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Tempe neighborhood struggles to hold onto its identity, resist gentrification

Tempe's Mitchell Park neighborhood explores ways to resist gentrification, including downzoning and promoting accessory dwelling units

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"A new building complex prepares for downzoning." Illustration published on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017.

Residents of the Mitchell Park neighborhood of Tempe are fighting to hold on to the character of their community. Pressure from real estate developers, increasing population and gentrification are pushing at the edges of the neighborhood, trying to find their way in.

The residents are pushing back. Justin Stewart, the chair of the Mitchell Park Neighborhood Association, thinks downzoning could be the answer.

The zoning codes of a neighborhood dictate how many dwellings can be built on each acre of land. If a neighborhood is in an R-2 zone, it can house 10 units per acre. If a neighborhood is in an R-3 zone, the number of units increases to 15 per acre. In R-4, 25 units are allowed per acre. In R-5, 30 units.

So, downzoning an area reduces the amount of units that can be built there, which would combat high-density projects like apartment complexes.

“We’re a big fan of tax incentives for downzoning,” Stewart said. “Much like we give big businesses tax incentives to come in and develop. We’d like to see them for homeowners.”

Mitchell Park is less than a mile away from the Tempe campus, which Tempe City Councilman Kolby Granville says is part of the issue. ASU is home to 82,000 students and 51,000 of those students attend the Tempe campus.

“That’s additional people looking for housing in the area,” Granville said. “If there are 10,000 people and 10,000 houses, there’s no issue. If there’s 20,000 people and 10,000 houses, there’s an issue.”

Granville said accessory dwelling units are one way to relieve the pressure of population growth. Instead of a resident selling their house to a developer who could tear down the house and build a multi-unit complex, the resident could build an accessory dwelling unit in their backyard. Granville’s example is of a 600-square-foot home, which the owner could charge $750 per month in rent for.

Granville concedes that it would be more financially beneficial for residents to sell their houses outright to developers, even if the developers tear down the house and go on to build high-density units. 

“It is a huge ask to ask someone to make less money than they potentially could make,” Granville said. 

Stewart said accessory dwelling units are good options for people who are planning to live in the neighborhood for many years and are invested in maintaining its character.

“It’s for someone that just cares about what this neighborhood is going to become,” Stewart said. “They don’t want to see their property and surrounding properties developed.”

Tempe City Councilwoman Lauren Kuby is heading the initiative. She is holding public forums to gauge how residents feel about it. On Oct. 19, Kuby will return to the Tempe City Council and make recommendations for the project. She said the neighborhood is “historic” and “charming” but facing extreme pressure from real estate developers.

“It’s under threat from development,” Kuby said. “We’re looking at different tools we could offer residents, whether it’s to voluntarily downzone or whether it’s to make accessory dwelling units easier to build.”

Peter Poppleton works at a church in the Mitchell Park neighborhood. He said he can understand both perspectives — it may be in the interest of the city to build higher density housing, but something may be lost if that happens.

“As I say, the new bird for the city of Tempe is the building crane,” Poppleton said. “I do understand some of the rationale behind it, but when we do, we lose a sense of cultural memory when we’re too aggressive.”

Charlotte Davis Baxley, a Mitchell Park resident since 1967, said she would “absolutely not” sell to developers. Her reasoning was simple. 

“I don’t want the neighborhood to be destroyed,” Baxley said. 

Baxley acknowledges the pressure of ASU's population looking for housing. Her next-door neighbors are ASU students, and she said it doesn't bother her.

"We're really happy with those kids," Baxley said.

Renting houses to ASU students may be middle ground between sealing the neighborhood to newcomers and allowing developers to take over.

“Our neighborhood has great character," Baxley said. "For someone to come in and start putting up apartment buildings or whatever they have in mind, it would destroy the neighborhood.”

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