Aiding and Abetting

Activating Vacant Lots in Downtown Phoenix

Aiding and Abetting Title


Light Rail transit has connected Phoenix in a way not seen since the city’s original streetcars traveled the roads in the 1930’s. Though this new transit opportunity has spurred development and connectivity, key light rail destinations remain plagued with a patchwork of vacant lots, surface parking, and decaying buildings. These holes in the city fabric prevent budding areas from offering a true urban experience. Locals and tourists alike experience this vacant patchwork as an obstacle to effective wayfinding, a visual indicator of deterioration and lack of interest, and a burden to pedestrians that exposes them to the desert heat.

Within this proliferation of vacant land, however, is the opportunity for a design intervention to make a positive impact throughout the entire city – not just the light rail corridor. This project therefore outlines a host of design proposals and policy changes that strive to turn the light rail corridor’s vacant scars into immediate assets.

Statement of Problem
Vacant land around the Roosevelt Arts District light rail node is a serious issue characterized by holes in urban form, deterioration of neighborhoods, lowering of property values, lack of ‘sense of place’, and a lowering of local stewardship and pride in the community. Perhaps more pressing still is the slow change that has come to define the issue of vacant land in downtown Phoenix; the problem has persisted for several decades with few successful policy measures enacted to incentivize infill.

Economic recession has exacerbated the issue and pushed back even existing development plans and groundbreaking dates. As Sarah Fenske of the Phoenix New Times writes: “Suffice it to say, no one is likely to be pitching a big new residential project for downtown Phoenix anytime soon. The vacant lots are going to stay vacant, at least for now” (Fenske, 2009). A comprehensive plan allowing temporary activation of vacant lands is therefore needed as a means to complete the urban environment around downtown’s budding light rail destinations.


Research Question
How can we use temporary design strategies to make complete ‘destinations’ and generate urban activity along the light rail corridor?

Conceptual Framework
The conceptual framework for this project is based on the concept of infill between light rain stations and a passenger’s final destination (see Figure 1). Currently, holes in the urban fabric characterized by vacant properties, empty parcels, and excess surface parking disrupt the experience of a ‘complete’ city. Our proposed interventions are therefore aimed at filling these voids so that budding light rail nodes can become true landmarks that magnetize the greater metropolitan area.

Conceptual Framework

Figure 1: Concept Diagram

Rooted in Transition
This study emphasizes the temporal nature of cities; they are ever-changing to meet the needs and reflect the values of their citizens. With this in mind, our proposed interventions are designed as temporary solutions that activate vacant land before long-term development plans are executed. This allows empty space that may not be developed for several years to become an asset to the community immediately.




Phoenix has long been a national prototype for suburban sprawl. It has lured new residents to establish roots by offering an alternative to the crowded streets and towering skyscrapers of other more densely populated American metropolises like Chicago and New York City: “People who come to Phoenix don’t want to movie into an inner city. They’ve come to get away from that” (Logan, 2006). This mentality has lead to development patterns that have, while preserving open space and suburban privacy, also resulted in an abundance of vacant, abandoned, or deteriorating properties throughout much of the city (see Figure 2). Although the presence of light rail has spurred interest and development in many areas of Phoenix’s urban core, pedestrians are still greeted with vast areas of vacant lots around most major light rail stations.

Vacant Land
Figure 2: Vacant land in select cities around the United States (Bowman & Pagano, 2000)

The problem of vacant land in Phoenix is multi-faceted, as development strategies are different based on who owns the land, what it is zoned for, the presence of additional ordinances based on proximity to schools or residential areas, and a variety of other policy and legal considerations. Vacant land is even defined differently in many instances. The map in Figure 3 illustrates vacant land as defined by publicly and privately owned vacant parcels, surface parking, and also abandoned structures. Design implications for each of these land types varies greatly, making a unified strategy difficult.

Vacant land is also defined differently depending on who is providing the data. In a 2011 report on vacant properties in downtown Phoenix, National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep reported that “The city estimates that about 11% of the urban core is vacant” (O’Dowd, 2011). This report was cross-checked by The City Paper to reveal more detailed findings: according to Carol Johnson, City of Phoenix Planning Manager, downtown’s ‘urban core’ consists of the 250-acre Central Business District, plus 120 acres tacked on outside of downtown. In downtown around 20 acres of that is either vacant or surface parking, which is roughly 8%. This is mostly concentrated in the northwest corner of the area: “Add to that another 20 acres of vacancy in the 120-acre area between Roosevelt and Fillmore Streets, and you have in total about 40 acres vacant out of 375” (Maldonado, 2011).

Downtown Phoenix Vacant Parcels
Figure 3: Vacant land in Downtown Phoenix (Ellin and Turner, 2010)

Residents Living Downtown: Nothing Ever Changes

Proponents of suburban development in Phoenix have greatly influenced the political climate of the region for decades, even amidst several attempts to re-develop the patchwork of vacant land in the inner city left by neglect and perennial development on the fringes of the city:

Calls for infill first arose in the 1970s, spearheaded by Phoenix Mayor Margaret Hance. With the prevalent pro-business mood in the city, however, nothing came of the effort and the dictates of the free market continued to drive economic interests away from the city center. (Logan, 2006)

Indeed, only a poor economy brought on by a national recession in 2008 proved enough to slow the construction of new homes: “Until the recent recession slowed expansion in the region, developers had been making vast fortunes building large-scale, leap-frog residential development of homogenous ‘product’, with little regard for the cumulative effect on Phoenix’s social and environmental quality” (Talen, 2009).

Residents living downtown have adapted to the perennial site of vacant lots and empty storefronts: “…many things downtown look done, or close to it. Those of us who live here know differently. Parts of the city feel like a war zone, with giant vacant lots surrounding all the new gentrification” (Fenske, 2009). Perhaps adding insult to injury are the fences that border many vacant lots around the Roosevelt Row arts disctrict, most of them adorned with images of high-density infill projects labeled with claims that construction is coming soon. Most people living downtown are no longer fooled: “…many residents and neighboring business owners had gotten used to hearing that these lots will become something great, but only in 10 or 20 years. Meanwhile, the people of Phoenix are expected to live with these empty lots amidst their surroundings day in and day out” (Loomans, 2011). Phoenix New Times writer Sarah Fenske adds: “By the time downtown fully comes together, I could be a grandma” (Fenske, 2009).

Disdain over vacant property is echoed by both residents and visitors to downtown Phoenix’s light rail destinations:

  • “This is possibly the single biggest problem facing downtown Phoenix today, as the empty lots are not only ugly, but the continued tear-down of old buildings has led to a dearth of older commercial buildings that small businesses can occupy” (Downtown_Resident, 2007).
  • “So, as a downtown dweller, I am ALL too familiar with those eye-sore vacant lot’s that seem so prevalent in my community.” (Rebekah C, 2011).
  • “Look at those empty, embarrassing dirt lots. And that surface parking! This looks and feels nothing like an urban city, but more like a rural farming community” (Anderson, 2010).
  • “Ms. Laurie Carmody (Real Estate Investor): We’ve ended up in this patchwork that doesn’t work as a downtown core” (O’Dowd, 2011).
  • “Being surrounded by so many dirt lots, we are in constant talks with the city of Phoenix in regards to their development plans” (Breisblatt, 2011).
  • “Apparently, tourists at the schmancy new Sheraton downtown expressed some concern after trying to walk to Roosevelt Row on a First Friday. They did not like walking through a wasteland of dirt, parking meters, and no signs of life” (Fenske, 2009).

As with any multi-faceted issue, several obstacles stand in the way of development downtown. One of the most visible is real estate speculation: “That really has been the story of this empty land. For decades, downtown Phoenix has been the darling of speculators who have tried to assemble large chunks of property and then sell them at a premium for high-rise condominiums and office buildings” (O’Dowd, 2011). Properties are therefore constantly swapping hands, from one owner to the next, and none of them are penalized for keeping the properties vacant. Idle land taxes are a popular method of forcing property owners to develop prime real-estate in other city around the country, but Phoenix lacks such a system (Ellin & Turner, 2010).

Additional city policies involving air quality and dust control prevent many lots from being used temporarily as gathering spaces for events: “One of the biggest hurdles of activating a vacant lot is implementing dust control measures mandated by the Maricopa County Department of Air Quality. The typical method of dust control, adding gravel to the site, costs around $10,000” (Loomans, 2011). Until recently, this obstacle had stopped many organizations interested in temporarily leasing vacant lots for art collectives, farmer’s markets, and other cultural gatherings. A non-profit organization in downtown Phoenix called Roosevelt Row CDC, however, discovered that mulching lots is an effective alternative to gravel coating and could be done at a fraction of the price. This breakthrough lead to the immediate formation of the Adaptive Reuse of Temporary Space (A.R.T.S.) project, which leased a vacant lot from a private owner near the Roosevelt Row arts district light rail station and is currently exploring a variety of temporary installation possibilities.

Learning From Others: Community Gardens

Community gardening has regained momentum in recent years as an intervention opportunity in neighborhoods that stimulates interaction and stewardship in addition to providing a variety of positive health and environmental impacts. Examples of community gardens have emerged in cities around the country – both in suburban areas and inner cities. Gardens are especially popular as solutions for rejuvenating vacant lots: “Besides making a neighborhood much prettier, trees provide shade and purify the air… Converting a vacant lot to a community garden, like the P-Patch in Seattle, provides a place to grow food, but participants reap many benefits besides fruits and vegetables” (Chiras & Wann, 2003). Seattle’s P-Patch program has proved so successful, in fact, that it has grown from a single garden in 1973 to a city-sponsored organization that oversees 73 gardens on over 23 acres of land (Seattle, 2011).

In Phoenix, registered non-profit organizations like Arizona Homegrown Solutions (AZHS) and the Valley Permaculture Alliance (VPA) organize community events, local farmers markets, and hands-on classes in addition to operating community gardening projects (VPA, 2011; AZHS, 2009). The City of Tempe, Arizona has also recently embraced the concept of community gardening by leasing a vacant lot to Downtown Tempe Community (DTC) which then established the Tempe Urban Garden (DTC, 2011).

Sprawl Repair

The idea of sustainable development in downtown Phoenix receives plenty of talk.  Ideas ranging from simply filling in vacant lots to drastically increasing population density are easy to talk about, but harder to make realities.  While we wait for the long term urban development solutions we propose that strategies can be implemented today that might just prove optimal for years to come, or at least until normalized infill occurs. Galina Tachieva has created a manual using time-tested traditional neighborhood design strategies to heal communities ailing from all the symptoms of sprawl. The Sprawl Repair Manual is useful as a template, because it contains detailed illustrations and case examples which are recognizable and clear. It demonstrates sprawl elements and their deficiencies (in the case of our study under-utilized open space, the over-sized block, and the strip center), then restructures the element in minor ways which promote accessibility, walk-ability, and serviceability. Appropriately, Tachieva uses a context-sensitive approach – something we find useful in developing our temporal strategies. 

Underutilized Open Space
An approach that we found most useful to examine was Tachieva’s proposed intervention strategy for underutilized open spaces between buildings.  To intervene in the areas between conventional sprawl-style strip buildings, she proposes the introduction of civic spaces and community squares.  Tachieva also promotes the introduction of various heterogeneous uses and building typologies to increase vitality within the area.  The thread that binds these methods to our proposition is that all the interventions should physically and programmatically augment and complement existing land uses.

The Over-Sized Block
This specific sprawl condition is a problem in our focus area, as much of the land has been parceled out into large mega-blocks with the intention of the growing the downtown Phoenix business  core up to the I-10 freeway.  This scale of land use does not interact well on a human/experiential scale with the smaller buildings between Roosevelt and Fillmore Streets.  Tachieva focuses on intervening to create more appropriate transitions between large-scale towers and the sidewalks by introducing a variety of building scales.  She also suggests improving the definition of public spaces around these towers so that they may be used by more people.  The overarching goal of these and other actions is to improve the civic presence on the street, which coincides with our objective of filling in vacant land to improve civic life in the area.

The Strip Center
Tachieva’s approach to the strip center is similar to the over-sized block but on a smaller building scale.  In addition to focusing on creating some shared public spaces adjacent to new retail opportunities, she focuses he methods on increasing civic life and street presence.  Most importantly, this strategy specifically involves the reuse of spaces that are adjacent to existing activity points or centers to provide this increased vitality.  While her ideas are more permanent and would have a longer-lasting effect on the community, our interventions would hope to serve the same purpose or provide a template  to guide the direction of the future sprawl repair efforts.

Not Everyone’s Convinced
Sprawl repair provides a great set of steps – applicable at many levels of urban, sub-urban and rural development – to begin to reduce excessive land use.  It does however follow somewhat traditional modes of operation in taking action.  In this sense it is the ideas from the Manual that are applicable to our interventions and not completely the methods.  While the ideas established by Sprawl Repair are valid and very much a part of what our temporal interventions would accomplish, it would be the traditional time-lines and slow, unsteady pace of development that could hinder the benefits of those ideas.  “Making good use of vacant lots has been a dream of many Downtowners for years now. But it has become an even more fervent dream in recent years, as more and more lots have sat vacant due to developers opting to wait until the economy turns around” (Loomans, 2011).  The operation time for these repairs may be too long to provide any immediate help to the fragile economic and social development in the Roosevelt Row area.

Tactical Urbanism

Improving the livability of our towns and cities commonly starts at the street, block, or building scale. While larger scale efforts do have their place, incremental, small-scale improvements are increasingly seen as a way to stage more substantial investments. This approach allows a host of local actors to test new concepts before making substantial political and financial commitments. Sometimes sanctioned, sometimes not, these actions are commonly referred to as “guerilla urbanism,” “pop-up ur­­­banism,” “city repair,” or “D.I.Y. urbanism.” For now it is referred to as “Tactical Urbanism,” which is an approach that features the following five characteristics:

  • A deliberate, phased approach to instigating change;
  • The offering of local solutions for local planning challenges;
  • Short-term commitment and realistic expectations;
  • Low-risks, with a possibly a high reward; and
  • The development of social capital between citizens and the building of organizational capacity between public-private institutions, non-profits, and their constituents.

If done well, these small scale changes are conceived as the first step in realizing lasting change. Thus, Tactical Urbanism is most effective when used in conjunction with long term planning efforts. The following are examples of Tactical Urbanism strategies:

Tactical Urbanism Strategies
Figure 7: Tactical Urbanism projects in Fort Worth, TX &  New York City, NY.

Build a Better Block
PURPOSE: To promote livable streets, and potential neighborhood vitality.
OVERVIEW: The Build a Better Block project was launched by local community activists in the Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff. Spearheaded by Go Oak Cliff, the organization relied upon cheap or donated materials, and the work of many volunteers to transform a single underutilized urban block. A key element of the Build a Better Block project was engaging existing vacant retail space. Working with property owners, temporary “pop-up” shops demonstrated the presence of retail market demand in the neighborhood.

Guerilla Gardening.
PURPOSE: To introduce more greenery and gardening into the urban environment.
OVERVIEW: Although there are many per­mutations, guerrilla gardening is the act of gardening on public or private land with or without permission. Typically, the sites chosen are vacant or underutilized properties in urban areas. The direct re-purposing of the land is often intended to raise awareness for a myriad of social and environmental issues, including sustainable food systems, improving neighborhood aesthetics, and the power of short-term, collaborative local action. Guerilla gardening is an excellent tactic for instantly im­prove an urban neighborhood. Often times, gardens are cared for years after they were first created illegally.

Pavement to Plaza.
PURPOSE: To reclaim underutilized and inefficiently used asphalt as public space without a large outlay of capital.
OVERVIEW: Pavement to plaza programs define tactical urbanism as led by a municipality. Typically, these interventions start by using temporary, inexpensive materials to re-assign excessive motor vehicle space for the use of pedestrians or bicyclists. Because these efforts do not require large outlays of capital, they are able to provide a new vibrant public space, and virtually overnight. While the city funds the design and the construction, partners from the local business or advocacy community are usually asked to operate, maintain and manage the new plazas.

The Drawbacks of Tactical Urbanism

While Tactical Urbanism provides opportunities for immediate intervention in blighted urban areas, there are obstacles that should be addressed. Strategies like guerrilla gardening have on one hand vastly improved neighborhoods in cities like New York’s East Village, where an activist group called the ‘Green Guerrillas’ first began throwing water balloons filled with seeds over the fences of the neighborhood’s dirt lots in the 1970’s (Smith, 2003). On the other hand, however, such gardens are not considered legitimate establishments by city authorities and can be removed at any time.

Tactical Urbanism strategies also provide potential public relations issues for city officials when temporary installations on city property must be removed after long-term development plans materialize. As Jason Harris, Deputy Director of Downtown Development in Phoenix, Arizona points out: “So you put a community garden in, people put their sweat and tears into, you know, toiling the land, and to have that say, well, no, we’ve got the teaching hospital finally; we need to close this – obviously, a lot of angst and heartaches” (O’Dowd, 2011). To quell the frustration of forced relocation, extra care must be taken when planning and operating interventions on vacant lots to emphasize their temporary nature.



Roosevelt Row is the name given to a burgeoning arts district northeast of Phoenix’s downtown core. The area is serviced by light rail and is within walking distance of single family homes, newer high-density infill, and several hotels. Roosevelt Row is also the location of a monthly art walk that has gained considerable momentum since the late 1990’s, drawing tens of thousands of spectators from all parts of the greater Phoenix area.

Parcel Types
Figure 8: Land Uses and Building Types derived from on-site observation

Despite the success of the arts movement in the area, Roosevelt Row is surrounded on all sides by large swaths of vacant property and dirt lots, creating a urban ‘island’ that can only be reached by crossing through several blocks of vacant lots from the nearest light rail station (see Figures 8 & 9). For many months of Phoenix’s hot summer season, this obstacle is certainly an undesirable deterrent that prevents the area from reaching its potential as a true, year-round destination.

Vacant Land 3D

Figure 9: Publicly-owned vacant parcels (red) and privately-owned vacant parcels (orange) east of the Roosevelt Arts District light rail station (bottom-center). The main concentration of art galleries and entertainment venues is circled in purple (Ellin and Turner, 2010).

Many of the vacant properties surrounding Roosevelt Row are slated for large-scale development plans that have yet to be realized. The largest of these is the Phoenix Biomedical Campus, shown in Figure 10. The campus will be developed in three phases and is not scheduled for completion until the year 2020. In the meantime, the city of Phoenix is holding the land vacant until funds can be secured for future construction phases.

Phoenix Biomedical Campus
Figure 10: Three phases of the proposed Biomedical Campus (phase one in red is currently under construction). Phase two (purple) and three (yellow) are not finalized and completion dates are distant estimations.

Our Proposals

To mitigate the negative effects that large amounts of vacant properties have on communities, we propose a multi-faceted approach to activating these lots immediately so that they might become assets to the city. Using the methods and lessons learned from The Sprawl Repair Manual and Tactical Urbanism  we  move forward to a framework of temporary design interventions that will build from existing local culture, provide opportunity for community benefit, and complete the urban experience between the Roosevelt light rail station and Roosevelt Row.

Using the Roosevelt Row community as a case study/testing ground for these ideas we have developed a process through which these interventions may be implemented and a replicable framework for developing specific interventions.

A key factor in the development of the vacant land surrounding the Roosevelt area is the existence of the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation. The CDC is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization established to further the unique character and assets of the area, to advocate for the continuing role of the arts in the revitalization of downtown Phoenix, and to foster a dense, diverse and walkable urban environment.  Vacant land stands as a barrier to the goals of this community organization, however their existence provides clues as to how to initiate the process of turning vacant lots from an urban detriment to an community asset.  Using the A.R.T.S program as a departure point we propose a process to make temporary urban infill a reality.


  1. Community Involvement:  A community organization initiates a proposal for an intervention that, in theory, benefits surrounding businesses and residents through it’s creation.  In the case of Roosevelt Row, the benefit would be to occupy the vacant land between existing businesses and the lightrail station.
  2. Determine Land Ownership:  Through City and County Records.  The most important detail being whether the land is in owned by the city or a private corporation/citizen.
  3. Private Land: Work with the owner to lease the land either as a donation to the 501(c)3 non-profit organization, with tax incentives or a business transaction between two entities.
    Public Land: The use of public land would require a larger scale planning component.  In order to limit the City of Phoenix’s Liability, a ‘Temporary Occupation Overlay Zone’ would be established to allow for permitting and eventual intervention on a vacant parcel.  The zone would apply to existing parcels and could include vacant structures, in order to incentivize landlords to allow short-term leasing without provision of all required services.
  4. Establish Appropriate Interventions:  The community organization would work with the city to establish appropriate uses for parcels depending of the average time/length of occupation and to keep interventions in-line with municipal and community goals for the development of the area.
  5. Prepare for Occupation:  Cost of preparing lots for occupation are a significant hindrance to current efforts. Facilitating this process would be part of the ‘Temporary Occupation Overlay Zone’, allowing preparation to be less permanent and possibly co-op. costs/labor between the land owner, the city, and the community organization.
  6. Stage/Install temporary interventions: Ideally a community group effort, the operation and maintinence budget could be split between City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation, the private lot owner, and community volunteers.
  7. Deconstruction/Preparation for Development:  With the nature of development planning being, future uses of the vacant parcel would be known well in advance of the site preparation activities.  A suitable place to transfer the intervention to could be established in order to avoid negative community sentiment before construction.

Design Options

The possibilities for designs are limited only by the financial backing of the community organizations involved and the willingness of the city to permit certain land uses.

Private vs. Public Parcels

In addition to the aforementioned possibility of a ‘Temporary Occupation Overlay Zone’ the interventions on specific parcels may differ based on ownership.  Private parcels, in working with existing zoning and permitting laws, could offer opportunites for Food Trucks and food courts, Markets/Commerce (as demonstrated by the A.R.T.S Program), and Recreation Elements, such as mini-golf and lawn bowling.  Public parcels, with the possibility of available maintenance staff could offer, park space, shade structures and community gardens.  Both ownership designations have the options to offer street furniture, temporary (non-food) vendors and public art.

The animation below illustrates the phases of development from existing conditions to future long-term development strategies with an added phase of temporary intervention in-between.



The introduction of the Light Rail to Phoenix presents a long-absent opportunity to connect vast parts of the sprawling metropolis in a way not seen since the discontinuation of street car service.  Our study and proposals build from the conventional redevelopment ideas of Sprawl Repair and the more radical ideas of Tactical Urbanism.  Taking the methodological approach of the former and the community spark of the latter to intervene before the urban fabric is sown together, putting temporary patches to create a complete urban experience.  By engaging the community through its grassroots organizations there is an opportunity to create a more complete urban place out of downtown Phoenix, using vacant land to create community assets.



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