He wanted to fly, but the U.S. Army Air Corps was long on pilots and short on bombardiers. He ended up an award-winning pilot as well as a flight instructor. Real estate development followed, and happily for Ahwatukee Foothills, the rest is history.
Although he’d done some light construction work while growing up in Pensacola, Fla., Randall Presley’s interest in real estate was sparked by a fellow squadron member during World War II. Presley studied for his real estate broker’s license while in the service and initiated pursuit of it the day he was discharged in 1946. He began his career by subdividing 3 acres of land and constructing 12 houses in Bakersfield, Calif., and ended it 38 years later by selling his company for $93 million. By then the Presley Companies had overseen construction of close to 40,000 homes and been ranked in the Top 10 in the country by the National Homebuilders Association of America.
Presley subdivided and developed Bakersfield land in progressively-larger parcels, selling more than 100 houses a year by 1950. His projects became more ambitious in size and scope, until Presley developments dotted both northern and southern California. Of his initial expansion into Southern California, Presley recalled that “every morning I’d get up early, start in Oxnard and go all the way down into Orange County. I checked every community, every property and every model home to see what was built where, and what market conditions were.” Befitting a master of his craft, he added emphatically, “Because this is what you have to know.”
Although a very distant cousin of Elvis, Presley laughed, “I never met him or had any desire to.” As a father with three young children, Presley became a widower in 1958. His remarriage three years later to an Olympic-caliber equestrian jumping rider who had been raised by her grandfather, Hollywood icon Cecil B. DeMille, came after Presley, a scratch golfer, won the Bakersfield Country Club championship in 1960. Business-wise, he recalled, “I wanted to spread my wings. I had been doing work in Bakersfield but wanted to move to a larger arena.”
By 1969 the Presley Development Company was trading on the New York Stock Exchange and had offices in Chicago, Virginia, New Mexico and Washington D.C., in addition to California and Arizona. Each office had its own management team, freeing Presley to concentrate on development of new markets. His companies bought and developed land, subcontracting out the actual construction work. “What you do is set the standards and make darn sure they’re followed!” Presley said. He credits the first two Presley Development Company of Arizona presidents, Dan Verska and Bruce Gillam, with much of Ahwatukee’s success.
Starting with that initial 1946 project, Presley capitalized on the proximity of an existing neighborhood. Similarly, his first Arizona venture, Arizona Homes, on 100 acres of land on the west side of Phoenix, offered residents of a nearby John Long-built community a move-up alternative in 1969. The same principle of extending an existing community guided Presley’s other Arizona projects, the 80-acre Parkside Estates, also in the West Valley, and a portion of The Lakes in Tempe. But Ahwatukee broke the mold.
Pilot training at Glendale’s Thunderbird Field in 1943 left the 25-year-old Presley with a positive impression of the Phoenix area. Over in California, he first learned of 2,080 available acres south of South Mountain from a title insurance company in 1970. The location was considered to be quite remote, with only the town of Guadalupe and vast swaths of open desert adjacent the relatively-new Maricopa Freeway. Presley, whose Orange County, Calif., developments typically featured amenities such as roadway medians and lush landscaping, had concerns. “I was up and down that highway 30 or 40 times, asking myself, ‘Will people drive past that community on the other side of the freeway and come out here to buy a house? From a buyer’s perspective, would I go out there looking? I finally decided that I would, if there was something that was good enough.’”
The birth of Ahwatukee
Mindful of the success of Del Webb’s Sun City in the northwest Valley, Presley viewed the future Ahwatukee’s freeway frontage, access to medical facilities and proximity to Arizona State University all as positives. The 1,220 acres that had been the Ahwatukee Ranch land, about a mile and a half west of Interstate 10, was sold by a land syndicate led by ASU professor and land investor John Ratliff. To the east, 860 acres were procured from a Phoenix moving and storage firm, Lightning Transfer Company, which had owned the land for decades.
Presley envisioned Foothill Park, the original name of the project, as a golf course retirement community. But the size of the acreage made marketing to more than one segment of the housing market prudent. Presley offered retirement living inside a main arterial (Warner-Elliot) loop, adult and family homes outside the loop and light commercial near the freeway. On the cotton fields of the Lightning Ranch, ground was broken on the country club golf course in the summer of 1972. Seventeen model homes and the Ahwatukee Recreation Center soon followed, both within easy view of freeway motorists.
To help attract potential buyers Presley hired another fellow Air Corps squadron member, singer and entertainer Tennessee Ernie Ford. Ford’s radio and print ads got the word out, but since his show business appeal was largely among the silver-haired crowd, the ads reinforced the perception of Ahwatukee as a place primarily for retirees
A more formidable obstacle involved Ahwatukee’s perceived remoteness. “The location wasn’t quite ready — I had to bring the people out,” Presley recalled. “It wasn’t adjoining anything and there wasn’t someone right across the street or around the corner. I knew we were going to have to have some kind of attraction to get them out looking. It was a little different.” The 50-year-old, 12,000-square-foot ranch house from which Ahwatukee takes its name was considered a historical feature, but its deteriorated condition and mile-and-a-half distance from the freeway made refurbishment unfeasible.
To help create interest, Presley conceived of something so different that it not only put Ahwatukee on the map, but generated media coverage from as far away as Australia, Germany and Japan. His idea of a futuristic house which could accommodate large numbers of the touring public was turned into a reality by Scottsdale’s Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Open in 1980, Ahwatukee’s House of the Future on Equestrian Trail welcomed some 250,000 people over the next four years, driven via tour buses past the community’s various model homes.
An additional 640 acres landlocked at the base of South Mountain Park had been added to the initial property as an eventual custom home section in the mid-1970s. As the economy’s early 1980s malaise receded, overall sales took off. At its peak in 1984, Ahwatukee houses were selling at the rate of more than one per day.
When he sold his company to Pacific Lighting Corporation in 1984, “I had been doing it for 38 years and I was done,” Presley said.
Ahwatukee was both the largest and riskiest development project of Presley’s career. “You’re breaking open a whole new area of land. No one had gone close to South Mountain, which was kind of a dividing point with the city of Phoenix. We didn’t have utilities, and had to go on a little bit of faith that we could get those things,“ he recalled. By the time the other master-planned communities in today’s Village of Ahwatukee Foothills were built, the area was no longer considered to be remote. Rather, it was viewed as a highly desirable place to live, thanks to Ahwatukee having paved the way.
Presley’s development of the first master-planned community on the south side of South Mountain stands as a monumental achievement which ushered in an era of unprecedented growth in the Southeast Valley. It is his Ahwatukee Foothills legacy that we celebrate.
• Marty Gibson is a 23-year resident of Ahwatukee and the author of “Phoenix’s Ahwatukee Foothills.” Contact him at email@example.com.