A $700 million transportation infrastructure investment is heading toward south Phoenix by way of a light rail system extension. It’s coming sooner rather than later — or never, which was its fate at one point in the regional transit plan.
Valley Metro’s 5.5-mile South Central Extension is a huge win for an area with residents who are heavily dependent on transit. However, one of the biggest challenges with the extension is ensuring South Central corridor neighborhoods don’t lose. Or disappear.
That’s why conversations about affordable housing, small-business assistance, sidewalks, murals, shade, workforce development, food deserts, connectivity, walkability, community services, turning brownfields to “health fields,” and private investment are happening three years before South Central Extension construction begins.
On July 20, the Ford Foundation convened a daylong workshop on Equitable Transit Oriented Development, or eTOD, for the South Cent ral corridor. The city of Phoenix, in partnership with federal transportation officials, Valley Metro and LISC, hosted a group of over 60 stakeholders; including arts advocates, funders, planners, neighborhood activists, business and nonprofit leaders, developers, environmentalists, civic leaders and social justice advocates worked through ideas about gentrification, displacement and restorative development.
Mariia Zimmerman of MZ Strategies, facilitated the workshop on behalf of the Ford Foundation. She explained that eTOD is comprehensive development that benefits all residents regardless of income levels. It’s also an opportunity to address racial and environmental justice issues and to enhance opportunities for small business owners through deep and broad community engagement, she said.
“(ETOD) is not just outcomes; it’s not just projects. It’s also process,” Zimmerman said.
The workshop, which provided community members an opportunity to voice input about the South Central Extension and express hopes and concerns for it, was part of the process of ensuring a major public investment creates improvements beyond transportation and avoids causing harm.
A legacy of transportation infrastructure projects hurting neighborhoods nationwide was the backdrop for workshop discussions. Stephanie Gidigbi, director of strategic initiatives and policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Transportation, said neighborhoods are trying to recover from decades-old policy decisions the left them disconnected from areas of opportunities. Other neighborhoods, largely minority and low income, were simply demolished.
New transportation projects and the need to replace aging infrastructure projects provide an opportunity to do things differently, Gidigbi said.
“We see that there’s a way in this community to build places that work for everyone,” Gidigbi said. “And it’s not car vs. transit vs. bike vs. ped. It’s all of it. We want all of it, and we really think there’s an opportunity to do all of it. We’re excited about that conversation.”
In 2015, the Transportation Department began an initiative to “help build and restore connections, develop workforce capacity, and catalyze neighborhood revitalization.” South Phoenix is one of seven communities in Ladders of Opportunity Transportation Empowerment Pilot. The percentage of South Central corridor residents living at or below poverty level is twice that of Maricopa County, the minority population is two times higher, and the percentage of zero-auto households is three times higher, according to Valley Metro.
Through LadderSTEP, Phoenix will receive technical assistance and help attracting public and private resources to enhance and preserve the South Central corridor. The Phoenix eTOD workshop, which included a session on best practices from Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul, was the first of its kind among LadderSTEP communities.
Twin Cities LISC’s work on affordable housing along the Green Line is celebrated as a model of eTOD. Gretchen Nicholls, a program officer at Twin Cities LISC, said action must follow talk.
“There’s a difference between intentions and results,” Nicholls said. “How do we make sure that all of these good intentions get to results? Because equity just doesn’t happen naturally. We have to have a plan, we have to set goals, we have to have willing partners, we have to check in over time to make sure that we’re making the change we intended.”
Metropolitan Phoenix has had enough experience with light rail construction and operation to appreciate the vast return on public infrastructure investment to know that change is coming. Several high-profile transit-oriented development projects in Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa provide ample evidence of the ripple effect of transportation infrastructure. Every $1 invested in transit creates $8 in economic growth, according to a study of Valley Metro Rail Development.
South Central Avenue planners and funders want to ensure existing residents and business, not just future ones lured by light rail, enjoy economic benefit from transportation investment and to preserve the social and cultural fabric of the community.
South Phoenix, a historically significant, ethnically diverse, area has long suffered from disinvestment and neglect. In the early days of regional transit planning, the South Central Avenue route was left off the map. When the South Central Extension was eventually added to the plan, residents were told they’d have to wait decades to benefit from a light rail transit option. In 2015, Phoenix voters approved a multi-modal transportation tax that helped the city accelerate the South Central Extension project by 11 years. The extension is scheduled to open in 2023.
In closing remarks at the workshop, Vice Mayor Kate Gallego, whose council district includes part of the South Central Extension, said the route from downtown Phoenix to Baseline Road didn’t always get the attention it deserved in regional planning, but she believes it could be the best extension yet of the Valley Metro system. “It’s an extension that will serve the full diversity of our community,” she said.
Albert Santana, light rail project administrator for the city of Phoenix, said expectations are high for every light rail extension, but South Central is different,
“This one just seems to have all the mixes for revitalization, work connection, people who use transit often, affordable housing,” Santana said. “It’s just got all of these different components that are really exciting for us.”
Tommy Espinoza, president and CEO of Raza Development Fund, and South Phoenix resident, said the transit investment on south Central Avenue is a “great opportunity that rarely occurs,” particularly south of the Salt River. Espinoza knows from experience what that public investment means. In 2011, RDF and LISC created a highly successful Sustainable Communities Fund for housing and business developments in low-income areas of regional transit corridors.
Sustainable and equitable development along the light rail line is a key component of the LISC strategic plan in Phoenix. With construction scheduled to begin in 2019, LISC is committed to working with residents and businesses in the South Central Avenue corridor to ensure that existing communities not only survive but thrive throughout construction and beyond.
If done well, everyone wins.