At the annual membership meeting of the East Valley Partnership, urban issues commentator Jon Talton and zoning attorney Grady Gammage Jr. discussed urban development in the Valley and what the future may hold.
A former columnist for the Arizona Republic, Talton now lives in Seattle and writes a column for the Seattle Times and is editor of the blog roguecolumnist.com.
Gammage has been an attorney for 20 years and is a senior fellow at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute, where he focuses on urban issues.
Although they agree on many specifics, they have very different visions of what the metro Phoenix area should be. Talton, who grew up in Phoenix, believes in more centralized development, public transit, preservation of agriculture and other aspects of the “new urbanism.” But he fears that vision of the Valley has been lost forever.
Gammage, who grew up in Tempe, is more approving of the way the Valley has developed, saying he likes the suburban auto-oriented lifestyle that most Valley residents seem to embrace. Still, he says the metro area needs many improvements, such as better education and less economic dependence on boom-bust real estate cycles to become a major world competitor.
Here are some of the key comments they made to East Valley business and community leaders.
Jon Talton, urban issues commentator:
“The reality is that my sweet city of the past is gone forever. If you came here after 1970, you don’t know what I’m talking about. You don’t know what it was like to be able to go for miles along Main Street and have nothing but citrus groves. ... Things cooled down. ... That’s gone.
“This is not going to be Portland. You can all relax. You have won. ... You have the metro area that you want, and now you’ve got to live with it.
“There are larger forces at work in the world. They include things like climate change. It’s going to exact a tremendous economic cost. Energy costs will be higher. ... There are 3 billion new capitalists in the world, and they all want what we have. And they are all competing against metro Phoenix and the East Valley, whether you want them to or not. You are in this competition for talent and capital.
“The interesting argument is whether this starts to come to pass in a major way in the next three to five years, whether we’ve already entered what I call 'the Great Disruption,’ or whether metro Phoenix gets another chance to rev up the growth machine and go to town one more time before it all falls in.
“If I could wave a wand, I would say you need commuter trains, you need to invest in the water to have shade islands in various parts in metro Phoenix, that you need to not completely chase agriculture out.
“So there are a whole host of adaptive things that need to be considered. And there needs to be a willingness to consider them rather than to say that anybody who raises these things needs to be run out of the state. ... Because if we are really such a big honking metro area, then we shouldn’t have such an inferiority complex.”
“I never want to give up on Phoenix. I never want to give up on Mesa. Look, Mesa is one of the biggest cities in the country. To the extent that Mesa acts like a suburb of 20,000 people, it’s a drag on the competitiveness of the entire Southwest. So I wish good things for them.
“I have been around and lived in other cities as an adult and seen how they have changed for, to my mind, the better. They have all of the suburban stuff we have. But the best of them offer choices, which is really important if you’re going to attract diverse talent from around the world.”
“I’m sad at some of the choices that weren’t made. We did not price ourselves properly with a tax structure that was needed to underwrite a major metropolitan area. People would tell me on the one hand, if you raise taxes the economy will collapse, and then they would say people are going to keep moving here no matter what. Well, which is it? That left us with this perpetual revenue shortfall.
“We were not aggressive enough in our economic development so that we let places like Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina have much more aggressive and effective economic development policies.
“We shortchanged our schools so that in many cases the best and the brightest left. In the 1960s, we could have been laying the groundwork for a good transit system. The leaders of Phoenix were adamantly opposed to it. We could have made many better land-use decisions so that there was not this hollowing out of the central core.
“I remember as a kid coming down to the Mesa train station to watch the train. It was a beautiful building. It burned down. Who let that happen? That’s just a crime. This was beautiful building, a beautiful example of Southern Pacific architecture. Not only could it have made a great commuter rail station, but it was like — where did our history matter? Just throw it away. That hurts us. People roll in here from the Midwest, and they say, 'There’s no history here.’”
“Our competition is Shanghai. Our competition is Toronto. ... So the extent that we fight each other and that we cannot be cohesive, we will not be effective in the world. So just keep remembering that. The competition is not Gilbert. The competition is Shanghai.”
“If metro Phoenix is really going to compete for jobs, it is going to have to have the economic development tool kit that it simply does not have now, that in many cases the state prohibits it from having. ... It costs money to make money.”
Grady Gammage Jr., zoning attorney
“(Jon) and I actually agree on a whole lot. Part of the reason is that if you want to be a great city, you need more than we’ve got right now. We’ve gotten what we’ve wished for in terms of a lot of people, but we need things beyond that.
“I have always tried to figure out why we have very different attitudes when we agree on the particulars. We both grew up here. But Jon has a level of nostalgia about how it was in the ’70s that I just don’t. I try to figure out why the differences, and the only thing I can conclude is, it’s because Jon grew up in downtown Phoenix and I grew up in the East Valley.
“I say that not just to suck up to all of you, but I honestly think there is something of a difference there. I think the sense of palpable loss is greater for Jon than it is for me because I grew up in a relatively suburban context, a typical suburban tract home just off Broadway. And I still live in Ahwatukee. I still live in that suburban context. And I like it. I like it a lot. I like my lifestyle. I like my automobile. I like all of these things, though I agree with Jon about so many things that need to change.
“I think we have two big problems as a metropolitan area. One is the global nature of competition between cities and the fact that Phoenix is nowhere on that stage. People have no image of us. If you ask people — 'Phoenix, what do you think of?’ — it’s golf courses and retirement. That’s our image as a city. That is not a competitive platform as a city.
“The second major problem I think we have is this institutionalization of the boom and bust cycle. That’s why I worry that we are all beginning to relax because we see housing prices starting to move up a little bit. ... It is this classic yo-yo effect of institutionalized boom and bust. And that’s the economy we’ve built. ... I think (it) becomes harder and harder for us to compete on the world stage on that basis. And I think a lot of the problems our economy suffers (are) because, in the boom times you ask things of government that in the bust times you cannot pay for.
“Our tax policies and our land use policies do not mitigate the boom and bust cycle. They exacerbate it. I would hope that we took advantage of this pause in the boom to think about repositioning the way we do things. By that I mean a more fundamental restructuring of the tax system (and) a more fundamental restructuring of our economic development policies, which tend to encourage any kind of job growth. ... We make too many nonregional, ad hoc land-use decisions.
“But I am not discouraged about Phoenix. When I go around Phoenix, I do not suffer the pangs of nostalgia Jon does because, frankly, I kind of like it now. I liked it then, but I like it now as well. I think it’s still a great place to live.”
“There are tons of misperceptions about Phoenix as a city and the Phoenix metropolitan area and one of them is that we don’t do anything to try to save our history. The truth is — and this will shock you — the city of Phoenix designates for historic preservation a higher percentage of its eligible building stock than any other big city in America. That is a little bit of a deceptive statistic because there is a lot more eligible building stock — buildings more than 50 years old — in Boston than in Phoenix. But we have found niches like that.”
“My own view is we’re not going to get to any kind of meaningful regional government. What could happen is regional cooperation on specific definable issues — transportation, air quality. Heat island ought to be on that list. Agriculture preservation could be on that list because it is related to heat island. If we take it an issue at a time, I think we could build some models of regional cooperation.”
“Probably as a result of the 2010 census, the definition the U.S. government uses for a metropolitan statistical area is going to change. Right now, we are the Phoenix-Mesa SMSA. It is probable that after 2010, Mesa’s name is not going to be on there anymore. It’s going to be the Phoenix-Tucson megapolitan statistical area. Maricopa and Pinal are already merged. Pima is probably merged by 2010. ... What it does is it affects revenue sharing and all kinds of other things.”
“We know more about (the heat island) phenomenon than anywhere else in the world. We know more about what it takes to fix it than anywhere else in the world. And it takes regional cooperation to fix it. Basically you have to rewrite your building codes. You can’t use the building codes that are used in Chicago and New York and other climates here. You have to think about the placement of buildings to one another, the color of the materials used, the reflectiveness of them. It’s something that you could do something about.”
“Instead of competing for how many people we can get to move here every year, let’s compete for how many new bachelor’s degrees we can get. Or let’s compete over where our universities are ranked. ... I don’t know if we can have the best university system in the United States, but we could aim for the top 10.”