Yet another pipe dream has exploded in the Phoenix Depression. This time Steve Ellman's Westgate "City Center," — the Republic story pimped the development as "the flashy dining and shopping complex that anchors Glendale's football stadium and hockey arena" — is facing foreclosure.
This is time to revisit my 2010 post on Glendale's folly. It's also relevant coming directly after the popular Phoenix 101: Malls. Yet more needs to be said; not to make thin-skinned Phoenicians feel depressed, as is the usual criticism, but to learn something from these costly debacles to move the metro area forward into some kind of broad, non-heat-island-scorched uplands.
The only ones that could be surprised by the Westgate mess are those millions who drank the developer-speak Kool-Aid ("flashy dining and shopping complex" blah blah blah). Every time I was forced to go there for an event, the place was dead. It was far from anything else besides a too-narrow freeway, unless you wanted to farm some cotton or throw up the frames of subdivisions on former farm land. Nor is it flashy, aside from the sun blinding you when it hits the bumper of some jacked-up truck in the parking lot. It is off-the-shelf suburban stuff found everywhere, with the unfortunate distinction that all the asphalt and concrete, besides being ugly, adds a special hellish ambiance even when the surface temp is not 140 degrees.
For those national readers moaning, Not another Arizona post!, you would recognize Westgate. Its kind has degraded your cities, too, taken away valuable farmland, added congestion and blight. Westgate, seen from the 30,000-foot conceptual level, was an attempt to create another "edge city." Discussed in a book of the same name in the 1990s, these were totally auto-centric sprawl creations that, if "successful," involved shopping, dining, offices, apartments, condos and many single-family tract houses. Think South Park in Charlotte, Highlands Ranch in Denver, Kenwood in Cincinnati, Atlanta's Perimeter...on and on. Homely and soulless though they are, they were once seen as The Future. The New. The Great Recession has not been kind to them, and the forces of the Great Disruption won't be, either. Another Future swept into the dustbin of history.
Westgate, however, was marked by two peculiarities that worked against it. First, it was trying to establish another edge city in a metropolitan area that is nothing but. It faced competition from Scottsdale, north Scottsdale, "CityNorth," Chandler, Goodyear, Mesa's Gateway area, Desert Ridge and the existing Arrowhead mall of Glendale. All these were competing for extremely limited economic assets, whether in terms of corporate offices or shoppers with disposable income. Atlanta or Dallas, two sprawl queens, enjoy a much stronger business climate. Or take Irvine Ranch, every sprawl developer's template. To put it kindly, metro Phoenix is not the LA basin, much less Orange County. Arizona lacks an equivalent of the University of California system to add an equivalent of UC Irvine.
Second, developer Steve Ellman did not go into this with the expertise, deep pockets or connections of the Irvine Co. or Rouse, which developed Columbia, Md. His economic asset was trucking mogul Jerry Moyes. His method of leverage was to use the city as his partner. This was not only true of installing infrastructure in what had been distant farmland in order to make the development viable, but the city's "investment" in its "sports district," which included not only the taxpayer funded hockey arena but the taxpayer funded (and deliciously named) University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals' owners also wanted a piece of the development action. Yet, as the Republic reported, "Westgate opened in 2006, behind schedule and behind in the size of the promised development." (I am told that Ellman approached Phoenix about developing the land along light rail on the southwest corner of Camelback and Central going west, and Mayor Phil Gordon wisely said "no, thanks").
So while the Great Recession may have pushed Westgate over the edge, as is the Official Excuse for the CityNorth disaster, neither was particularly viable. Both were predicated on Phoenix's peculiar levitation during the go-go years, but as the size of projects grew and the sprawl moved ever outward, all sucking from the same very small economic pond...it was unsustainable.
It's tragic to think this is how metro Phoenix spent the good years. A relatively small amount of resources, talent and push by the bigs went into such projects as winning T-Gen, establishing Science Foundation Arizona, making a convention center worthy of Phoenix, enhancing higher education or completing the first 19 miles of light rail (we built it, you bastards). The Kookocracy fought and worked to limit or cripple these efforts at every turn. Even less was done to address the state's groaning social problems, with K-12 education still a mess unless you live in moneyed apartheid and St. Janet's all-day-kindergarten strangled by the Kooks. No, the good years, when so much capital and so many people were coming to the state — all that potential tax revenue — were wasted on the likes of Westgate and stadiums that should be in downtown Phoenix.
It's tragic to imagine what Glendale could have done with the eventual $1 billion liability it faces — if it hadn't tried to be "the next Scottsdale," or suck assets out of downtown Phoenix and Tempe, or build one more unneeded sprawl development. What if it had enjoyed the leadership, stewardship and imagination to be its own special place, one that actually incubated and created new, long-term wealth instead of a quick pop for developers. A place of beauty, livability, that had a future. Imagine shady streets lined by three- and five-story buildings in downtown Glendale that hold real new companies, unconnected to real estate, educational institutions and non-profits — new, not stolen from elsewhere in the region, and minting thousands of high-paid jobs in the 21st century Creative Class economy. And all connected by commuter rail and light rail to Phoenix. It would have been transformative.
Even now, most Phoenicians don't get it. They don't even need the push of the Real Estate Industrial Complex. The big hope is now Williams Gateway, another costly drain of resources to the middle of nowhere. Thus, the Depression goes on.