Forget Curb Appeal, Phoenix Needs More Walk Appeal!

By: Taz Loomans

We’ve all heard of curb appeal, but now there’s walk appeal to consider too. It’s a new term coined by architect/planner Steve Mouzon which posits that “the distances we are willing to travel on foot depends on the quality of the environment along the way”, according to Kaid Benfield in his article, Can we Quantify a Good Walk, for the Atlantic Cities.

This is a very timely article for Downtown Phoenix, though it presents no new concepts per se, but just puts things we’ve always known into quantifiable terms. Downtown Phoenix, in fact, the whole of Phoenix, nay, the whole of the Valley has struggled with its walk appeal since the post-war era. This can be explained very succinctly by what Shannon Scutari recently said at a panel discussion about Urban Infill hosted by the American Institute of Architects:

“What have we been doing for the last 50 years to end up where we are? We have been funding only one kind of transportation.”

In other words – we have perfected, in many ways, the automobile-oriented city. We’ve thrown money at it, we’ve dedicated our planning strategies to it, and we’ve passed zoning ordinances and codes based on it. But this has left a void when it comes to walk appeal, because walking went out of fashion and driving cars became the rage in Phoenix and much of the rest of the country around the time the troops came back home from World War II.

A more specific reason this is a very timely article for Phoenix is that there are two high-rise developments being planned for Downtown. One is a 22-story office building and parking garage to be built on 200 W. Monroe by Golub & Company. The other is a 400,000 square foot office building on the empty lot just north of the US Airways Center by the owners of the Colliers Center. Both of these large developments are getting a GPLET or Government Property Lease Excise Tax from the City of Phoenix, meaning these two developers are getting a tax break from the city to incentivize them to build in Downtown Phoenix. In exchange for the tax break, Mayor Greg Stanton has set up a community task force to work with these two developers to ensure that their developments have walk appeal, after having learned a hard lesson with the less-than-walkable city-subsidized CityScape development.

Steve Mouzon has come up with 6 ingredients for walk appeal which could prove useful to the community task force and the community at large to be able to talk about and measure walkability:

1. Visual variety 

No blank walls please! A view to some interesting first floor tenants, whether it be retail or some other use, is ideal.

2. Street enclosure

This is a matter of framing the street, either with other buildings or even with a canopy of trees. Our streets tend to be very wide and out of scale for the pedestrian, so anything to bring the human scale back to the street is very important.

3. Windows

Again, no blank walls facing the street! Windows, glass, a view inside the building helps achieve the first item on this list.

4. Shelter

For Phoenix – read SHADE. Providing shade along the buildings and in the surrounding area is probably the single most important strategy to increase walk-appeal in our Downtown.

5. Goals in the Middle Distance

This might be a little difficult for a single building developer to achieve as it relies on there being a critical mass of interesting spots between destinations. Even as wonderful little nodes are popping up all over the place, we are still sorely lacking a walkable cluster of activity in Phoenix. Hopefully, this is a next step in the development of a more walkable urban core.

6. Appealing corners

Contrary to the prevailing Phoenix practice, appealing corners do not constitute Circle Ks or a CVSs. Appealing corners are very important to walkability as they symbolize small punctuation marks within a walk. Strong and interesting corners break up a long walk and are a great way to achieve number 1 and number 5 on the list.

These 6 measures of walk appeal are also very helpful to keep in mind as the Downtown Phoenix Urban Form Code is going through some revisions. The Downtown Phoenix Urban Form Code was adopted to ensure a more walkable Downtown, but it is currently in the process of being modified and some of its walkability requirements may be compromised in the process.

If we want to shift the tide in Phoenix from being exclusively auto-centric to being more walkable, it’s important that we advocate for it as a community by engaging with projects like the two high-rise developments and the Downtown Urban Form Code updates. Stay tuned on this blog and the Blooming Rock blog for more information on upcoming community meetings on these two topics.

Photo Credit: Photo from 200 W. Monroe online gallery.

Full Disclosure: The author of this article is serving on the Mayor’s community task force to work with Golub and Company and the owners of the Colliers Center to make sure their developments have walk appeal.

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