Like most of the nation after the 2008 recession, Phoenix was awash in home foreclosures and high unemployment. Unlike other cities, however, Phoenix approached its foreclosure crisis with sustainability in mind, not only attempting to rewrite faulty loans but also using federal and local funds to renovate foreclosed homes throughout blighted neighborhoods. The city set more stringent, environmentally friendly building codes and then resold the homes to the communities.
Greg Stanton, Phoenix’s mayor since 2011, has led the march for a revitalized city. With a firm vision of a modern, efficient metropolis, he has championed a number of sustainable projects, one being Gordon Estates. Built on land from a failed development, Gordon Estates is a modest mini-burb of 14 stucco-walled ranch homes. It was designed and built using a unique public-private partnership that is seeking to revitalize Phoenix through innovative green design.
This small cluster of homes has achieved the highest green building certifications of any subdivision in the nation, and Gordon Estates has become a symbol of the fighting spirit of Phoenix, using sustainable design to rise from the ashes of the national economic downturn. “The Gordon Estates project is a great example of a sustainability approach having a meaningful and lasting positive impact on homeowners,” Stanton says.
When the housing bubble collapsed in 2008, the area known as South Mountain Village, where Gordon Estates is located, experienced depression-level devastation. More than 6,000 homes were foreclosed on in this area just south of downtown. In a matter of months, Phoenix lost almost 150,000 private sector jobs, and 8.4 percent of its workforce evaporated like the morning dew on a desert yucca leaf. In South Mountain, the unemployment rate shot up more than 10 percent.
“Incentives are not a bad word to me. In my city, if there are companies that are bringing green jobs or helping us to fulfill our sustainability goals, you’re going to find an open door to my office.”
As the recession unfolded, community leaders in Phoenix knew they had to work fast or the city’s neighborhoods would decline even further. Using $115.5 million of federal stimulus money, the city formed the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP). The NSP started working to counteract the negative effects of foreclosures by readying the homes for Phoenix residents. In the process, the NSP turned to sustainable design practices to achieve a number of goals: renewing neighborhoods, making old homes more efficient while reducing pollution, creating new jobs, and keeping costs low for the incoming residents.
The resulting Gordon Estates is the only green subdivision in the United States that meets and exceeds the National Green Building Standard Gold, Energy Star v3, EPA WaterSense, and Indoor airPLUS certifications. Phoenix, Stanton believes, needs to become a Silicon Valley of sustainable design by encouraging projects like Gordon Estates, and he says economic development and sustainable design go hand-in-hand.
Gordon Estates was born when the NSP acquired a defaulted and partially developed subdivision on Apollo Street in the South Mountain community. The city chose the project for its proximity to employment and major transportation and to build upon NSP synergy and neighborhood impact already occurring in the South Mountain area, but the project wouldn’t have been possible without public incentives. “Incentives are not a bad word to me,” Stanton says. “In my city, if I can help build density in my downtown, if there’s companies that are bringing green jobs or helping us to fulfill our sustainability goals, you’re going to find an open door to my office in city hall to get the job done.”
Phoenix’s NSP and its developer partner, Mandalay Communities, incorporated the highest level of new construction and green building standards in the Gordon Estates’ homes by considering site design, preparation and development, energy efficiency, water conservation, and indoor environmental quality for healthy living. To help bring peak utility costs below $70 a month, homes use a six-panel solar energy system, 14 SEER HVAC, 5.5-inch dense spray foam insulation in the roof, 3.5-inch foam insulation in the walls, and a photovoltaic solar hot-water system. “By taking a more sustainability-minded approach, we are helping to reduce a family’s energy and water use,” Stanton says. “In addition to keeping money in the pockets of families, we’re also lessening our environmental impact. Doing well and doing good at the same time is a winning combination.”
Phoenix has endured a great deal of hardship since the 2008 recession. But sustainable projects like Gordon Estates are offering a new vision of a city that embodies its name.