By Cecilia Chan
Glendale Avenue downtown in the 1970s was home to a robust row of auto dealers.
Then in the early 2000s, the dealerships began leaving, zapping the corridor of its economic bustle.
For years, the city invested time and money to jump-start its decaying downtown but to no avail. Vacancy rates, population drop and unemployment rates continued to surpass the rest of Glendale.
Last week, a report with recommendations to revitalize the area was unveiled to the City Council in workshop.
Urban Land Institute’s study, funded by a grant, focuses primary on what is known as the Midtown District, which runs along the Glendale Avenue corridor bounded by 43rd and 51st avenues and Myrtle Avenue and Ocotillo Road.
“The report is a basis for future strategy,” said Jean Moreno, executive officer of strategic initiatives and special projects.
Amy Malloy, a member of the Institute’s Arizona Technical Assistance Panel or AzTAP, said Glendale’s downtown has a number of strengths, including its historic assets and availability of city-owned land, which gives it a remarkable leg-up.
Although Midtown is ripe for revitalization it has its challenges such as low-performing schools and a lack of a consistent vision by policymakers.
Another drawback is the uncertainty if light rail will come, which is keeping landowners and developers from moving forward with developing vacant lots and filling empty buildings.
Ms. Malloy said if light rail does not come, the downtown can survive without it.
She gave Gilbert as an example, which developed a thriving downtown without light rail albeit it took the city 35 years to do so.
“You don’t need light rail to make it successful,” she said.
But it does speed things up.
Mesa, which has a demographic similar to Glendale’s downtown, was able to redevelop its downtown in about 10 years with the aid of light rail, Ms. Malloy said.
Tom Hester, also with AzTAP, said the area offers a competitive rent structure and housing stock. He noted artists, priced out of Phoenix’s Roosevelt Row Arts District, are already coming into the area. Lower rents also is an opportunity for start-ups .
“Because of the overall rent structure, downtown can be a wonderful place to grow employment,” Mr. Hester said.
School quality also is key in revitalizing an area, according to Mark Davis, another AzTAP member.
One of the challenges in the Midtown area is four separate school districts operate there, he said.
“One is in failing condition in how it is rated,” he said, adding the city can play an active role by getting the four districts to support one another.
He also encouraged the city to use tax credits to buy, rehab and build new housing in the area for low-income households. This, he said, is an opportunity for the city to get rid of blighted properties.
He said developers currently can not fund a project in the area and recoup their cost through sale or rent of the property. He said tax-credit projects downtown can prime the pump for the area, which would lead to market-rate housing.
Key recommended steps for the city to take include commit to a clear, long-term vision, promote an identity for the corridor, engage the community, leverage quick wins such as clean up and heighten code enforcement of the area and identify a project to get done. The city also was advised to reach out to the larger stakeholdeers and landowners in Midtown and find out what it is they need in order to thrive there.
Council members liked what they heard. Several said creating curb appeal first with City Hall and its properties in the area was a good jumping-off point.
“We need to be proactive to do something with that stretch there,” Councilman Bart Turner said. “If we don’t be proactive, blight will continue to creep farther north.”
Councilman Ray Malnar said the area needs light rail or some sort of catalyst.
Ms. Malloy said education can be an economic engine for the area by putting in a magnet school, which draws in new bodies.
Councilman Jamie Aldama said the established neighborhoods in Midtown are being overtaken by zoning. He asked should the city continue to commercialize the area at the expense of its residents.
Ms. Malloy said the intent is not for gentrification to occur.
Mr. Aldama added the city needs to reinvest in the older neighborhoods there.
There is no worse feeling than having paid a mortgage for 30 years and get left behind as the city develops into something beautify, he said.
Ms. Malloy said the critical first step for Glendale was to create a vision and to be persistent with it.
“We feel collectively it is critical for the longevity of a city to have a strong downtown,” she said.
Midtown District revitalization recommendations include:
•Create a one-stop, business advocacy liaison in City Hall
•Invest in downtown with branding and beautification
•Activate underused properties with temporary uses and pop-ups
•Focus on smaller, signature schools
•Encourage neighborhood-oriented schools and joint-use policies
•Leverage state and federal housing programs
•Support business incubators and co-working spaces
•Facility land assembly now
•Stabilize underlying neighborhood conditions such as perceived safety issues and blight