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December 29, 2010

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The concept of "environmental refugees" resonates with me because after 40+ years in Phoenix, I've turned into one. Our 5 months in Oregon are far more pleasant than our 7 months in AZ. Oregon is dominated by natives who know and love the place. Phoenix is dominated by transplants and faux Tuscan.

In some respects, it was a heartbreaking choice because I knew and loved the place before the explosion. We raised our kids, pursued our careers and embraced the rich Mexican culture mix. But that was then and this is now . . .

I have had the pleasure of living in two of the three cities that Jon mentions, and I visit the other frequently: Moved to Boston in early 2004 for a job in journalism and lived there for five years. Relocated in 2009 to Denver for another job have called the Queen City (I prefer not to use the newer moniker "Mile High City) home ever since. My folks live in Seattle, so I visit them whenever I can.
Jon is spot-on in his contrast of Phoenix and Seattle/Boston/Denver. The latter three cities are cosmopolitan, culturally and economically vibrant. They boast an energy that Phoenix cannot match. When I lived in the "Valley of the Sun", waiting tables and hoping for the day that I would land a "real" job, I would defend the metropolis that Phoenix has become to outsiders who scoffed at it. Having lived elsewhere, I now understand what they were trying to tell me.

I was born in an America of less than 150 million people and a world of around 2 billion. What a difference a couple of generations makes. Of course, this growth is unsustainable. That's why we lie to ourselves about infinite natural resources and only innocuous outcomes from atmospheric pollution. To look at this racket with open eyes is to see ourselves reflected back in greed and hunger. The future of this world is cantilevered on lies we tell each other daily.

When we think about the dominant economic reality today and how even a Ben Bernanke didn't know there was a housing bubble or that Alan Greenspan thought it benign, we should simply bow our heads in prayer and wish for a quick dispatch from this hell of denial. We are not going to fix this mess because we ourselves are the mess.

The sesquicentennial of the gallant Southern sedition is leading to revisionism and reappraisal. Slavery was not evil and segregation was not bad. Likewise, racism is what white Christian males suffer and few others. And it becomes morally compulsory to see the suffering of the affluent as something akin to Christ's on the cross. We know not what we do but forgiveness is just a tax cut away.

Arizona had little more than 700,000 souls when I was born and Phoenix had about 100,000 of them. It was much poorer than it is today but much richer in its social capital and local color. There was magic everywhere, from Dreamy Draw to the Papago buttes to the old Reynolds Aluminum plant. Downtown Phoenix was a wonderland of theaters, honky tonks, department stores, and crowded sidewalks. It grew and prospered before sickening to virtual death. Now it's embalmed and we're all very proud of it.

Mr. Talton makes some great points. A couple of quibbles:

Where political boundaries are concerned, city limits are important. Where issues of population growth, population density, and sprawl/development are concerned, aren't they a bit arbitrary? If I can drive from Glendale through Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and Mesa without ever leaving "the city" then it makes more sense to talk about the metropolitan area in discussions of this sort.

Boston (the city proper) has a smaller population because it's much older and is considerably less elastic (in terms of geographic expandability) than Phoenix. If I'm not mistaken, it's nearly non-elastic due to surrounding geographic and political boundaries and due to legal barriers against absorbing neighboring suburbs into the city proper.

However, the Boston metropolitan area is has about the same population as the Phoenix metropolitan area, roughly 4.6 million versus 4.5 million. So, in terms of geographically contiguous built-up areas, they're roughly equally populated.

As for the national population, it is projected to grow by about 85 million from 2010 to 2050, but the percentage of every age category drops except two: 65-84, and 85+, which grow from 11 to 16 percent and from 2 to 5 percent of total national population, respectively.

http://www.census.gov/population/www/projections/usinterimproj/natprojtab02a.pdf

Much of the projected growth in U.S. population is, if I'm not mistaken, due to an expected continuation of previous immigration trends, since growth rates are otherwise stagnant. (If anyone has a different take on this, please post a comment and link to a source providing the analysis.)

Without that influx of working-age immigrants the ratio of workers to retirees would be considerably smaller. That would certainly be a concern with respect to government revenue in general and Social Security specifically, though it becomes clearer over time that if present trends of economic internationalization continue, a major reform in corporate taxation will be necessary to capture revenue that would otherwise be lost overseas.

Forbes magazine had a great article explaining how General Electric (and countless other major corporations) manage low or no effective corporate income tax rates despite profitability, by juggling domestic and overseas revenue in their tax filings:

http://www.forbes.com/2010/04/01/ge-exxon-walmart-business-washington-corporate-taxes.html

It's only going to get worse, as businesses (existing AND new) outsource and relocate more and more of their operations. A recent Associated Press business article explained part of the reason (weak domestic demand being critical also, of course) why "all but 4 percent of the top 500 U.S. corporations reported profits this year, and the stock market is close to its highest point since the 2008 financial meltdown" yet unemployment remains at 9.8 percent. The article cites the Economic Policy Institute in stating that American companies have created 1.4 million jobs abroad but only 1 million at home.

http://www.azcentral.com/business/articles/2010/12/28/20101228overseas-jobs.html

Emil, while city-to-city comparisons are inevitably problematic, there is still a core truth about regional dynamics and a strong central city. A city like Boston has advantages than a Sunbelt city like Phoenix will probably never have. It includes a strong transportation system, a vibrant cultural scene, strong universities with a large population of young people (Boston, on its sidewalks, seems like a much younger city than Phoenix), a dominant CBD, a building stock that is architecturally deep and historic, and civic spaces and monuments that inspire people to think of themselves of citizens instead of merely as consumers (the right-wing ideal).

Pretty much every good or great city does this in varying degrees. A Philadelphia with its large urban underclass does it less well than Boston but well enough anyway to be considered successful. A Minneapolis is hemmed in by dreary all-white suburbs but there's no doubt where the creative class lives and works. Metropolitan Denver's demographics are similar to our own but the old city wags the suburbs, not the other way around.

For Phoenix, sprawl has been an unmitigated disaster. The old central city was too small at the outset of the post-war boom to grow fast enough to remain the nerve center of the metroplex. That Phoenix proper is a much larger city than Boston proper is an interesting phenomenon that can be misleading. If central Phoenix had 600,000 residents living in relatively dense neighborhoods, this story would be much happier for us since it's likely there would also be a much better downtown to go along with that. Indeed, the weakness of downtown Phoenix is a direct reflection on the urban weakness of the central city itself. This has all sorts of negative consequences for the metropolitan area, too. Downtown Phoenix neither galvanizes its region nor leads it in any meaningful way. It's why housing became our dominant industry. Our brain trust had simply checked out and left the keys to the office in the hands of real-estate hustlers.

I'm not sure if you meant to suggest that Phoenix is largely indistinguishable from Glendale, Tempe, Scottsdale, and Mesa as a "city". If so, it was a disturbingly perceptive observation. Of course, Phoenix is also the custodian of the region's underclass, so there is that familiar role that links us to more traditional cities. That we are otherwise pretty much like our suburbs is the problem that a large population figure can occasionally disguise. Phoenix succeeds not as a dynamic city but as a metastatic suburb appealing to cold-weather refugees. Metropolitan Phoenix cannot will itself to be any other thing than what it is. That's our unavoidable fate now.

Soleri, I agree with much of what you said -- good stuff -- but again have a quibble or two.

According to Census data from 2000, "Phoenix ranked number 10 in population density out of the 36 urban areas with more than one million in population". That's the urbanized area of the city proper.

And while you're correct that the city center in Boston is far denser than that of Phoenix, when considering the rest of the city, Phoenix is actually 50 percent denser, due to the incredible sprawl of Boston's suburbs: the latter's urban footprint covers more land area than the Los Angeles urban area.

http://www.newgeography.com/content/00216-understanding-phoenix-not-sprawled-you-think

The only way to increase population density in central Phoenix is to add more housing units; these should in some way be subsidized (not necessarily in direct tax dollars but perhaps in tax breaks for development to lower the building cost and therefore to lower the rents needed to recover that cost with a profit).

The city could enter a contract with a private development company to produce such housing, with affordable rent defined as a percentage below the area median rent, and guaranteed; this form of "rent control" would be attractive to private developers with the understanding that decreased per unit profits would be made up by total sales, since the contract would negotiate a definite (and large) number of additional housing units over time.

Affordable housing would draw suburbanites looking to minimize travel costs as gasoline prices increase; increased housing would also attract retailers looking to take advantage of a growing market. That means an increase in area employers. All of this would result in a living (if not particularly distinguished) city center whose character could only emerge as a byproduct of the activities of its merchants and residents.

This is in contrast to the city's current strategy of a few expensive, big projects, none of which encourage mass residency and (as a result) all of which are somewhat artificial and sterile. The only way to make the city center vital is increased residency and small business activity, on a big enough scale to create a viable, self-sustaining "organism"; and only affordable housing can offset the perceived downside of living in an older, more "urbanized" part of the city to sufficiently large numbers of potential new residents (whether they come from the city periphery or from out of state).

The city owns a great deal of central land; provisions (such as a blight tax or an annual assessment on undeveloped central land) could make indefinite land-banking of other lots less attractive to other owner-investors.

While it's true that the housing glut has already driven down housing prices, there are already shortages of certain types of rental properties for family occupancy; and since "affordable" will be defined as a percentage below the area median (which can change) there is still an appeal on the basis of relative affordability.


Emil, your citation is by Wendell Cox, someone well known as a paid propagandist of the real-estate/industrial complex. The site itself is headed by Joel Kotkin, the intellectual capo of the housing lobby.

Cox's argument depends on how you define a metropolitan area. Boston's might very well incorporate Nashua and Portsmouth, NH, Providence, RI, and Worcester, MA. I'm not sure myself, of course, but playing fast and loose with statistical paramenters is the nature of tendentious debates where an economic interest simply defines reality in terms most convenient to itself.

I would suggest it doesn't matter in the scope of this discussion since we're not really talking about the density of metropolitan areas but the functionality of the core city.

I know we had this discussion earlier this year about various means to allay anti-urban policy. How to get around land-banking? How to implement tax-increment financing? How to effectively increase density in TOD overlays? And how to have ANY kind of meaningful land-use policy in the wake of 2008's Prop 206?

I don't know enough about these various policies to hazard even semi-educated guesses. So, I'm going to duck them completely to preseve this conversation. I would say that the City of Phoenix, a land banker itself, has been spectacularly ineffective in redressing the issues of its lackluster core. It cannot wave a magic wand after the fact and decree that affordable but desirable housing exist to serve untold thousands who need to be closer to their employment when A) downtown Phoenix is a weak employment hub and B) the central city itself doesn't magnetize strong gorwth.

I believe Talton recommended Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities in his book post a couple of weeks back. If you haven't read it, get thee to a library. It's the bible for those who see cities as organic ecologies rather than templates for planners to impose their techno-whiz solutions. Why cities work well can be studied and contemplated but it's excruciatingly difficult to replicate in a lab. Even the few projects that attempt this in the spirit of Jacobs have rather mixed results. Cities, as Jacobs explained, are inherently messy places and that's good! What isn't good is decreeing ala Robert Moses massive changes in the name of some higher good. Those changes might be large housing projects, freeways, slum clearance, and the false idol of American cities, the skyscraper. American cities very nearly destroyed themselves in the 60s and 70s with the messianic zeal of urban do-gooders.

You can't repair Phoenix with policy itself. It's too late for one thing and the instruments are simply too crude. What can happen, in the spirit of benign neglect, is permitting people to come up with their own haphazard and provisional solutions. The coming decades should sorely test our capacity to live in a place like this. The sunk costs of the suburban template are huge and irremediable. But we might find interesting developments where we least expect them. What's important is not to judge or fear them. They might be the very things that save Phoenix.


Mr. Talton,

In order to make demographic comparisons it is best to look at the population of an overall metropolitan statistical area. Metro Phoenix comprises a much larger share of its MSAs population than either Seattle and Boston. The incorporation of growing middle class suburbs such as Ahwatukee and Deer Valley were a saving grace for Phoenix's tax base. However the overall carrying costs and the political structure of the place which you have well described in your other articles undermines much of that benefit. On a different note it is puzzling that nothing gets done to prepare for the effects of global warming in Phoenix, it doesn't seem a topic of conversation. Solar panels are finally making more frequent appearances in the 'Valley' but their benefits is portrayed in purely financial terms. So long, Happy New Year!

Soleri, my apologies for inadvertently using Cox as a source. Still, we don't need to depend upon his analysis (see below).

I think the discussion is relevant. Mr. Talton did mention sprawl and the "ugliness and costs" of it, but beyond that he seems to be linking the concept of economic and cultural vitality to low population growth.

The point I was trying to make is that the sprawl of urbanized areas is a given and that it tends toward a similar range of limits: the only question is the particular mode of growth involved.

In Phoenix, a highly elastic, newer city, much of that growth has been captured by the city itself; in the Boston metro area, almost all of the growth in modern times has been captured by its suburbs, since Boston city proper has zero elasticity for geographic, political, and legal reasons.

So, it's something of a magic trick to suggest that Boston and other low-growth cities are better as a consequence of low growth, when in fact the physically continuous urbanized area that characterizes the metro area shows the same growth.

Any delineation that rests upon arbitrary municipal political boundaries rather than the continuous development of a holistic urban area is begging for critique.

The most restrictive definition of Greater Boston is that espoused by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a state appointed body overseeing transportation development in the metro area.

According to their website, the metro area is 1,422 square miles and (as of the 2000 Census) had a population of 3,066,394. That gives a population density of 2,156 per square mile.

http://web.archive.org/web/20070218110431/www.mapc.org/metro_area.html

That's lower than the population density of the city of Phoenix (2,938 per square mile). I realize this is comparing apples to oranges but I couldn't find population and area data for the Phoenix urban area, as opposed to the Phoenix Metropolitan Statistical Area which includes vast amounts of undeveloped space and so was even less useful for comparison purposes.

I'll address your comments about urban planning in a separate comment.

Soleri, I don't think that generalizations about the goodness or destructiveness of urban planning are useful, except for rhetorical purposes. The question is whether a particular proposition can meet the goals that it sets; whether those goals serve the purpose intended; and whether that purpose is desirable and worthy of pursuit.

"Permitting people to come up with their own haphazard and provisional solutions" is pretty much how Phoenix got where it is: leadership and vision has been sorely lacking, except in service to special interests.

You argue that we "cannot wave a magic wand after the fact and decree that affordable but desirable housing exist to serve untold thousands who need to be closer to their employment when A) downtown Phoenix is a weak employment hub and B) the central city itself doesn't magnetize strong growth".

Downtown Phoenix is a weak employment hub because it is only weakly tenanted (county jails and homeless shelters not withstanding). Local retailers and other small business goes where there is a market for their goods and services: the market for the goods and services of local small business is the local population; when the local population is sparse compared to other parts of the city, you settle your business elsewhere unless it meets the needs of visitors (such as tourists or urban commuters who work downtown but do not live there).

The magic wand is nothing more than the tried and true developers' strategy for Arizona: build housing to attract residents; residents attract retailers and other local businesses; that in turn attracts new residents, assuming that housing is available and desirable. That's how Metro Phoenix grew and it works.

As for magnets, growth begets growth, up to a point. It's like a planetary body whose accretion of material depends upon the strength of its gravitational field; but the more material it accretes the larger the force of attraction.

You CAN get residents in the city center. You simply need to give them a motive for living there. That motive has to be financial since it's an older, less attractive, more urbanized portion of town, whose primary form of residence must be apartments rather than single-family homes. Hence, affordable housing. I don't think you can rebuild the urban core by means of a handful of eccentric yuppies occupying a few expensive loft projects.

Ironically, most of those central residents will need to commute outward, slightly, for their initial employment prospects; but that won't last long provided housing density and residency increases sufficiently there, with a guarantee to business and investors of further residential expansion for years to come.

For example, there is an obvious profit motive for a supermarket to open in a place where none now exists, but only if there are plenty of local consumers who would prefer to walk down the street or take the local streetcar, instead of driving for miles outside their area until they reach the closest one. The same applies to all of the other types of businesses (and hence employers) which typify normal parts of the city but which are rare or non-existent in the no-man's land of the downtown area.

P.S. It isn't just the downtown area proper. That blight has long since spread to surrounding central city areas, vast tracts of which have no normal patterns of city life but exist as a twilight zone of decaying industrial sites (warehouses, scrapyards, industrial repair and parts shops) mixed with sparse residential housing; or else the sterile eeriness of modern highrise districts.

Large parts of South Phoenix as well as portions miles north of downtown could be turned into vital urban areas, but only if there is a motive to reside there and housing which meets the needs of prospective residents. The only way to reverse flight to the suburbs and exurbs, if that's what you want, is to create housing to attract residents; and the only housing that will attract residents to an older portion of the city suffering blight, is affordable housing (i.e., bargain housing, relative to their options elsewhere in the city).

Just a recap of my suggested method of creating affordable housing:

The city could enter a contract with a private development company to produce such housing, with affordable rent defined as a percentage below the area median rent, and guaranteed; this form of "rent control" would be attractive to private developers with the understanding that decreased per unit profits would be made up by total sales, since the contract would negotiate a definite (and large) number of additional housing units over time.

The developer would be given special treatment to lower the building cost and therefore to lower the rents needed to recover that cost with a profit: cut the normal taxes and fees associated with development and construction; in fact, eliminate them as much as feasible.

This doesn't cost the taxpayer anything out of pocket. It doesn't even amount to a tax credit, since the city can't lose revenue it wouldn't receive from development taxes and fees that wouldn't be paid anyway (since such development wouldn't occur on its own).

The city would nevertheless benefit because increased residency in Phoenix (as opposed to, say, Chandler or other outlying areas) would increase the city's future tax base, hence its revenues.

The city could (probably must) get the cooperation of the federal government in reducing some of these taxes and fees associated with land development, but that isn't impossible considering the fact that special rules exist for affordable housing projects.

I don't think the average individual has much notion of how much it costs in taxes and fees to get an apartment building constructed, normally. Ideally, the only cost to builders would be actual construction costs.

That would be a real incentive to get them to sign a contract to offer affordable housing at rents which are a significant percentage below the area median (that is, variable, but well below-market rents).

Even if that made such projects less attractive to developers by lowering the per unit profit, total profits would be large because by contract developers would obtain the same favorable terms to build and rent a large number of additional housing units over the years; total profits (per unit profit times total units) would be large enough to make such contracts quite lucrative and appealing to developers.


Emil, I agree that every city, with the possible exception of Portland, has huge sprawl issues. That said, Talton's critique here acknowledges that fact in order to draw a distinction about our own city. That Phoenix incorporated much of its sprawl, or annexed areas in sprawl's path neither changes the essential debate nor even adds a curious twist to it. Phoenix is like Oklahoma City, Jacksonville, and Indianapolis (or Toronto if you want to go outside the US) in this way. Yes, we're big in terms of land size. What is different about Phoenix is the stark weakness of its core. This weakness has all sorts of repercussions, particularly economic. This is much more than an aesthetic quibble since strong downtowns are economic engines for the entire metroplex. I know Joel Kotkin likes to make the point that Los Angeles, with its relatively weak core, exemplifies a newer "polycentric" model that upends standard urban theory. But LA's major economic advantages were already in place before its downtown declined (today that decline has stabilized and shows strong signs of reversal).

For Phoenix, downtown is both a symbol and the morbid reminder of our metropolitan region's weak hand. The default economic position is libertarian for a reason: there's no strong civic leadership pushing crucial investment in other areas. Real-estate hustlers won the economic debate (and the political argument) by simply being the last major interest standing in this otherwise rudderless ship we call home.

Phoenix is, as we sometimes joke, the anti-Portland. But this is a deadly serious joke not only for us but nationally, too. The Wall Street Journal, at least in its op-ed pages, seldom misses an opportunity to extol the Phoenix model or damn Portland's. Why are conservative ideologues so primed for battle? Because heedless growth is for them a primary value, independent of whether it enhances the community or the well-being of the average citizen. Anti-enviromentalism is another core tenet of movement conservatives precisely because their singular focus detaches long-term consequences from short-term gains.

Conservatism in its current iteration lives in denial about limits, whether its population, energy, and wealth itself. Its juvenile fixation on growth for growth's sake is dangerous, stupid, and destructive. It looks on Phoenix with its deracinated population living in ugly housing pods and gathering at grotesque "lifestyle centers" as an ideal. They discount and disparage any attempt to make our living arrangements more enduring and sustainable. These people are objectively insane. Their "sky's the limit" millenialism is why we're in this current financial crisis.

The point of comparison between Phoenix and other cities is to drive home this point. Yes, sprawl is everywhere because of bad land-use and housing policies. But other cities are still economically vibrant beyond their sprawl and real-estate hustles. This is Talton's major argument, one that he has made for over 10 years. His insistence on this point has been prophetic if unhonored.

As for your solutions to making central Phoenix a housing hub, I'll withhold comment except to say if it didn't happened when city governemnt was flush with tax revenue and it's much less likely to happen when it's virtually broke.


I agree about the need for a healthy downtown in the general instance.

Blight, poverty, and crime also tend to spread outward from a dead city center, threatening to take surrounding areas with them and eroding quality of life at the edges: this in turn encourages flight from the border areas outward (whether or not to the suburbs) and the process may perpetuate itself.

Los Angeles may actually be a case in point: it's become a monster city by means of suburban flight, leaving behind ever larger areas of blight as the exterior border expands; but is this really sustainable, especially in an era when energy costs may rise, water may become scarcer, and the tax base remains weak (unless you think that the American economy as a whole is going to recover to its pre-recession state any time soon, especially as in additional to intrinsic systemic problems, it becomes overshadowed by Asia and an increasingly international outlook by business).

I agree with most of what Mr. Talton wrote and with most of your comments. I understand the points being made, but one thing I question is how much of the economic strength of a successful but inelastic city depend, in the general case, on the dynamic between the central city and prosperous urban areas growing around it and dynamically linked to it.

In such cases, is the central city marketing goods and services to those suburbs? How much economic growth would the central city see if there was zero growth in the suburbs?

Are there regional or state revenue sharing mechanisms in place, under which the central city's cost of maintaining its infrastructure and services is partially offset by sales, property, or income taxes in the outlying areas?

For that matter, how much does the central city depend, for its brain trust, on professionals who live in the newer, still growing outlying areas who commute into the central city?

The nice thing about my idea for turning central Phoenix into a housing hub (with all of the accompanying small businesses that crop up to serve such a market) is that it appeals to values across the political spectrum.

It appeals to the real-estate development folks (a very powerful segment of Arizona's economic life) by offering a way to make profits building housing at a time when there is virtually no such opportunity elsewhere in the market, especially in Phoenix proper. There are fat profits to be had if enough housing is built, even if the per unit (i.e., per apartment) profit is low.

It appeals to conservatives who want taxes and bureaucratic red tape cut, since that is the mechanism by which it allows private profit for a public good.

It appeals to liberals by increasing affordable housing vastly; to urban planning types (read: local politicians and academics) who want a vibrant city center; to environmental conservationists and anti-sprawl advocates by encouraging increased residency in the heart of the city (actually encouraging flight FROM the less successful outlying areas); and it appeals to independents and many Republicans and Democrats, by refusing to use direct taxpayer subsidies for private projects.

Finally, it appeals to families who, during tough economic times, want affordable housing.

You wrote:

"...if it didn't happen when city government was flush with tax revenue and it's much less likely to happen when it's virtually broke."

I disagree. Phoenix loses nothing by suspending taxes and fees for projects that otherwise would never be built: in the absence of such a scheme, it collects no such taxes and fees; whereas under such a scheme it would collect fewer (or perhaps even none) -- which is an identical or even slightly improved outcome. Furthermore, much of the tax and fee breaks would come from other governmental entities (e.g., the federal government) under special rules for affordable housing development.

Nor would this siphon off development from other parts of the city where taxes and fees would be collected: let's face it, there will be precious little residential housing constructed in Phoenix for years to come, given the housing crash and glut. (Yet, affordable housing always appeals, even more in tough economic times, so the market is there.)

Meanwhile, a large influx of residents to the city center from outlying areas or from out of state, would add to the city's coffers by expanding its tax base.

So, in fact, it's precisely NOW that such a scheme makes sense.


Emil, I like the sound of your proposal. Indeed, it's sweet music to my ears. But (and you knew there would be one), how do you translate your ideas into policy? How do you move intransigent bureaucracies, a skeptical political culture, the detached media, and a broken commonweal into a transformative project? This is not an idle question. When architecture students at ASU first began studying the feasibility of the Rio Salado project in 1966, it took over 20 years of painfully intricate proceedings to even get to a vote of the citizens - who rejected it - and another 11 years of further studies by the City of Tempe before it rescued its fractional interest in the form of Tempe Town Lake. http://www.tempe.gov/lake/LakeHistory/timlin.htm

If I am thinking of something clever (and I often think that I am), I'll occasionally Google the idea to see if someone beat me to it. Invariably, someone did. It's helpful and humbling because I no longer speculate whether my genius in being insufficiently appreciated by others. In the case of a sweeping housing initiative that would greatly enhance central Phoenix, I can't help but think if the transformative idea, as opposed to its discrete parts, was doable, it would have been proposed, if not by city planners, then by real-estate players like Reid Butler, Eric Brown or the Gutkin brothers. Or, there would have been academics from the ASU urban studies program selling the idea to the public. To the best of my knowledge, no one has. To be clear: tax credits, tax abatements, grants, RFPs, etc. are the usual tools of Phoenix's Development Services' office. The city has been using these for decades. OTOH, I haven't heard of some souped-up version of this toolbox transforming a city for the better. Usually, just the opposite.

South Park is famous for its Underpants Gnomes who steal Tweek's underwear in the middle of the night in order to make a profit. It works like this:

Phase 1: steal underpants.

Phase 2: ?????

Phase 3: Profit!


Phase 2 is the tough one. Good luck.


Just returned from the snowy mountains of Arizona. Seeing Emil back on line is what I call "A dang good start" for this new year.

Stimulating post and commentary. Couple observations:

1) Emil’s idea of increasing the housing in downtown Phoenix does have the backing of City policy http://phoenix.gov/urbanformproject/
2) But, housing alone is not the solution. Downtown Phoenix is also a very small employment center. For a variety of reasons, it’s one of the smallest agglomerations of employees (relative to other downtowns) in the world. All great downtowns have much more employment than Phoenix’s has, indeed, it’s one of the main reasons housing is so attractive in other downtowns, proximity to jobs erases long commutes.
3) Tax incentives the city can provide are extremely impotent. Arizona is the ONLY state in the United States that prohibits Tax Increment Financing (TIF). It cannot be overstated how much of a disadvantage this is, and little known to the average citizen (imagine the “Information Center” running a story on TIF.. LOL!). Aside from a hard growth boundary, (also prohibited by state law) this is the most important tool cities have for urban-style development and redevelopment.
4) Both Emil and Soleri are right on density. Phoenix’s problem is not a lack of density, if looking at it across the city (or metro area). It’s that Phoenix's density is too uniform. Even if Phoenix continued to embrace a “polycentric model” (which the current “Urban Village” model, adopted in the 1970’s, is) For a variety of reasons, none of our designated urban centers ever reached critical mass to be truly “urban”.
5) Regarding Soleri’s comment on Jacobs and Moses – the problem with Phoenix is not a problem with “bottom-up” or “top-down” approach to urban planning or vice versa. Few people know that the original Plan for Phoenix was done by William Bennett, a principle under Daniel Burnham. Bennett was the planner who literally drew the Plan for Chicago and at the time he was commissioned by Phoenix, was regarded as the top planner in the country and an expert in the City Beautiful method. So, it’s not that we have had the wrong plans or planners. It’s really that plans have never been implemented, due to a combination of anti-urban state laws, anti-urban infrastructure investments (freeways), and an anti-urban business class (that Jon correctly points out is critical to “knocking heads and writing checks”).

So the real question is: Why is Arizona so Anti-Urban? This is a complicated question. My own take is that it’s less about our mysterious “libertarian ethic” that the Kotkins of the world deem so admirable (exhibit A: immigration) and more to do with our historical roots as a land speculation/fraud mecca. The political, legal and economic systems we have in place today are an outgrowth of this mentality, whether we as citizens are aware of it or not.

sorry should be Edward, not William Bennett. The latter was Bush's drug czar, so thought it would be best to post a correction!

Phx Planner, I assumed, perhaps incorrectly, that Phoenix was guided by City Beautiful principles, at least through the 1940s. Whether the plan was codified or if it was more a matter of the movement's aesthetics seems to be less important. In 1950, the city was only 17 square miles and the autocentric boom was just beginning.

City planners from that point on rationalized growth patterns to accommodate this new reality. It was the spatial requirements of cars that created this city, and for the most of America, too. Because downtown Phoenix was so small, there was no way for growth to stay within its footprint. That's why Central Avenue became the first of the alternative downtowns. And it was at this point in the late 50s that Phoenix's fate was sealed forever.

You can't overstate how important this difference has been relative to other cities. Denver, San Diego, Seattle, and even Salt Lake City boomed too. But their downtowns were much larger at the outset so there wasn't a need to leapfrog to some non-contiguous area. Those cities kept their cores and the transportation systems that served them. This meant they remained their region's dominant employment base and that adequate housing would also serve them.

The wide-openness of new Phoenix ensured that growth would follow the paths of least resistance. It also became its own argument for fewer regulations including zoning. Politics here reflected this reality just as land fraud seemed like the natural outcome of a state where "anything goes".

I hope I didn't demean your profession in some of my comments. Urban planners in Phoenix are infinitely better than those in the go-go days of the 60s and 70s. Of course, we really didn't get curious as a nation about cities until after we inflicted irreparable damage on them.

For Phoenix, the die is cast in a mostly unfavorable way. You don't retrofit 500 square miles of sprawl with some loft condos and urban pizzerias. I do have some modest hopes that light rail might usher in some higher density along its path. And I think the coming energy contraction will hold some of the worst exurban impulses at bay. But the chicken-and-egg problem with a weak core will likely remain. We will try to solve it with art walks, gay bars, and decorative lamp posts. But for Phoenix, the damage is holistic and forever.

Soleri, an idea shouldn't be judged impossible simply because it's never been proposed before -- even assuming that's the case -- and I think it more likely that something similar HAS been proposed and even carried out, but you aren't aware of it. (I'm not either, but then I came up with the idea independently, and am not an urban planning maven.)

One of the other commenters mentioned something called Tax Increment Financing and I found a website at the Minnesota House of Representatives Research page explaining it in some detail:

http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/issinfo/tifmech.htm

Tax abatement is a similar idea:

http://blog.danter.com/?p=42

This looks very similar in some respects to what I proposed, but my proposal is both more straightforward and more radical.

I'm not just talking about defering, reducing or eliminating property taxes for affordable housing development, I'm talking about reducing or eliminating the (considerable) taxes and fees involved in actual construction costs for an apartment building.

Obviously this would need to be a coordinated effort not only by cities but by other political entities from local to federal, since they all take their slice of construction and development costs in the form of taxes and fees. Involve as many of the big players as possible.

Arizona's TIF laws may or may not be a deal breaker. (Very possibly, but what I'm proposing isn't strictly TIF and laws must be very specific in what they ban if they want to prevent technical loopholes.)

As for underpants gnomes, it really isn't that difficult a concept to understand. Just look at your phone bill some time and tally up the percentage of costs which are due to your own use, and the percentage which are due to various federal taxes and fees (some of which are disguised under complicated and misleading names).

Assume that fully 1/3 the cost of constructing an apartment building consists of taxes and fees on construction and property taxes on the improved lot, when taxes and fees at all levels of government are assessed.

Now, if those taxes and fees are waived, you can charge rents that are 1/3 less than you otherwise would have, and still recover your costs, with a profit, within a reasonable time frame.

This should be very attractive to residential housing developers in Arizona, who don't have many opportunities for new construction, because of the housing crash. They would be willing to sign a contract locking in below median market rates because they could build a LARGE amount of new housing and rake in money.

Density abatement could be another tool to sweeten the pot.

Finally, the fact that builder-developers will have a contract for large numbers of such housing units, means that total profits would be high even if per unit (per apartment) profits were only marginal. This is simple math.

The market for such housing exists because there are plenty of families, especially in tough economic times, who would be willing to settle in central Phoenix from out of state, or move their from the devastated west side, if they got bargain housing in the process, even if it meant living in an apartment instead of a single-family home, and in an urban area instead of the suburbs or exurbs.

As for repeated statements by several commenters that housing alone is not the solution because there are few employers downtown (though in fact I'm talking about a much wider area that includes downtown), I've already pointed out that employers follow housing.

How do you suppose all of those North Phoenix and West Phoenix boonie communities got built? They didn't put the employers out there first, because nobody lived there. You don't build a supermarket, or a barber shop, or a restaurant, or any other retail or other small business, where no market exists.

So, first build housing, then the employers will invest in the area to take advantage of a large and growing market.

Soleri asked how to translate this idea into practice, given the inertia and infighting among politicians and others.

The answer is that it's a lot easier to get things done when in doing so: (a) you are catering to powerful special interests who have the ear of politicians on both sides of the aisle; (b) goals and methods transcend partisan politics; (c) nobody's toes are stepped on; (d) the idea is popular with the public.

Conservatives get to cut government taxes, fees and bureaucratic red tape while -- mirabile dictu -- getting to play "compassionate"; liberals get to play hero too, providing affordable housing to the working poor (and others, including newly dispossessed middle-class homeowners) without being accused of being spendthrifts with public funds.

The powerful real-estate development lobby is happy because they get to build lots of new housing in a place and at a time when this didn't seem possible, and make tons of money in the process. Note that as small business moved in to service the new and growing residents, this would also allow the rental of a lot of currently languishing commercial & retail space.

The equally powerful small business community is happy to see a revitalized area which presents a fresh and growing market for their goods and services, and happy that the size and duration of the housing contract provides informational certainty; if businesses know that housing development is planned and a contract inked, they in turn will plan to take advantage of it by marketing to these new consumer-residents, who would naturally prefer to have everything they need available within a reasonable distance instead of having to drive miles and miles to reach a "real urban area".

Working families are happy because they get bargain housing.

Urban planners and conservationists are happy because the city center is being repopulated and rejuvenated.

This is a no-brainer. The only way to screw it up is to frame it in partisan terms or to fail to explain it properly and clearly. What the idea needs is a few insiders at the local, state, and federal level to proselytize -- spread the word, introduce the idea into forums, get studies done and papers written, and secure backing from the players (legislatures, city councils, business community) -- and to float it (and its benefits) to the public via the local media.


(1) Just to reiterate one important point, briefly: the city would not lose tax money by doing this. None of these developments would get built without the incentives (which do not consist of giving taxpayer funds, but simply of waving or reducing taxes and fees). A 10 percent tax/fee assessment (for example) on zero development raises zero revenue dollars.

Incidentally, my apologies for any typos in the previous message above (e.g., "their" for "there"); I didn't have time for a readthrough before losing that Internet session.

I appreciate the support by azrebel and others. Unfortunately I'm not really "back" at this point: I bought a rare day pass to get some important errands done recently, and while riding found another pass with five days remaining on it. I've very much enjoyed participating here again, and the other stimulating, convenient, and depression-allaying aspects of having access to transit, but at this point I'm still not sure I can afford to plunk down $27.50 a month for a bus pass, on top of my other expenses. (But I'm thinking about it, whether or not on a one-time exploratory basis.)

P.S. There is also no reason why the city could not GIVE undeveloped/blighted plots of city-owned land in exchange for affordable housing development. So, that's an additional possibility on top of everything else.

This might be contentious, however, because instead of simply waving taxes and fees, that's conferring a real asset which, theoretically (though not soon if ever) might someday have practical market value.

P.S. I forgot to mention in my "how to get it done" list above that the City is happy because the new residents increase its tax base and hence increase its revenues.

Emil, just to be clear about my own side here: I have no idea why the various instruments of city planning haven't succeeded in creating a densely populated core. I have some very vague and impressionistic opinions about this subject, which I buttress with an indisputable fact: Phoenix had the tools, the handbook, and up until a couple of years, a lot of cash. And it still didn't get the housing.

We're not going to change this reality by having a conversation outside the realm where things really get done. This is, for all your mental fireworks, still a grubby process where particular policies can only manifest meager results. I suspect it's not because COP planners didn't think of these things or ignored their usage in other cities. Reality is what's before our eyes and it clearly hasn't happened.

Another way to look at this problem is to find a city where it did happen, where everything you proposed, or its simulacra, transpired. The underpants gnomes are busy inside our heads but where on God's green Earth is the profit?

I can't begin to judge your "proposals". I suspect you know that and propose anyway since this is your idea of conversation. All I can do is shake my head and say "show me" because I'm looking for the visual evidence. I live in a city, not an abstract concept.

Emil does make some valid points. However, taxes and fees are not really a significant barrier to downtown redevelopment. From my perspective, there are 3 main issues.

1. Infrastructure. Very expensive infrastructure upgrades are often necessary to redevelop infill locations into higher density (replacing a water or sewer main to a larger size for example can often be a deal killer for a project). One of the tools other cities use to mitigate these costs is TIF.
2. Land speculation is another major problem that can and should be addressed. A lot of vacant land is owned by investors with longer term hold strategies and have price expectations that are completely at odds with the underlying market demand. Emil’s comments on this I think are spot on and others have similar ideas. At this time however, these are still just ideas and haven’t yet gained any significant political traction as it would probably require raising or shifting property taxes, which has historically been a non-starter in Arizona.
3. Inexperienced private sector. Sprawl has been easy to build in many cities, but in Arizona cities especially. Not only because of a more predictable development process (no NIMBYs, infrastructure costs are shared with other developers through impact fees, etc.) but because of a well developed financial infrastructure. National developers already had standardized plans that they could easily replicate, not just in AZ but nationwide. The monotony of sprawl real estate "products"(single family subdivision, strip center, garden apartment, office park, power center, etc.) isn’t just a result of unimaginative architects or Euclidean zoning codes, it was also perfect for creating standardized asset classes that could be easily bundled, packaged and repackaged into securities and then traded by large institutional investors in equity markets around the world. This unprecedented access to capital made in easy for even novice developers to get in the game (it’s also one of the primary reasons why the bubble formed and why real estate had the power to tank the world economy in it’s entirety). Infill requires savvy, experienced developers with relationships with financiers who “get” walkable mixed use (with say, 50% less parking). Unfortunately, Arizona has relatively few developers, banks, architects, engineers, etc. with this type of experience. Many of our successful downtown projects have been done by out of state developers.

Soleri, Bennett's Plan for Phoenix (which if you are ever in Chicago can be viewed in the Burnham library of the Art Institute) was almost completely ignored. The only significant element implemented was the location of Union Station. Jon’s post on Union Station leaves out that the location and even the idea of a Union Station was hotly debated and Bennett was instrumental in getting it built at 4th and Jackson. Bennett drew a sketch of the station with a grand plaza in front and the building itself in a Beaux Arts European style (obviously, these ideas weren’t implemented either).

Phx Planner, I hope you become a regular on this site because your expertise in this area could clear up a lot of confusion.

Land banking is a major source of confusion since the current system seems to favor the buy-and-hold strategy. Does the lower tax rate for vacant land originate primarily at the state level? If so, why would a legislature where suburban interests are paramount fix this? Don't real-estate interests generally favor the status quo? Is there a city increment in property taxes that the Council could raise in order to deter the worst excesses of land banking?

On TIF, is there any possibility of this policy making its way through a hard-right legislature?

How does an "inexperienced private sector" prevent a visionary from harnessing the talent elsewhere and bringing it to Arizona?

My prejudice here is that Arizona's built environment is a self-reinforcing barrier to fundamental change. We can only do so much with an urban form where cars are the default means of transport. Retrofitting this form will be painful and expensive. On top of that, the political will is largely on the other side, where suburban and exurban interests virtually conspire to defeat anything outside the dominant developmental paradigm. It's hardly an accident that Arizona's right-leaning electorate live in places devoid of public spaces and urban amenities. It's why they tend to be anti-tax in the first place.

When we talk about successful cities in this country, we also wring our hands about how foolish Phoenix has been in this area or that. But Phoenix came of age in a particular time in an relatively early stage of its growth. This disfiguring happened without any debate or resistance. I don't really see the tools of planning changing this to any significant degree. If I'm unduly pessimistic about this, let me know.


Phx Planner, thanks for the tip about the Bennett plan. It's a shame it can't be viewed online, although for $25 you can take a chance .http://jph.sagepub.com/content/6/2/87.full.pdf+html

While I think a more beautiful, better-planned Phoenix would have been an advantage going forward, I don't think it could have prevented the autocentric dystopia that eventually emerged. Phoenix was a small city in 1950 and it's hard to see it withstanding the transformative boom poised to change it. By contrast, a city like Denver had its own City Beautiful movement a century ago under Mayor Robert Speer. The great parks, tree lawns, monuments and civic structures emerged during this period and survive mostly intact today. But Denver was a large city unlike Phoenix. And, needless to say, Denver has suffered its own boneheaded anti-urban depredations in the post-war period. The difference is that what survived was enough both in particulars and its template keep Denver beautiful.

I suspect that Phoenix's plans were waylaid by the Great Depression. We did get Encanto Park built, which was a major achievement for us. Looking at old photographs of Phoenix, it's clear the precepts of the City Beautiful movement had their impact if not the actual codification.

I'm a Phoenix native and remember how poor this town looked back in the 1950s. The agricultural economy was gradually giving way to aerospace and semiconductors, but it wasn't an immediate transformation. When Black Canyon Freeway was built in the late 50s, it was done with utter disregard for aesthetics. I suspect Phoenix's failure to adopt a City Beautiful plan was part of the same syndrome: real poverty, or its memory, impoverishing civic pride.


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