetings packed with emotional and fiery testimony, the two sides appear far from compromise. But the council has directed them to return to the table and attempt negotiations one more time.


“Find that happy medium or that common ground. Because at this moment I’m not comfortable voting to approve this project because I think there’s a lack of communication between the community and the developer,” Councilman Michael Nowakowski said at a meeting on Nov. 15.


The project


Development plans for Alta Marlette describe the project as resort-style living that will attract well-to-do millennials and empty nesters who want to live near the area’s burgeoning dining and entertainment scene.


“Find that happy medium or that common ground. Because at this moment I’m not comfortable voting to approve this project because I think there’s a lack of communication between the community and the developer,” Councilman Michael Nowakowski said at a meeting on Nov. 15.


The project


Development plans for Alta Marlette describe the project as resort-style living that will attract well-to-do millennials and empty nesters who want to live near the area’s burgeoning dining and entertainment scene.


But this one will look different than some of their other urban-style developments, said Stephen Earl, an attorney for the developer. At the request of surrounding businesses, the developer agreed to design a more residential-looking project with brick facade and first-story patios that open up right onto Marlette Avenue.


“We humbly believe, notwithstanding the criticism that might be leveled by those who oppose it, that it’s a beautiful project,” Earl told the city council.


For Alta Marlette to come to fruition, the council must approve a zoning change that would allow for the 245 planned units. The current zoning would only permit about 130 units.


It’s the near doubling of density that has many members in surrounding neighborhood associations worried.


“There is nothing close to that kind of density in this neighborhood,” critic Neal Haddad said.


Neighborhood outcry


The neighborhood protests against Alta Marlette began months ago, but tensions came to a head this month when the outspoken group twice packed the Phoenix City Council chambers to convey their concerns.


Sandy Grunow, a member of the Phoenix Mid-Century Modern Neighborhood Association told the council the community is angered that the developer failed to ask surrounding homeowners for their perspective about development prior to announcing the Alta Marlette project.


“We are not statistics but we’re real people living in this midcentury modern neighborhood. We are not people who are used to being told what to think, what we need, how our neighborhood should be,” Grunow said. She said she spoke for a conglomerate of neighborhood groups in the area.


Resident John Hathaway, who told the council he is a statistician, said the chances of finding an apartment complex with this density in the area would be like “running into a 9-foot-tall man while you’re running down the street.”


“Imagine running into a 9-foot-tall man. It would certainly stand out as being different, as being not part of the neighborhood,” he said.


Haddad said the neighbors aren’t afraid of change like some of the people who support the project have indicated. They’d be happy to support a “responsible development” that stuck with the established zoning, he said.


“No one has said that they don’t want to develop the property. To say we don’t want this property developed or redeveloped is not only disingenuous it’s just not truthful,” he said.


Several neighbors said they fear the dense project would add to an already dangerous traffic problem in the area, which includes multiple schools.


Sarah Speer, a member of the Madison School District Governing Board, told the council that a student in her district was struck by a car in October near the proposed apartment project, “and we’ve had several near misses.”


The developer conducted traffic studies, which showed the apartment complex would not significantly impact the current flow of traffic. But neighbors questioned the results.


‘What our neighborhood needs’


Not all of the neighbors that live near the proposed project oppose it. Many attended the council meeting to point out that the neighborhood associations don’t speak for every homeowner. 


Mary Zarob told the council she rents an apartment in north central Phoenix and, “this multi-story building is what our neighborhood needs.”


She said it took her months to find an apartment in the area because there are so few rentals available, and even fewer on the second floor or above. She said she didn’t want to live on the ground floor for safety reasons.


“I have a lot of friends who want to move to central Phoenix because they love to hang out at all the places in my neighborhood but they can’t find places to live because everything already has someone living there and they’re probably never going to move out,” Zarob said.


Zach Brooks told the council he’s a third-generation resident of north-central Phoenix and most of his children and grandchildren still reside in the area.


He showed the council a photo of what his neighborhood looked like when his grandfather moved in: Open fields stretched all the way to Camelback Mountain.


Brooks said his grandfather wasn’t thrilled when farms were turned into shopping malls and movie theaters — but if that hadn’t happened, Brooks’ mother, who was from New York City, would have never agreed to move to Phoenix, he said.


In the same vein, he said the new urban development in North Central is what will keep his kids in Phoenix.


“My challenge to you is to build the city that my grandchildren … want to live and grow up in and have their children in,” Brooks told the council.


Infill: It’s a often a battle over density 


Real estate analyst Mark Stapp, director of the Master of Real Estate Development program at Arizona State University, said 7th Street has been an emerging commercial corridor for some time, and now residential development is starting to follow.


“This is reflecting an overall development pattern that has been occurring in metro Phoenix,” Stapp said.


He said the urban commercial developments along 16th Street, Seventh Street and Seventh Avenue have created a housing demand and developers are snatching up underutilized land — like the proposed site of Alta Marlette — for infill projects.


“That’s quite normal and we need it to happen. I think in the long-term for the metropolitan area it’s the right development pattern to see. However, to people who live next to it it’s disconcerting,” Stapp said. 


He said that although people who have lived in these areas for a long time see these changes as bothersome, these types of infill projects are “exactly what we should be seeing. This reflects a healthy, urban, growing place.”


“I don’t see it as a development that is out of context. Nor do I think it’s a development that is out of keeping with where we want to be as a metropolitan area,” he said.




The zoning change will come back before the city council in mid-December, and the council is hoping the developer and the opposition can find a compromise. But the two sides aren’t so sure.


The neighbors want fewer units — period. But Earl said there’s no way this type of luxury complex can be done with fewer units.


Haddad said the neighbors are angry because they’ve opposed the apartments at every neighborhood meeting, planning meeting and city council meeting, but the developer hasn’t made any revisions to the plan.


“They have this public process to make your voice heard, but what difference does it make if there’s no changes to the project?” Haddad said.


Earl said Wood Partners has already compromised on the project. The developer initially wanted an even denser complex, but the property owners directly surrounding the proposed site insisted on a smaller number of units, he said.


Earl said the developer has tried to communicate with the neighbors, but so far they’ve demanded a number of units that would not work with the proposed project. He said he hopes the neighbors will “look at the totality of the project” instead of fixating on the number of units during the next round of discussions.


“I always have hope that we can find some common ground,” Earl said.


SOURCE: Arizona Republic

AUTHOR: Jessica Boehm

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