Planners Contemplate Phoenix's Post-Boom Future
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And now to the far better known city of Phoenix, Arizona, 90 percent of Phoenix has been built since 1950. About three years ago, we profiled this city and we concluded that its reason for existing is growth. Well, like many places during the economic downturn, that growth came to a screeching halt.
NPR's Ted Robbins revisits Phoenix to see what's become of the boom and bust metropolis.
TED ROBBINS: In some American towns, Founder's Day means celebrating three centuries of history. In the Phoenix suburb of Maricopa, it means celebrating six years of history. Incorporated in 2003, this is not the Old West, even though the Maricopa players are rehearsing a cowboy melodrama for the crowd at Pacana Park.
Unidentified Man #1: No, no, no, not Dudley, Dusty. I'm Dusty.
Unidentified Man #2: We all are. It's dusty. It's the middle of the gawd dang desert, son.
ROBBINS: Well, it used to be. Then it was farmland. Now, Maricopa, Arizona, is subdivisions, restaurants and strip malls. The city's population has gone from 1,000 to 45,000. Mayor Anthony Smith has been here since 2003. He's practically a pioneer.
Mayor ANTHONY SMITH (Maricopa, Arizona): A lot of people you talk to have been here one month, two years, three years. Of course, we had the big boom about two and three years ago, which a lot of people came.
ROBBINS: The Salter family was one of those which moved to Maricopa three years ago. That's when we first met them: Thad, Laura, and their two sons, Isaiah and Isaac. They left San Jose, California, and now feel firmly part of this community. They even see their physician at the Founder's Day celebration.
Unidentified Child: This is our doctor.
Ms. LAURA SALTER: That's - there's Dr. Duane(ph).
Mr. THAD SALTER: You know, my kids love it here. I have family here. I have some good friends here.
ROBBINS: But the end of growth is evident on the Salters' street. Thad Salter says more than half the 22 homes on his block have been foreclosed on.
Mr. SALTER: My block got devastated. My next-door neighbor is no longer my next-door neighbor. And I've seen houses across the street from me and going down the block on my side of the street just turn over.
ROBBINS: The good news is the homes did turn over. All but two resold, albeit at much lower prices. Mayor Anthony Smith says new home construction is way, way down from the 700 building permits a month just two years ago.
Mayor SMITH: We reduced that to 300 and then we set our budget last year for a 100. Well, 100 was too many. So now, we've set our new budget for 30 new building permits each month.
ROBBINS: The pause button has been pushed in Phoenix.
Mr. GRADY GAMMAGE JR. (Attorney; Real Estate Developer): And it ought to be a pause that makes us take stock, not just hang around.
ROBBINS: Grady Gammage, Jr. is a Phoenix native, an attorney, and a real estate developer. He spends a lot of time thinking about Phoenix's future.
Mr. GAMMAGE: 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 that we ought to try to diversify our economy a little more.
ROBBINS: Employment, for instance, 100,000 jobs of the 300,000 lost statewide 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; after all, the place has abundant sunshine.
Diversify jobs, but concentrate their location. Instead of the sprawl Phoenix is known for, many Phoenix 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 grown 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. It's the only way to get around.
(Soundbite of train)
ROBBINS: Or it was. Last December, Phoenix opened its first light rail system.
Unidentified Woman: The next east-bound train is arriving in approximately two minutes.
ROBBINS: Even the recently minted town of Maricopa we began this story with, it's just started running a bus line to take workers and others the 35 miles to downtown Phoenix. Drops in the bucket, of course, but drops nonetheless; a sign Phoenix is beginning to grow up. But nearly everyone knows the real money here is still invested in real estate, as it always has been.
Lee McPheters is a research economist at Arizona State University. He sees another growth phase starting in three to five years.
Professor LEE McPHETERS (Research Economist, Arizona State University): Will that growth look a whole lot different from what we've seen before? I really don't think so.
ROBBINS: Even Grady Gammage, Jr. agrees.
Mr. GAMMAGE: I don't think anyone in Phoenix, even those of us who would like to see a more diversified economy, even those of us who have lived off real estate and don't have a lot to do at the moment, think that the Phoenix phenomenon is done.
ROBBINS: To compare Phoenix to a person, if it was a teenager when we last considered it three years ago, today it's a college freshman recovering from a weekend of binge drinking and likely to head out again next weekend.
Ted Robbins, NPR News.
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