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Once-bleak downtown Phoenix poised to add even more apartments

PHOENIX — Downtown Phoenix, once left for dead by residents and developers alike, has seen a revival in housing options in recent years with new apartment and condominium projects.

And more apartments should be on the way, as several major projects are slated to add around 2,100 bedrooms to the downtown core by 2017, according to Dan Klocke, vice president of economic development at the Downtown Phoenix Partnership.

“You’ll see a lot of groundbreakings in the next six to 12 months,” Klocke said.

Among them is Central Station, a proposed 34-story apartment building that would be integrated with the transit station along Van Buren Street between Central and First avenues. It would become Phoenix’s tallest residential building.

Also in the works is Union @ Roosevelt, a proposed mixed-use apartment complex on an empty lot near the center of Roosevelt Row. The developer is still seeking financing for that project, and construction should begin in 2015, according to Klocke.

All told, Klocke said proposed developments should add 3,000 residents to the 9,000 people who live downtown already.

However, development in Phoenix’s downtown continues trail to that in metro areas of similar size. A 2013 assessment put downtown Denver’s population at 17,500, while the Downtown Seattle Association reports a population of 65,000.

Quinn Whissen, one of the founders of This Could Be Phoenix, a volunteer organization focused on raising urban awareness and visioning projects in the downtown core, said that the perception of downtown Phoenix as a ghost town continues to haunt the area.

“For years and years and even decades, downtown wasn’t as safe, there wasn’t as much to do and people left after dark,” Whissen said. “Obviously, that’s not true at all anymore, but a lot of people still don’t know that, so we’re trying to change the beliefs about downtown.”

The quality of the projects plays a role as well, as Whissen and her co-founder Ryan Tempest cautioned against “supercomplexes,” luxury apartment buildings that take up entire blocks and stifle development in the areas.

“It ruins your experience of walking through a city because you get these vast tracts of land that are all the same building,” Tempest said. “It’s just not visually appealing.”

Klocke also cited cost as a factor, saying that people who come to Phoenix for its lower cost of living relative to other cities might be turned off by the added costs necessary to build projects downtown, such as including parking within the structure.

“Building these kinds of buildings is much more expensive, so it’s an economics issue,” Klocke said. “You need to have the jobs and the companies that can support these rent levels.”

Phoenix also faces unique challenges due to its age and geography. Unlike many of the cities with larger, more successful downtowns, Phoenix was a relatively small city for much of the 20th century, and it lacks the dense infrastructure that cities like Denver and Seattle had in place.

“Downtown (Phoenix) was built out as single-family homes,” Klocke said. “Unfortunately we don’t have a huge inventory of five- to 10-story buildings that were built 100 years ago.”

Tempest, with This Could Be Phoenix, said that without geographical barriers like oceans or large mountain ranges Phoenix has been able to grow out rather than up.

“Basically, the only momentum we can have is through people’s desire to live in vibrant urban places,” he said.

Klocke said he’s optimistic about the future of downtown Phoenix. He pointed to the success that downtown has had in adding population, success that has allowed restaurants other businesses to come downtown.

“We’ve seen significant improvement of the past six, seven years,” Klocke said. “I think we will continue that development over the next six to 10 years.”

While Klocke said that what makes great downtowns is a mix of people from all walks of life, he acknowledged that students and younger professionals are traditionally looking for more of a big-city experience.

“Younger people who aren’t tied down tend to want more of rental experience,” Klocke said. “And I think those people really appreciate an urban environment.”

Whissen, with This Could Be Phoenix, said that the added population could help fill in some of the remaining needs downtown, including a grocery store and some larger clothing stores to make it easier to live downtown without a car.

“We’re already at the tipping point because of all the momentum,” she said. “I think when you have the most momentum you can take the most risks, but at the same time you have to be smart about it.”