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Phoenix to transform vacant lot into hub for agriculture, art, public gatherings

The city of Phoenix is converting this 15-acre lot at Central Avenue and Indian School Road into a space for community gardens, artwork and public gatherings. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Fara Illich)

The city of Phoenix is converting this 15-acre lot at Central Avenue and Indian School Road into a space for community gardens, artwork and public gatherings. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Fara Illich)

Surrounded by food trucks, mural artists and 200 boxed trees, Mayor Greg Stanton announced plans Monday to transform a 15-acre midtown lot into a place for growing crops, displaying artwork and holding public gatherings.

“The goal is to turn it into a place of beauty and tranquility in the heart of the city,” Stanton said at a news conference unveiling the PHX Renews project.

Owned by Florida-based Barron Collier Cos. since 1996, the parcel is located on the northeast corner of Indian School Road and North Central Avenue, adjacent to Steele Indian School Park.

Blake Gable, Barron Collier president, said dozens of development concepts were proposed to the company but none met its vision until the city proposed loaning the property for PHX Renews.

“This is the idea that made the most sense, and we’re thrilled to be a part of it,” he said.

The city approached the refugee organization International Rescue Committee to work on the farming and gardening aspects of the project.

Timothy Olorunfemi, farm program coordinator, said many of the 12,000 refugees who have resettled in Phoenix since 1994 were farmers in their countries of origin. He said enabling refugees to work in community agriculture, a trade they are familiar with, helps them adjust to life in the U.S.

“This is not only going to benefit people today but have transformative effects for the future,” he said.

Eighty refugee farmers have committed to PHX Renews, working alongside volunteers and teaching sustainable farming techniques.

Barron Collier Companies agreed to loan the land at no cost to the city for the next three years, with a possibility to renew. All the design and building services are donated by Smith Group/JJR Design Firm, and the project is managed by Keep Phoenix Beautiful.

Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, said that repurposing vacant land is something larger Arizona cities like Phoenix and Tucson are pushing for.

“In larger cities it’s more obtrusive,” he said. “It becomes an area for junk collection and hazards exist.”

Vacant lots comprise 43 percent of the land in Phoenix, according to Stanton, who said the measure of PHX Renews’ success will be in its duplication elsewhere around the city and state.

“We need to change the conversation about private property rights and land use,” he said.

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