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Phoenix downtown in for big changes

PHOENIX — Downtown is on the verge of a major makeover that will see old buildings torn down to make way for new ones and blackberries and brush removed to create a wetlands park. Work is expected to begin within the next six weeks on several projects funded by the Phoenix Urban Renewal Agency.

Improvements are focused in the area between Bear Creek Drive and Main Street and First and Fourth streets — about 30 acres, most of which is now owned by the city or PURA.

New agency Executive Director Jim Sharp has revamped plans created 15 years ago to make the development affordable and to get people living downtown.

“Residents are really happy about what is going on,” said City Councilor Carolyn Bartell. “They have been waiting a long time for the project to go forward.”

Four older buildings on Main Street will be removed to make way for two proposed 13,000-square-foot structures that would include commercial space on the lower level fronting Main and have 22 residences.

Urban Renewal will prepare the site and developers have already expressed interest in building, said Sharp. Agency carryovers funded the nearly $500,000 needed to purchase the four properties on Main and one that fronts Bear Creek. The latter will also be used for residential structures.

“For a city to be successful, you have to have people downtown,” said Sharp. “You have to build a center of town.”

A new roadway will run from Fourth Street and connect to Main at Second Street to provide access to 44 new parking spots and the housing. Road-building costs are estimated at $750,000.

Parking spots will be next to a wetland park planned for a swampy area on the west side of Bear Creek Drive. Bear Creek formerly meandered through the area before ODOT rerouted the tributary when it constructed the drive, said Sharp. A similar wetlands area south of First Street will be developed to create a link to Blue Heron Park east of the roadway.

Grants will help pay for wetland design and work. Immediate undertakings include removal of blackberries and other brush, but some trees will remain.

“Once we are done, you’ll be able to bike, hike or walk to get on the Bear Creek Greenway,” said Sharp.

A 5,000-square-foot building with rental event space called Market Hall may also be constructed in the next fiscal year. Situated between the new road and First, it would be part of a plaza that would incorporate a small performance space similar to one created at the Britt Festival in Jacksonville last year. Urban renewal would retain ownership of the building and contract for an operator. Sharp estimated building costs at $1 million and plaza costs at $300,000

A $3.5 million industrial development bond is expected to be approved in July to pay for the projects. Depending on interest rates, the bond would run for 20 to 23 years, Sharp said. Payments would initially consume about 60 percent of the agency's annual revenues. Urban renewal agencies are funded with new taxes generated by property appreciation within the urban renewal districts.

Also coming to downtown later this year is one of the first projects in ODOT’s Highway 99 corridor redevelopment. Bear Creek Drive and Main Street will be reduced to single traffic lanes with bike lanes by restriping. Pedestrian crossings at Fourth Street and the south couplet by Blue Heron Park will also be upgraded.

Sharp was hired by the agency board earlier this year. He has a 30-year background in commercial project development and management in California, Alaska, Utah and elsewhere. He has lived in Jacksonville for 12 years.

The urban renewal agency restructured its makeup and goals last year following considerable debate about the agency’s future by the city council and the public.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Jim Sharp, executive director of the Phoenix Urban Renewal Agency, shows a map detailing plans for a major renovation of downtown Phoenix. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell
Phoenix Market Street Plaza is proposed as one element of urban renewal in downtown Phoenix. drawing from the Phoenix Urban Renewal Agency