An Inside Look at Equitable Economic Development in Phoenix

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Albert Santana, City of Phoenix.

This post is part of a series on NLC’s Equitable Economic Development (EED) Fellowship.

This week, I had the opportunity to interview Albert Santana, Director of High Capacity Transit and one of the Equitable Economic Development (EED) Fellows from the city of Phoenix, Arizona.

Carlos Delgado: Albert, thank you so much for taking the time to share with our audience how you and the city have learned and advanced in the city during the year-long technical assistance of the EED Fellowship. Can you tell us what High Capacity Transit is for the City of Phoenix and what your responsibilities are? 

Albert Santana: Thank you to NLC, PolicyLink and ULI for designing this technical assistance program. This year long fellowship has been a great opportunity for leadership development and peer learning that, in some cases, is missing in this type of initiatives.

I have worked for the City of Phoenix since 1997 and in the City Manager’s Office since 2007, serving as the Director of High Capacity Transit. Currently, I am responsible for the oversight of both the City’s light rail transit and bus rapid transit programs. These areas include construction/project management, transit oriented development (TOD), operations, acquisitions, business assistance, planning, and community relations.

Related to Phoenix’s work in the EED Fellowship, I also lead the development of 42 new miles of light rail along with a 5-mile urban circulator which in total is a $8.9 billion program.  Additionally, I oversee 75 miles of future bus rapid transit extensions and the City of Phoenix light rail capital and operating budgets.

That’s quite a lot — but making sure connectivity and access to reliable methods of transportation are a reliable option for Phoenix residents, especially in underserved communities, is crucial. To date, the 26-mile light rail system has experienced $8.9 billion of economic development investment within a ¼ mile radius.

CD: Following up on what you said about creating economic opportunities for underserved communities in Phoenix, this is and has been a priority for Mayor Stanton, correct?

AS: Indeed, Carlos. This is a priority for our mayor and our city manager’s office. Phoenix is the fastest growing city and now the 5th largest city in the country. Our city understands that while new development is vital for a great city to be successful, we must ensure it is done in an equitable manner that includes all individuals and, preserves and enriches communities. Thanks to the technical assistance you have provided this year we are making an intentional effort for this to happen, focusing on people first. 

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CD: Let’s discuss the South Central Light Rail extension. Why you and the Phoenix EED team decided to focus on this project?

AS: Phoenix has identified several opportunities and challenges related to cultural, physical, and social preservation of the community that surrounds the South Central light rail extension. The South Central community has a long-standing and strong sense of identity and place throughout the corridor that is embodied in the established neighborhoods and evidenced by families who have lived there for generations. Businesses and residents who fear gentrification are heavily engaged in the project. The goal is to balance and retain the area’s cultural history while enhancing the long-term economic vitality of the South Central Corridor.

In 2016, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) awarded the City a $2 million transit-oriented development (TOD) grant to assist in planning efforts for the South Central light rail extension. This grant has allowed us to:

  1. Develop a proactive, early action business assistance program two years prior to construction.
  2. Begin to plan for TOD adjacent to the South Central light rail extension. The intent of TOD is to create safe, convenient, accessible, and comfortable environments for walking, bicycling, and use of high capacity transit.

We are actively working with residents, business owners, property owners, and community stakeholders, along with a City Council-appointed steering committee, to serve as facilitators of the TOD planning process. The planning process will yield a TOD policy plan specific to the South Central corridor, which will serve to attract, guide, and prioritize strategic investments in infrastructure, housing, economic development, and other areas to realize a shared vision for the future. The plan will include actionable strategies for achieving long-range community goals and identify appropriate partners (city, business, or community) for implementation.

CD: This is very ambitious. What are the goals you and the EED team have put in place?

AS: The EED Fellowship has allowed our city and the project team to look at a true equitable approach to community engagement and how this project is not only a light rail project but is a neighborhood improvement project. And by true equitable approach is to intentionally focus on people and not on the corridor/construction. This is a true neighborhood improvement project and not just a light rail extension.

The project team is working hard to increase the community’s ownership position in the corridor through an inclusive business resource system that provides financial and educational support to small businesses, entrepreneurs and potential commercial property owners. And we are also supporting the implementation of a workforce development program. The long-term goal is to increase educational attainment, create quality jobs and provide equitable access to opportunities within high growth sectors, as well as opportunities created by the construction of future extensions in the city and surrounding areas.

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NLC’s Equitable Economic Development fellowship team traveled to Phoenix, Arizona for an intensive workshop.

CD: In October of last year, you hosted us when we brought a visiting panel including subject matter experts and peer fellows from other EED cities to give you and the City recommendations on how to achieve your TOD objectives. How important has being to receive outsider feedback and what progress have you made since then?

AS: The panel visit allowed us to take a hard, honest look at the good work we’ve done while also opening up opportunities to do more from an equity perspective. Things such as looking outside of the alignment where other needed improvements existed and completing an inventory of those needs, establishing an equitable Community outreach training for the project team from an outside partner who specializes in that work, conducting a comprehensive asset mapping exercise and an inventory of businesses in the area, and implementing a workforce development and financial literacy program to help create job opportunities for people living around the corridor. We are excited to continue building on the recommendations and intentionally include an equity in all that City does.

 CD: Now I want to ask you about your experience as part of the visiting panel to Austin. What did you learn about the peer to peer exchange advising your Austin peers in ways the City can better support local non-tech business in traditional communities of color?

AS: I’ve learned that while I have learned a great amount working in the city of Phoenix for 18 years, there are professional habits I’ve picked up in the spirit of wanting to solve problems and get things done for the communities we serve. While that has benefits, I need to consider a community perspective and take an initial step of simply getting to truly know the people and areas, not just want is in an environmental report, but the underline issues that has made communities feel as if they are not being heard and marginalized. People that are living furthest on the margins are the people we need to work hard to reach since so many times those voices are not heard.

CD: Any final takeaways or lessons learned during the year of the EED Fellowship?

AS: While I have several, one thing I am taking from my equitable community outreach is working “at the speed of trust” vs a traditional project schedule. Also, utilizing a tool called “what if it were true”. This tool encourages us as municipal employees to not immediately go into solving or explaining when the community brings us an issue. Instead, we take a step back and assume their issue is true, we listen and work together at the speed of trust to resolve together.

CD: Albert it has been very rewarding seeing all the progress you and the Phoenix EED team are making in the city. Thank you for allowing us to be part of that process.

AS: Thank you Carlos and the EED Program staff for not only your constant support but also your passion to build more equitable and inclusive communities.

carlos_delgado_125x150About the author: Carlos Delgado is the Senior Associate for the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use at the National League of Cities.