Will Phoenix’s City Council Vote for a More Connected Future?

Plan for Phoenix’s future links people, places and businesses

PlanPHX is more than just a plan. Admittedly, looking at it on paper, it has many of the earmarks of a conventional planning project: It represents a collaborative effort initiated by the Phoenix City Council to help revamp the Phoenix General Plan, the document that articulates the future of the city. Also, like most plans, it contains a vision based on a set of values and a strategy designed to execute that vision.

But all similarities to a city plan end there.

What PlanPHX really is is a sweeping, all-encompassing blueprint for creating a dynamic, organically “connected” 21st-century city, one that draws upon and leverages Phoenix’s remarkable past and present to craft its promising future.

In fact, so novel and innovative is the PlanPHX approach to crafting the Phoenix General Plan and improving the city that municipalities around the country have gotten wind of it and are knocking on the city council’s door asking, “Hey, how did you do this?”

Best Laid Plans

As its executive summary plainly states, PlanPHX is a “blueprint for a connected oasis,” a monumental design to lift Phoenix up so that it will “be like no other place in the world.” It focuses on making the city greater by building on its existing wealth of assets and enhancing residents’ opportunities to connect with these assets and with one another.

The plan touches on everything that a great city inheres of: land use, open space, the environment, water, neighborhood preservation, recreation, public buildings, housing, parks and much more. And those elements are cross-checked against five core values that PlanPHX is founded in: 1) connecting people and places; 2) building a sustainable desert city; 3) creating a vibrant downtown; 4) celebrating diverse communities and neighborhoods; and 5) promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.

This entirely fresh approach to updating the General Plan will accomplish many things, perhaps most importantly a strategy to help Phoenix achieve its vision for the future.

In the Driver’s Seat

Thirteen years ago, when he first was tapped to chair the committee to update the massive 2002 Phoenix General Plan, Morris “Mo” Stein approached the task in a conventional manner. He and his fellow committee members took an orthodox, tried-and-true approach to generating the 500-plus-page document, which, he says, could easily have doubled as a giant doorstop. Not only was it unwieldy to handle, it was ponderous to read.

Stein, a Phoenix native who is a principal and senior vice president for international architectural firm HKS Architects, has long played a leading role in helping shape and improve the city of his birth.

As a student at Arizona State University, Stein got involved with Urban Forum, a coalition that ultimately mapped Phoenix into a “city of villages.” He then served on Phoenix’s village committees for many years before being invited by Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza to be a member of the city planning commission, of which he later was elected chairman.

As Stein readily admits, updating the Phoenix General Plan is a massive undertaking. He successfully chaired that herculean effort in 2002 and 10 years later, when the update loomed again per the city’s bylaws, the committee decided to rethink how the update might be better—and less painfully—accomplished.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton had just taken the city’s reins and had worked with Stein on the plan’s updating the decade before.

“The day after the election, we met and started talking about the plan and putting a process together. In early 2012, we decided we were ready to go,” Stein says.

The Big Idea

One might think of PlanPHX as a vehicle for updating the Phoenix General Plan. As Stein describes it, “It’s a ‘name’ that we put together for what is really creating the update of the General Plan, and we use it as a brand, if you will. We made a decision that we weren’t going to do it in a traditional manner—which is to say in a staff-driven, department-oriented process. We wanted something that felt more special, more unique, more rooted in the community.”

To root it in the community, Stein says that the updated plan isn’t being crafted, as city plans often are, in “planner-ese” by nameless city bureaucrats, over countless weeknight meetings behind closed doors. PlanPHX, by design, reached out to local residents of all ages for their input.

“We talked to thousands of people,” Stein relates, “via the Internet or our website, or in meetings and workshops, and we asked them just two questions: ‘What is it that you love about Phoenix?’ and ‘What’s your big idea?’ The whole idea of connectivity was delivered by them extremely loud and clear.”

Their answers to the questionnaire turned into a process to illuminate what Phoenicians believe about their city, what they love about it and where it is that they see it going. Community was key.

“What we created had to be something that would apply to our entire community,” Stein says. “It didn’t matter what part of it you lived in, or your background or economic status or anything that was about what you are. The fact that you live and believe in a growing, major American city—well, this had something for everybody in it.”

He adds about the plan: “We wanted to present it in such a way that when people looked at it they wanted to connect with it—they felt a real connection with it and to it.”

Health, Environment and Prosperity

The timeline for PlanPHX to move the new General Plan through the approval process is aggressive. In early January, the Phoenix Planning Commission unanimously approved the General Plan. The Phoenix City Council is scheduled to review and take action on the plan on Feb. 17 at the Neighborhood Housing and Development Subcommittee, and on March 4 at the City Council Formal Meeting. The plan will then go to a citywide vote in August.

Stein says he sees the General Plan as ultimately helping Arizona become “a city of hope and opportunity.”

“I see our city as a leading example of that,” he says. “That really is a way to describe our strategy. What we have to work on to develop next are the tactics that will move that strategy into the action phase.”

By Bruce Farr

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