All the boosters' stories and all the boosters' flacks can't get our mythical bird out of the ashes. Five years after the biggest collapse since the Hohokam unpleasantness, Phoenix still has the character of a fallen souffle. Perhaps that's for the best without a better plan, because the worst thing that could happen is a return to mass sprawl building. The most striking feature — and tell me if I'm missing something — is the lack of anything big happening. I don't mean nonsense such as "Buckeye will have 400,000 people!" I mean nothing is seriously moving ahead to follow on the genuine pre-crash achievements: ASU Downtown, light rail (WBIYB), the expanded and attractive convention center, the beginnings of the downtown biosciences campus and, disappointing though it is, CityScape.
Instead, Mayor Stanton is off on a misguided quest to "save" the state's defense jobs. Mesa at least is running light-rail 3 miles into downtown, but otherwise real advancement on LRT, much less commuter or intercity rail, is so slow as to be meaningless. The Gaylord "resort" collapsed in exurban Mesa — good. Glendale is in hock forever to save the Coyotes hockey team/development-con-gone-bad — good (never thought I'd find myself on the same side as the "Goldwater" Institute). Scottsdale is still rich (except for those long stretches of empty car lots on McDowell) — but who cares? The west side is getting its far loop freeway — bad news. Is this it, other than to hope for another real-estate boom?
Progress faces substantial challenges, some new, some old. The congressional delegation, Ed Pastor excepted, won't do a damned thing to bring home federal money to build a quality economy. The Legislature is anti-city, anti-science, anti-education and opposed to any real economic development besides the "What is that Smell?" state Commerce Authority. Suburbs keep cannibalizing business from the city and each other. There's no focus on the biosciences campus, the one real area of promise, and the big hospitals are happy to torpedo it. The new "takings" law puts further handcuffs on urban solutions. The city lacks a serious economic-development strategy for the city. Government revenues were vaporized. And there's the weight of so much empty land, so much inefficient sprawl, a huge underclass, the massive catch-up necessary but impossible to fund. Kook politics has cost the state dearly.
For the first time in its modern history, Phoenix is on the wrong side of where the larger economy — and society — is headed. One can argue it threw away its opportunities in the good times, but from the Great Depression until the Great Recession, Phoenix did what it set out to do: add people. Its earlier stewards also recruited good jobs, although that faded in the 1990s. But before 2007, Phoenix could do its levitation thing and year after year be at or near the top nationally in population and job growth, as well as housing starts. Any discussion that more (Anglo) people also brought costs and challenges was, ahem, unwelcome. Even if population growth continues, it will no longer be enough and its downsides will be compounded.
Now the United States is facing a brutal two-track future, and as is the case around the world it will especially manifest itself in cities and metropolitan areas, where most economic, cultural and social activity happens. All boats will not be lifted. On one side are cities with plenty of technology, trade and manufacturing assets, along with civic stewards, great downtowns, high incomes, very educated workforces and are magnets for world talent and capital.
On the other are places struggling to lift themselves out of the face-plant of the Great Recession and, on this track, ongoing low-grade (for now) depression. They might have been long savaged by private equity and bad trade deals (Dayton, Ohio), or they might have been yesterday's stars that depended on always adding more people and more houses ("you-know-who," as Reg Manning would put it). These places entered the bad times with huge problems and few assets, although this critical disadvantage might have been cloaked in some places by growthgasms, liar loans, house-flipping and dreams of a Sun Corridor (bring your own water).
Shuttling back and forth between Seattle and Phoenix is like international travel. Seattle is booming, especially downtown. Phoenix is, well, sunny. It is a stark illustration of how the new normal is setting a harsh table of winners and losers, and pulling America apart. Austin is another city on the express lane out of recession. Although nobody would claim the Texas capital is a model of good city planning, it has smart people, tech companies, edge and tons of government money. So Austin, despite all its office "parks" and sprawl, is enjoying a big downtown skyscraper surge.
What's going up in downtown Phoenix's squat little downtown skyline, much less on the vast tracts of blighted land in the Central Corridor?
The big difference is that neither Seattle nor Austin (nor San Francisco, Boston, etc) are primarily based on a real-estate hustle. They have real, advanced economies.
I'm not trying to diminish the hard work of the Resistance. But we must realize one thing: Phoenix is running out of time. Treading dust, playing small ball, making "positive" gestures and praying for another spurt of single-family tract-house building is not enough. That light at the end of the tunnel is climate change, baby.