The Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area, which sits alongside light-rail construction at Central and Watkins avenues, was a tranquil foil to the rustling of cars and construction trucks rushing by.
The lazily lapping Salt River played host to ducks, their quacks interrupting human conversation, while the air teemed with a grassy, post-rain smell. For years, a restored connectivity to the Salt River was something community members in south Phoenix fought for but never received.
District 7 Councilmember Yassamin Ansari and representatives from the city of Phoenix met with community organizers throughout the district to discuss ideas for improving infrastructure and how to direct $550 billion in federal funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021.
Some of the biggest issues organizers raised were connectivity to jobs, green spaces and education; improved pedestrian accessibility; affordability; and the desire for decades of plans for south Phoenix to come to fruition.
“Having clean, safe and accessible green spaces for our urban communities is a necessity,” said Genaro Ruiz, center director at the Rio Salado Audubon Center. “We don’t have a lot of green spaces in south Phoenix. What we can do to enhance this area – the ideas are limitless.”
Reconnecting the community
One of the plans community leaders want to kickstart again is the Rio Reimagined, a plan previously helmed by the late Sen. John McCain to revitalize 58 miles of riverbank to connect communities with the river, bolster sustainable planning and create a vision for the future of environmental projects in the Phoenix metropolitan area.
The other is the Beyond the Banks project, which aimed to connect the community to the river, provide educational opportunities and restore neglected areas of the river near south Phoenix. But that project has remained incomplete nearly two decades after it was approved by the City Council.
“We estimated bringing in more than 5,000 people a year, and we never really achieved that,” said Victor Vidales, a lifelong resident of south Phoenix and member of SoPho Convening, which focuses on bringing equitable and sustainable development to the community. “Those plans just kind of stood still.”
Vidales said 83 acres of empty land across the street from the Restauration Habitat has gone unused for decades. It was initially supposed to be developed into warehouses, but that was never what the community wanted, he said.
“If you go back and look at the plans, it was to connect people to the river. Not just for visitors, but for people who call this place home,” Vidales said. “These are opportunities you only get once in a lifetime, and if we let it get taken away and not get the city of Phoenix to secure that land and build world-class infrastructure, we won’t get another chance.”
Phoenix Street Transportation Department Director Kini Knudson said the department is in the process of applying for a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Phoenix would be competing with other cities for a portion of the allotted $1.5 billion.
The Street Transportation Department is proposing a bike and pedestrian path that would connect downtown Phoenix and south Phoenix. The city will apply for $25 million, emphasizing the need for connecting the community and less car-heavy infrastructure.
“We think this is a great narrative to tell about the community that hasn’t seen that investment,” Knudson said. “We need to make up for that.”
Building an affordable community
Rapidly rising rents and home prices are putting longtime residents in a dire position, organizers said. In the south-central corridor, which is along light-rail construction, two-thirds of residents make less than $25,000 a year, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
Juana Silva, an organizer with Unlimited Potential, said she works with 200 mothers every day, many of whom are seeking an affordable place to rent because they have nowhere to go and they don’t feel their needs for affordability are being heard.
“There is construction, but the community is not taken into consideration,” Silva said. “We’re not included.”
While affordable housing is not covered by the federal infrastructure bill, deputy city manager Mario Paniagua said the funds can go toward smaller projects that could help address that need.
Vidales said it’s time the city made good on its promises of investment and affordability it made to south Phoenix when it was annexed in the 1960s to protect the community from being pushed out.
“That broken promise never actually happened,” Vidales said. “The city needs to incentivize developers to house the people who are already here. If we can secure them first, we can start to bring in the kinds of developments we want.”
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Taking small steps
At the corner of the mobile home park along Central Avenue, the second south Phoenix stop of the tour, there lay dozens of plastic soda bottles, a seemingly abandoned dollhouse accented with a red-violet roof while an American flag flapped gently in the breeze.
In the middle of the small nook of houses is an empty space of cracked asphalt where children play on the weekends, Vidales said. Meanwhile, an empty lot across the street isn’t being put to use, he said.
“If we don’t find a way to support these families, they’re the most vulnerable, they’re going to be displaced,” Vidales said. “There’s nowhere for kids to play, and there’s empty land across the street and another lot nearby that the city owns. So there’s always opportunity for bringing connectivity to these people.”
Mobile home residents have been forced out by landlords as rents rise, and some lost their mobile homes when they couldn’t afford to transport them as well as pay for new water and sewer hook-ups.
Organizers want these communities to be connected to jobs, education and green spaces as part of goals set by the community for the incoming light rail. They also stressed the human element of infrastructure.
“Infrastructure is really important to the mental health and well-being of these families,” said Shannon Scutari, a member of the South Central Collaborative, which works to provide south Phoenix with equitable opportunities for community development. “So we can see that infrastructure is really about people.”
Vidales proposed small steps for the city to make inroads with vulnerable residents of south Phoenix to listen to their concerns and find more ways to help, such as changing out lead pipes still in use in mobile homes.
“Even if it’s incremental, like, ‘Hey, let’s change your pipes out,’ you can connect with the individuals and learn more about what their needs are,” he said.
Ansari said it’s clear the city must follow the lead of the community on infrastructure and focus on the short term to build up to the long term.
“There’s a lot of smaller needs that are more concrete that the city can help in the short term to make it easier to live here,” she said. “There’s so many proposals and recommendations in place that are prime examples of shovel-ready plans that the city can work on.”
Megan Taros covers south Phoenix for The Arizona Republic. Have a tip? Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megataros. Her coverage is supported by Report for America and a grant from the Vitalyst Health Foundation.
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AUTHOR: Megan Taros