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Dark Skies Developer Setting Standards That Make Flagstaff Shine

Walter Crutchfield is not trying to deliver the universe to Flagstaff. It is already here. But those working with him say he is doing a stellar job solving city problems while preserving community values.

“He’s an expert at doing what’s best for Flagstaff,” said Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Julie Pastrick. “His intuitiveness is authentic from his many years of blending development with the values of the community he serves. He listens to what’s important to citizens and then responds with solutions on the ground.”

Rich Bowen, senior vice president for the real estate development firm Genterra, agrees. “Walter has done a remarkable job coming into Flagstaff, understanding the community and trying to do projects that are positive, sustainable and will move Flagstaff forward.”

One such example, says Bowen, is Timber Sky, a master-planned community being developed on West Route 66 near the U.S. Naval Observatory. It is touted as a place to own a “dark-sky-centric” home and encounter the universe in the world’s first International Dark Sky City. “Walter has really been involved with the dark skies community and spent time with some of the leading dark skies lighting folks in the country,” he said. “He isn’t just trying to make everybody happy, he really believes our starry night sky is a good thing for Flagstaff.”

Retired astronomer Chris Luginbuhl is recognized as one of the foremost authorities on dark sky lighting. Formerly with the U.S. Naval Observatory, Luginbuhl now works as a consultant through his company, Dark Sky Partners. He says Crutchfield is setting the design standard for dark skies development and making Flagstaff the model for dark sky friendly neighborhoods.

“Mr. Crutchfield handed me a legal pad and said, ‘Write down what you would like to see here,’” said Luginbuhl, who, with the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition, spearheaded the campaign to recognize Flagstaff as the first International Dark Sky City. “He arranged to have all of the requests to limit light pollution impacts implemented into the project. Mr. Crutchfield is a kind of developer that I had not met before in more than 30 years of working for the U.S. Naval Observatory.”

Crutchfield is part of the real estate development team at Vintage Partners, which has been building in Flagstaff for the past eight years. A self-described “white real estate developer over the age of 50,” he believes he has an image problem. In his TEDx talk, he describes his profession among the top three most hated, along with lawyers and bankers.

But as a fourth-generation Arizonan, he says what he creates in his home state matters. “All good development solves problems,” said Crutchfield. “It’s a huge privilege that we get to do this and in a way that can make life better.”

Timber Sky is a 230-acre development being promoted as an outdoor, athletic, affordable master-planned community. The Flagstaff Urban Trail System runs through it, along with wildlife-friendly corridors and bike trails. “It features outdoor amenities that are day-time focused,” he said, and lighting design standards that are becoming a model for development around U.S. Department of Defense sensitive areas.

“He went above and beyond Flagstaff’s already stringent lighting code standards to ensure that his project not only would have minimal impacts, but also help to establish a precedent that profitable development is compatible with the most stringent dark sky protection requirements in the country,” said Luginbuhl.

Timber Sky is featuring a range of lot sizes, price points and homes, including a condominium/townhome product, and affordable housing provided through a community land trust agreement with the city.

“We think great communities have every single economic stratum, the way it was for a century in this country,” said Crutchfield. “We have 100 homes in the community land trust, the largest community land trust ever by a private developer with no federal, state or local incentives to do that. We did it because there are people like teachers, police officers, firefighters and city workers who just aren’t going to qualify for a $400,000 house, which is what Flagstaff’s median home sales price is approaching. A community land trust is a way to deliver those homes at a lower cost through a process that the city administers and then we make those permanently affordable.”

Crutchfield explained that when homeowners sell these properties, they will have acquired some equity, but not all of the equity. “We keep the prices down so the next buyer can come in and benefit from low-cost housing,” he explained.

“It’s very refreshing,” said former Flagstaff Vice Mayor Celia Barotz at a 2016 City Council meeting in which Crutchfield described the Timber Sky project. “I’m grateful that we have an opportunity to – I have an opportunity to – get behind a project where you have demonstrated your commitment to this community.”

Crutchfield is also working with NAIPTA (the Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority). He wants all residents of Timber Sky to have an “eco-pass” to ride Mountain Line buses. “We need to find a way to move people, not cars.”

“As a transit agency, Mountain Line appreciates developers like Mr. Crutchfield who ask at the very beginning of a project, ‘How can transit be involved?’” said NAIPTA CEO and General Manager Erika Mazza. “Transit-oriented development is critical to creating healthy communities, mitigating congestion and decreasing our reliance on single-occupancy vehicles.”

Crutchfield and Vintage Partners are also striving for bus lanes to be added in Flagstaff as they work through the Mill Town/P3 (Public Private Partnership) project with the City of Flagstaff and Arizona Department of Transportation. This is the project that moved Harkins Theater to east Flagstaff, is relocating ADOT into the remodeled former Harkins building, is creating a mixed-use development known as Mill Town for student housing, and will realign Beulah Boulevard and build a pedestrian pathway beneath Milton Road connecting to Northern Arizona University.

“Walter has taken big risks to help solve some of Flagstaff’s most pressing problems,” said Bowen. “In the P3 project, he is driving traffic and business out to the east side of town and creating a nice community facility in the new ADOT building while reducing major traffic and safety issues on Milton Road.”

In addition, Vintage Partners has worked with the city to redesign nearly 40 acres in a flood zone at the corner of I-40 and Country Club Drive to create a grocery store-anchored retail center. “Vintage Partners has taken on projects that other developers wouldn’t,” said Bowen.

“Transactions have to be win-win and typically in development they aren’t,” Crutchfield said in a Flagstaff Chamber radio program hosted by Pastrick. “We have a tagline [that says] we operate by considering the needs of others as more important than our own, which sounds totally antithetical to development, but it actually isn’t. When you’re concerned about your stakeholders, your tenants, the neighbors, the city, transportation, when you’re looking at all those things and you consider them, you end up building great development and great development is profitable for the company.”

As for dark skies, Luginbuhl says Crutchfield is helping to make the point that dark skies and development are compatible. “Flagstaff has shown that you can have a vibrant and productive community with less than 1/10th of the light pollution produced by typical communities. To bring back starry skies over more communities, the developers’ world needs to hear that, and Walter is carrying the message.”

The first homes in Timber Sky are expected to be completed in June. For more information, visit timberskyhomes.com. FBN

By Bonnie Stevens, FBN

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