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(By Brian Mori. This article originally published at This Melrose Life, reprinted here with Permission)

Third Time’s the Charm…for now?

After two extensions, Pennsylvania based apartment developers Toll Brothers secured a favorable recommendation for 402 rental units they want to install at the northwest corner of Central Ave. at Indian School Road.

What may end up one of the first major test-cases to break ground under the City’s new Walkable Urban Design Code was not a decision the Encanto Village Planning Committee came to overnight.

In fact, they voted Monday 8-4 in favor of the zoning change – along with several stipulations – only after sending Toll Bros. back to the drawing board in July.

“I hope you put solar on this thing,” said Committee Chairman Jake Adams, before voting “aye.” Adams described the project as “terrible” in July.

The changes followed heated criticisms from Encanto that the project lacked vision for the premier Midtown corner (click to read about July hearing).

The Committee voted twice, unanimously to allow the developer time to revise.

“We heard comments that we took to heart,” said Stephen C. Earl, attorney for Toll Bros. “This is why it took us (two) months to come back.”

Construction won’t go higher as several Encanto members wanted, but they did spruce up the building’s facades, and designated a space for a cafe/bistro on the ground floor.

Earl cited Encanto’s expressed interest in keeping rent prices reasonable – they actually passed a symbolic motion to that effect – as the reason for not adding floors.

Instead, Toll Bro. increased the size of the outdoor public space along Central Avenue, and added several ground-level live/work spaces along the unusually rectangular frontage on Indian School Road.

There was no discussion about when shovels would actually hit dirt, but it was stated during July’s meeting the land was still in escrow.

If true, it would be reasonable to infer the sale depends upon securing the zoning change, but this has not been discussed publicly so far.

Several Toll Brothers representatives have attended the Encanto hearings, though none have spoken.

This is not unusual when represented by an attorney.

It’s also not unheard of for zoning applicants to introduce themselves publicly.

Next Steps:

Monday’s hearing was the first of three public votes required in order to change zoning in the City of Phoenix.

Next month, Toll brothers will seek approval for their yet-unnamed apartment complex from the citywide Planning Commission.

After that, the City Council will most likely finalize the zoning change without further discussion, unless a daytime hearing is recommended by the Commission, or formally requested by a member of the public.

Public Reception: Nice Changes / Traffic a Concern

Two members of the public spoke to Encanto Monday night, one in support and one against.

“I really like this change to the plan,” said Margaret Deitrich, a regular at Encanto hearings. “I think they’ve done a great job bringing this forward.”

Deitrich, who lives on Central Avenue north of McDowell Road, was strongly opposed to the project in August.

“I really wanted a tall building at that corner,” she said Monday. “But I’ve given that up because they’ve presented something here that’s really nice.”

Tamiko Garmen lives blocks away from where Toll Brothers will break ground.

She told Encanto she opposes the project because the traffic it will create.

“I like the changes that are proposed,” she said. “I am still concerned about the traffic, especially with the other towers that are going to built at that corner.”

Encanto and the City Council recently approved a multi-tower master planned commercial and residential complex to be built (over 10 to 20 years) right across the street (read more).

Several Encanto members criticized Toll Brothers’ in July for being too conservative in their four-story design compared to what they approved for the N.E. corner of that intersection.

Garmen is the President of the Carnation Neighborhood Association, (one of the four official quadrants of “Melrose”), in which the Toll Bros. apartments will be built.

“We already have a ton of traffic, especially in the mornings and evenings,” she told Encanto. “It takes me 40 minutes where it should take 10 to go pick up my son.”

There is still discussion to be had with city planners about how vehicles will enter and exit along Indian School, but the developer has promised that vehicles will only be allowed to exit onto residential Third Avenue at the rear of the project.

There will be no ingress or egress from the Central frontage because of the light-rail.

Earl mentioned these changes came from working with neighbors.

Garmen said no one from the project contacted her, even after Encanto’s sharp criticism about outreach efforts in July.

“I didn’t get anybody at my door,” she said. “I know some people said someone came around, but I also know they said they didn’t like (the project).”

Garmen almost echoed Melrose-Woodlea resident and Encanto Chairman Adams’ comments two months ago.

“No one has reached out to me,” he said bluntly.

Originally, incorrect information was sent out by the developer to Carnation residents.

Earl acknowledged the mistake Monday night, and told Encanto they hired people to knock doors in the neighborhood.

He also said over 90 letters of support were filed with the City, but these were not discussed in detail Monday.

Letters from the public become part of the public record of zoning cases.

Meanwhile, Deitrich said she did not think the traffic would worsen at Indian School and Central because of apartments.

“I have not noticed one difference at (McDowell and Central) than when it was a vacant lot,” she said, referring to the three-year-old Muse Apartments. “I think people have opted for light rail over the car.”

The revised version of the renderings for Toll Bros.’ Central and Indian School project have noticeably similar design elements as The Muse.

Generally, these include staggered facades and roof lines, more distinct color contrast, and prominent metallic materials.

“I like the architectural improvements,” said Committeeman Paul Benjamin. “But I’m still disappointed in this project.”

Benjamin voted “no” Monday night without detailed comment.

“There are other people who are more eloquent who are not here tonight,” he said.

A Walkable Urban Test-Case?

The new Walkable Urban Code was written with relatively strict guidelines for form and appearance.

Toll Bros. chose to rezone the ten-acre dirt lot across from Indian Steele Park, which also fronts a light-rail station, even though apartments were already an approved use in the existing zoning.

Presumably, they could have proceeded with their desired density at Central Avenue and Indian School without applying to change to the new law, but they made their willingness to abide by the City’s strict design requirements obvious.

“I’m a man of integrity,” Earl told Encanto. “I do everything I can to keep my word.”

Although zoning laws traditionally did not dictate form or appearance – The U.S. Supreme Court prohibited that several times in the twentieth century – decades of negotiation between developers and planners have resulted in very complex design codes.

In order to achieve density, heights, or even operations not explicitly allowed by code, developers often agree to stipulations about the appearance and use of private projects.

Encanto voted to approve “the intent” of six such stipulations Monday night.

City Staff said the specific language will still need to be negotiated with planners, and possibly the Design Review Committee, before being presented to the City Council.

Toll Brothers also has a mid-rise project (give or take 20 floors) undergoing public approvals at another prominent Midtown location, Central Avenue and Thomas Road.

They will be back in front of Encanto to give them details on that project next month.

Encanto meets the first Monday of every month in the Willow Room of the Phoenix College Campus at 6:15 p.m.

The public is encouraged to attend and comment on proposals.

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