Getting the most out of an urban infill site: Finding the right partnership to capture your vision

While urban infill sites present certain limitations, a team with the right attributes can best support your goals for a mixed-use development

By: Ramzi Georges

Urban infill is the development of an underutilized site within an established community, and a project type that is trending among developers, end users, and potential residents. By building on an infill site, developers, architects, engineers, and City officials are helping revitalize communities both physically and socially – by providing access to amenities within proximity and supplying more housing options for new families, seniors, or young professionals. These developments help residents rely less on cars; promote environmentally friendly, walkable communities; and give back to the local economy by creating more job opportunities.

With more than 25 years of experience in civil engineering, water resources, and land development design, I’ve developed a passion for urban infill development. When approaching urban infill projects, the most important aspect of achieving a successful outcome is effective coordination between the City and private developers – all while upholding the creative vision of our clients and professionals in our industry such as architects and landscape architects.

Every urban infill development project has its own unique challenges and assembling the right team is instrumental to a project’s success. From my experience, there are three attributes you should look for in your next project team: regulation expertise, engineers who support creativity, and established local relationships.

Familiarity with regulations and site restrictions

Urban infill developments are typically complicated project types due to regulations like zoning codes, building codes, permits, entitlements, etc. A site within close confinements leads to strict zoning ordinances, more utility coordination, and tight construction practices. Tackling these constraints is key to the project’s success, as understanding design limitations at the early stages help manage expectations and reduces changes over the course of the project. That way, there are no surprises, project funds are not being used to rectify design problems, and there are no last-minute design adjustments during the construction document phase.

We recently coordinated a high-end project between multiple entities and acted as a liaison between several jurisdictions. This high-end canal project is a two-building, mixed-use project containing over 500 luxury apartment units and more than 13,000-square-feet of ground commercial space in Scottsdale, Arizona. The approximately four-acre site requires the involvement of several jurisdictions: City of Scottsdale, FEMA, Flood Control District (FCD) of Maricopa County, SRP, and more.

Having worked with the City of Scottsdale for many years, we have the regional expertise, as well as the technical background, to negotiate possible solutions with the FCD. We were able to use our design knowledge of regulations during the early stages of the project based on previous and current requirements. This understanding is currently helping us in keeping the project on track for the projected schedule.

Engineers who support the creativity of architects, landscape architects, and developers

From its beauty to its function, the goal of any development is to build a landmark that will positively impact the community. Typically, the developers will approach a project with a specific vision, and they need the project team to find innovative solutions to make that vision come to life. Each discipline may have its own responsibilities, but the engineering team is there to provide practical knowledge about the potential site constraints of the architectural design. It is easy for an engineer to say “no, we are unable to do that”, but it takes a dedicated team to research, and provide multiple options to make the concept become a reality. Having an engineering team that will go above and beyond for the sake of the community and project design will go a long way toward the success of the project.

While working on a high-end resort in Phoenix/Scottsdale, alongside a large mixed-use development on approximately 65 acres of land, the Atwell team created opportunities from the site challenges. Underneath the mixed-use development is a large parking structure, and from the top of the parking structure to the ground level there are only a few feet of clearance, leaving limited space for utility design. The team also wanted to incorporate several water features throughout the site, adding demand to water use. To support the creative vision of the developers and architects, our team at Atwell strategically designed the utility routes within the project confinement. The existing site elevation also had a several foot drop from one end of the development to the other. We created highly anticipated gentle slopes throughout the site, where needed for the retail development, while finding solutions to meet the topographic constraints around the site limits.

Established local relationships

Having a project team that is knowledgeable about the community is important for every development. Whether it is site selection or what residents value in their community, having that understanding and existing relationships within a local area is beneficial in the execution of any project.

Regarding City approval, one of the most important aspects to pay attention to is community outreach. Since infill developments occur in an already-existing community, residents may oppose new construction and how it can affect their daily routine. By listening to the community and working with them to develop a plan of action that meets their needs, more people will support the new development and bring positive attention to the project. City officials may also be more inclined to work with you regarding zoning ordinances, permits, etc. in a timely and cost-effective manner if the community is behind you.

In addition to community outreach, developing relationships with local jurisdictions and understanding their processes will help when creating a mutually agreed upon solution. Being familiar with the City’s organizational structure and verifying the appropriate contact for questions and approval will be beneficial in avoiding unforeseen project delays.

The high-end, 65-acre resort and mixed-use development is located on a site that is divided between two municipalities – the City of Scottsdale and Paradise Valley – as well as water utilities from the City of Phoenix and EPCOR. Due to this unique instance, our team had to obtain permits from four different agencies, including the Town, the City, the County, and the affiliated water companies. Since we had previous experience in working with all entities, and understood their expectations, we were able to maintain the vision while meeting the design requirements with minimal correctional comments in return.

Making a community proud

There are several factors that can be challenging in an urban infill development: site constraints (i.e. customer/operations access, utilities, noise, visibility, light), zoning ordinances, building codes, community acceptance, and more. Having a talented team that will work alongside the developer will make the process that much easier. A project could take three or more years from site selection to post-occupancy, finding a team that can capture your vision will make the experience worthwhile. It is the developer’s concept after all, and our responsibility to create something the developer, the project team, and the community can be proud of.

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