Half-century and older homes dot a tree-lined Tempe neighborhood less than a mile from where office buildings and condos have shot skyward in recent years.
Many of the homeowners there fear the urban redevelopment will creep into their historic enclaves. A "Harmony in Tempe" apartment complex proposed last year in the Maple-Ash Neighborhood sparked a rallying cry to the city for help.
"It's kinda ironic the project is called harmony," Tempe City Councilwoman Lauren Kuby said, adding that the proposal did bring community residents together to find a solution to what they see as encroaching condo and apartment developments.
Tempe leaders responded by exploring an option that would help homeowners in Maple-Ash and other areas pay to "downzone" their properties, replacing the high-density zoning that the city had placed on their neighborhoods years ago.
However, the decision to downzone would be left to each individual homeowner, meaning high-density projects could still take root.
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The alternative would be for Tempe to issue a blanket rezoning of the neighborhoods, but that could prove costly to the city after Arizona voters passed a ballot initiative in 2006 that allows land owners to sue if a city or other government body changes the rules about how land can be developed or slaps new restrictions on it that leads to a drop in property value.
The compromise being worked out by city leaders is to waive fees associated with downzoning in these neighborhoods to preserve them and to prevent gentrification as luxury apartment complexes go up nearby and drive up rent. City leaders also could add additional incentives such as a property tax breaks.
The proposal is expected to go before the Tempe City Council in September and, if approved, an open application period would begin shortly thereafter.
"Tempe is at a major crossroads," said Justin Stewart, chair of the Mitchell Park Neighborhood Association. "It could determine what kind of city it wants to become."
The Maple-Ash community, one of Tempe's oldest neighborhoods, is named after the two major streets that run through it: Maple and Ash avenues.
The community got its start in 1909 and was the first expansion outside of the city's original boundaries, according Victor Linoff, a local historian and a member of the Tempe Historic Preservation Foundation.
Many of the homes in the area are over 50 years old, making them eligible for historic status.
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"Only a handful of homes are left," Linoff said of the original neighborhood. Most already have been lost to redevelopment, he said.
Many of the homes have a style unique to the area. A number of the homes are built in a style common to the Philippines that is designed to help with the heat, Linoff said.
The homes have large patios and porches, which allow for shady areas to cool off and are commonly accompanied by an "Arizona room," which gives the feeling of being outdoors without the heat.
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In the late 1960s, the city sought to redevelop the downtown area and the philosophy of the time was that "no one would want to live in old homes," Linoff said.
With that mindset, the city rezoned the area for larger developments to create opportunities for growth. The decision angered many homeowners at the time, Linoff said.
People began buying up houses in the areas to save them from redevelopment. At the same time, developers sought homes too, looking to bundle parcels for larger developments.
More than 40 years later, city leaders appear to be changing their attitude toward the area.
Councilman Kolby Granville has been a part of several city work groups looking to solve residents' redevelopment concerns.
"Oddly enough I've found that nobody has a definitive answer," Granville said. "I have read about a foot and a half of economic journals on the issue."
The proposal moving forward is to waive the roughly $3,600 downzoning fees for homeowners in Maple-Ash, Mitchell Park, and the Wilson Arts and Garden neighborhoods.
"It's better than the nothing we are doing now," Granville said, adding that short-term abatement of property taxes is something he thinks the city should explore as well.
Property-tax breaks would decrease city revenue, but sales taxes make up a majority of Tempe's revenue, not property tax. And Granville points out that the city often gives tax abatements to commercial developers.
Beyond waiving the cost to downzone, Kuby and others said tax breaks would encourage more homeowners to take part.
Kuby and others asked city staff to examine these other incentives and present them on Sept. 14 when the council is expected to vote.
"It's about living here and wanting to retain a sense of community," Kuby said.
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Another option Kuby has been exploring is to allow accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, in these areas.
ADUs are like guest homes. The 600-square-feet homes are bigger than the popular "tiny homes" but smaller than the average home or apartment.
Kuby and others want to streamline the building process for these dwellings. The idea is that homeowners could profit from the demand for rentals in the area but still maintain the neighborhood's character by keeping large condominiums at bay.
Rebates or a fast-track permitting for those looking to build an ADU could encourage homeowners to stay in those neighborhoods and add to the community's value, Kuby said.
Tempe put out a request for proposals for contractors to build some for a city pilot program to explore the idea on city land.
The encroachment issue came to a head after a developer purchased a historic property with an eye toward condos.
Joseph Risi bought property near 9th and Wilson streets in 2016.
If the area already had been downzoned, condos still could have been built but with greater height and size restrictions. The development could've had two condos instead of the proposed six, according to Stewart.
Risi took part in two neighborhood meetings and said he changed up the designs but still faced heavy opposition.
"Developers need to be conscious of their environment and respectful to the neighborhood," Risi said, later adding there is "no possible way to serve 100 percent of the population."
Risi eventually sold the property to national developer D.R. Horton, which plans to build the "Harmony at Tempe" apartments. He said he sold the property so he could focus on two other larger projects, one of which is in downtown Tempe.
The Arizona Republic's efforts to reach D.R. Horton were unsuccessful.
Stewart and others said the proposed downzoning initiative is a good start but they want the city to do more.
Linoff, the local historian, said there's still plenty of room in Tempe for development. "Doesn't have to be at the expense of this small neighborhood."
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