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Planners contemplate Phoenix’s post-boom future

770px-phoenixdowntown[Source: Ted Robbins, NPR] — The vast majority of the Phoenix metropolitan area — 90 percent — was built after 1950.  It’s been a pell-mell push for growth.  But like many places, that growth came to a screeching halt during the recession.  In the suburb of Maricopa, AZ, the population grew from 1,000 to 45,000 residents over the past decade.  In 2007, the city was processing 700 building permits a month.  But then the economy soured.  “We reduced that to 300 and then … we set our budget last year at 100,” says Maricopa Mayor Anthony Smith.  “Well, 100 was too many.  So now we’ve set our budget for 30 new building permits each month.”

Housing Surplus

There’s a large inventory of homes on the market in the Phoenix metropolitan area.  The Salter family — Thad, Laura and their sons, Isaiah and Isaac — moved to Maricopa three years ago, from San Jose, Calif.  They paid more than $300,000 for their home.  It’s now worth about half that.  Thad Salter says more than half of the 22 homes on his block have been foreclosed on: “My block got devastated.  My next door neighbor’s no longer my next door neighbor.  And I’ve seen houses across the street from me going down the block on my side of the street just turn over.”

The good news is the homes did turn over.  All but two resold — albeit at much lower prices. The Salters have been trying to refinance their mortgage at a lower interest rate for two years and are just now getting their lender, Chase Bank, to come to terms.  Still, they are glad they moved.  “You know, my kids love it here. I have family here. I have some good friends here,” Salter says.

Lost Construction Jobs

But the pause button has been pushed in Phoenix when it comes to new construction.  Grady Gammage Jr., an attorney and a real estate developer, spends a lot of time thinking about his native Phoenix’s future.  He says the pause should make the Phoenix area take stock.  “We’re now big enough that maybe continuing to operate on a boom and bust cycle as a sort of Wild West frontier town is no longer the right formula, and we ought to try to diversify our economy a little more,” he says.

One-third of the jobs lost statewide — 100,000 out of 300,000 — have been in construction.  Gammage says it’s time for Phoenix to create employment that can sustain itself through good times and bad.  A solar energy industry is one idea for alternative employment given the abundance of sunshine.

Create Urban Density, Not Sprawl

Instead of the sprawl Phoenix is known for, many local architects and urban planners want more density.  Urban nodes, they call them — where working and living can be done close to each other. Phoenix has expanded its downtown business core in recent years — but as in other Western cities, it largely rolls up at night when people drive home to the suburbs.

The car is king here.  For years it has been the only way to get around.  But in December, Phoenix opened its first light-rail system.  Two lines connect downtown with outlying areas.  Ridership was up to 1 million people a month at one point.

The recently minted town of Maricopa just started running a bus line to transport workers and others the 35 miles to downtown Phoenix.  These are welcome drops in the bucket for most planners and are signs that Phoenix is beginning to grow up.  [Note: Read the full article at Planners contemplate Phoenix’s post-boom future.]

Viewpoint: Phoenix will rise from the ashes

[Source: Kit Stolz, Guest Contributor, Grist Magazine] — During a session called “Sustainability and Growth: How Can a City Develop Sustainably When its Identity is Built on Growth?” at the American Meteorological Society convention, a development expert named Grady Grammage colorfully dispelled some myths and revealed some little-known truths about Phoenix.  One myth: Phoenix is unsustainable because it imports water.  Virtually all cities import water, Grammage pointed out, even New York, not to mention countless other necessities for urban life, such as food, fuel, and steel.  Phoenix arguably has a more stable supply of water than numerous other cities, such as San Diego, because Phoenix imports its water from numerous sources, albeit at great distances.

In Grammage’s view, a bigger question is “habitability,” and he brought up the Urban Heat Island Effect, which he thinks, based on surveys, will drive more Phoenicians out of the state by 2020 than those who move in from other states.  Grammage reports that when he expressed this view, various public officials and “water buffaloes” — water experts — in Phoenix scoffed.  They think Phoenix could support as many as 10 million people — more than twice its current population.

But the climactic trends may have already been trumped by the economic trends.  According to a huge and thoroughly-substantiated front-page story in the Arizona Republic, Phoenix is already losing population — thousands of people — probably due to the economy.  Foreclosures are up a mind-blowing 534% from last year, while water hook-ups, trash collection, and sales tax revenues are all down sharply.  Substantial numbers of buildings have no water service, indicating abandonment, and sales tax revenues are down 8%.  Even crime has declined.

Already, the Phoenix city government has to try and close a 22% revenue gap of about $270 million, and if the state finds that the city is losing residents, it will cut its allocation of tax returns still further.  Perhaps this is why the mayor, Phil Gordon, scoffed at the reports of population decline. “The growth of Phoenix, like all cities in the Valley, has slowed significantly.  But Phoenix’s net growth is still positive, both in jobs and population,” he said.

Cognitive dissonance, anyone?  Or, is it just garden variety denial?  In any case, something is in the wind… as reflected in a sign I saw this morning in an empty storefront in downtown Phoenix.  Guess we’ll find out what kind of wind it is soon enough.

Noted Arizonans explain why they “shop local”

The 1,500-plus members of Local First Arizona are the locally-owned, independent businesses that are the backbone of Arizona’s economy.  You have a choice of where to spend your hard-earned dollars, and Local First encourages you to “put your money where your house is.”  When you shop at a locally owned business, 45 cents of every dollar stays in-state — versus only 13 cents of every dollar spent at a national chain.  To locate a product or service from a locally-owned business, click here.

Where will be more more office space than downtown Phoenix? Why, Mesa (possibly)

[Gary Nelson, Mesa Republic] — Tens of thousands of jobs.  Millions of dollars in taxes.  Billions of dollars in salaries. The numbers flew like snowflakes in a blizzard Thursday as DMB Associates spelled out what it sees as the likely impact of its Mesa Proving Grounds project.   All well and good, the City Council said.  But they had one request: Put it in writing.  Councilman Scott Somers, who has worried aloud in several recent meetings about whether the project could deliver on its high-flying promises, said several sections of the Proving Grounds’ zoning ordinance should be rewritten to include those economic goals and how they’ll be met.  DMB attorney Grady Gammage Jr. agreed to do that.  The ordinance, still in draft stages, is expected to come before the council next month.

While talk about the possible impact of DMB’s project is nothing new, some of the numbers that came out on Thursday were.  DMB hired Valley economists Elliott Pollack and Alan Maguire to analyze the dollars-and-cents impact of its property in coming decades.  Here’s a sample of what they came up with, using a computer program developed by University of Minnesota economists:

  • At buildout, the 5 square miles is expected to have 20 million square feet of commercial space, 14.5 million square feet of which will be offices. There will be 4,000 hotel rooms, 1.2 million square feet of retail, 15,000 dwelling units with perhaps 37,500 residents and as many as 91,800 permanent jobs.
  • Construction on the entire site will create 116,497 “job years.”  A “job year” is enough work to keep one tradesman busy for a year.  Construction will generate $6.1 billion in total wages.
  • The city would collect $40 million a year in sales taxes and other revenue as the project reaches maturity.
  • Permanent jobs at buildout could generate $4.5 billion in annual wages.
  • The hospitality segment, headlined by the recently announced Gaylord resort, will generate 4,000 to 4,500 jobs with annual wages of $144 million to $162 million.
  • Total construction costs reaching $9.3 billion.

“This is a big deal,” Maguire told the council — echoing precisely the same words Mayor Scott Smith had used in council chambers only three days previously, when the council approved a new general plan for DMB’s land.  Maguire told The Mesa Republic that the numbers could be on the low side.  “All the analysis that was done was done relatively conservatively,” he said.  “These numbers are not sort of pie-in-the-sky numbers.”  

Gammage said the Mesa site is likely to build out with more office space than currently exists in downtown Phoenix and far more than the Scottsdale Airpark, which is hailed as one of the Valley’s economic successes.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Skyline struggles to give Phoenix sense of identity

[Source: Richard Nilsen, Arizona Republic] — A city’s skyline is its ID photo.  Think the Transamerica Pyramid and the Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco, the George Washington Bridge, and the Empire State Building for Manhattan.  And Dallas, well, Dallas has its freeway flyovers.  But what is Phoenix’s mug shot?  

“The first view of most visitors to Phoenix is the downtown towers silhouetted against Camelback, Mummy, or South mountains as their airplanes bank for a landing,” says Max Underwood, an Arizona State University architecture professor. The mountains are certainly part of it, but what about those buildings?  Do they give Phoenix a sense of self?

Phoenix is now the fifth-largest city in the nation, and it keeps getting bigger.  But smaller cities have a more distinct architectural profile: San Francisco, Portland, Ore., Denver.  “Our high-rises are not interesting enough, varied enough, tall enough or numerous enough to create a skyline worth talking about,” says Grady Gammage Jr., a Valley lawyer and urban-planning critic.

It isn’t just a question of individual buildings of architectural distinction — Phoenix has several of those. It’s about an overall sense of architecture as a source of civic pride and urban identity.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Phoenix’s transformation into big city has benefits, burdens

[Source: Yuri Artibise, Grady Gammage Jr., and Nancy Welch, Morrison Institute] — Columnist Gregory Rodriguez wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times: “No city is more burdened by its myth than LA.  That’s because ours, crafted by regional boosters even before the birth of LA as a modern American city, is the ultimate myth: Los Angeles as paradise.  It makes the gulf between the ideal and the real deeper here than anywhere else.”

Other than its eponymous pyrotechnic bird, Phoenix has not been a city of deep myth.  Only a few movies have been set here.  The closest thing to a signature song is about a guy driving away from LA, musing on what his lost love will be doing “by the time I get to Phoenix.”  Yet, Phoenix and Los Angeles have an apparent shared heritage: huge water projects, real-estate developers, parking lots, palm trees, and faux Spanish architecture.

Our city seems so obviously the younger sister of a Hollywood starlet that comparison and emulation are inevitable.  The Phoenix/LA conceit is deep-seated, chronic, and nearly always offered as something to avoid.  Consider just part of a collection from a 1996 Phoenix Gazette column by Bill Hart:

  • “Do you want this to be another Detroit or New York or, worse yet, another Los Angeles?” – Former Gov. Howard Pyle, 1987
  • “We don’t want to be another Los Angeles.  Nobody wants that.” – Jim Marsh, former director, Arizona Department of Commerce, 1991
  • In a recent poll, 90% of Arizonans said it would be bad if Phoenix became more like Los Angeles. – The Arizona Republic, 1991
  • “Phoenix still can avoid becoming another Los Angeles by building a balanced transportation system.” – David Baron, director, Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, 1993
  • There are things that can be done to stop the Valley’s slide toward becoming another Los Angeles. – The Republic, 1994

Phoenix, a city often accused of having no identity, certainly has long known what it doesn’t want to be.  What is it we are so afraid of?  All big cities have mixed images, but the uber-negative view of Los Angeles is grounded in three attributes: smog, congestion, and sprawl.  These problems and the comparisons between Phoenix and LA are worth a closer examination.  [Note: to read the full op-ed piece, click here.]

Phoenix: A city in need of retrofit

Leila Navidi, Las Vegas Sun[Editor’s Note: The Las Vegas Sun has gone on the road to listen to voters and talk to political leaders around the West.  Reporters are examining the economic, cultural, and demographic forces re-shaping the region as they drive to Denver for the first of the two major party conventions the newspaper will cover.  In this segment, reporter J. Patrick Coolican writes about Phoenix development.  To view the full series, including segments about Arizona’s growing Hispanic population, ASU President Michael Crow’s influence, and prognostications by local attorney Grady Gammage Jr. and former Congressman Jim Kolbe, click here.]

PHOENIX — Fans of urban planning, let me warn you: Phoenix is not for you.  Developers hold great sway.   That, combined with a strong property rights ethos, have created a city that is hard to get around, lacking in walkable amenities, and as Sun photographer Leila Navidi nicely put it, “visually incoherant.”

High-rises exist next to brownstones next to a strip mall.  We stayed downtown Tuesday night, and it was like a ghost town.  Nothing happening.  This certainly is not the only city with this problem.  And clearly the community is trying to get people to go downtown, with light rail about to come online and construction of some higher density projects.  But all-in-all, there’s just no arguing with the fact that the organizing principle of this city, for decades, was the automobile.

National Trust officials tour Valley for possible 2012 conference

Kathy Adams and Lori Feinman of the National Trust for Historic Preservation flew into town last week to view Phoenix’s convention facilities; tour selected historic sites and neighborhoods in Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tempe; and visit with area preservation advocates to determine Phoenix’s ability to host the 2012 National Preservation Conference.  Meeting them at Sky Harbor was Sally Forrest, National Accounts Director for the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Phoenix Councilman Michael Nowakowski welcomes National Trust representatives Lori Feinman and Kathy Adams. (Photo: Midtown Messenger)

The three lunched at the Hotel Valley Ho, one of the National Trust’s Historic Hotels of America, and then drove to downtown Phoenix to tour the Phoenix Convention Center, the Hyatt Regency and Wyndham hotels (two of the host hotels), and Orpheum Theatre. Barbara Stocklin, City of Phoenix Historic Preservation Officer, and Jim McPherson, Arizona Advisor to the National Trust, joined them for dinner at the Rose & Crown Pub in Heritage Square Park (a large outdoor venue that could serve as the opening reception for the 2,500-plus attendees of the 2012 conference).

Phoenix's historic Ellis Shackelford House was decked out in the colors of Arizona's state flag. (Photo: Midtown Messenger)

On Tuesday, Adams and Feinman started off the day by visiting the historic San Carlos Hotel and breakfast at Palette in the Roosevelt Historic District.  Then it was a “timed-to-the minute” whirlwind van tour of First Presbyterian Church, Security Building (and ASU’s PURL overlooking the city), Monroe School (Children’s Museum of Phoenix), Phoenix Union High School Buildings (University of Arizona College of Medicine), Steele Indian School Park, Heard Museum, and several midtown residential historic districts.

State Historic Preservation Officer Jim Garrison and Modern Phoenix Founder Alison King joined the group for lunch and tour of the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa.  Then it was off to drive by the Wrigley Mansion, and visit the Desert Botanical Garden, Gammage Auditorium, Pueblo Grande National Historic Landmark, and St. Mary’s Basilica.  Special guests “popped in” throughout the day to say hello, provide their perspective on preservation, and tout Phoenix as a conference site: Attorney General Terry Goddard (Palette), State Senator Debbie McCune Davis (UA College of Medicine), City of Phoenix Council Member Greg Stanton (Children’s Museum), attorney Grady Gammage (Gammage Auditorium), former Phoenix mayor John Driggs, and Arizona 2012 Centennial director Karen Churchard.

Dan Klocke (Downtown Phoenix Partnership), Charles Fortenberry (Southwest Association of Buffalo Soldiers), John Jacquemart (Arizona Historic Sites Review Committee), and G.G. George (Encanto Citizens Association). (Photo: Midtown Messenger)

Topping off the visit was a reception at the Ellis Shackelford House in downtown Phoenix.  Over 60 preservation advocates from all over the Valley (and Sierra Vista!), city officials, and downtown business group leaders attended.  A balloon arch, special signage, decorations, and flowers in the colors of Arizona’s state flag welcomed our guests from the National Trust.  City of Phoenix Council Member Michael Nowakowski, Garrison, Stocklin, Feinman, and McPherson said a few words, and the rest of the evening was spent enjoying each other’s company and dining on wonderful hors d’oeuvres from Catered by St. Joseph’s.  Gift bags courtesy of the State Historic Preservation Office and City of Phoenix were presented to Adams and Feinman, and each attendee received a small gift as well.