Annexation was intended to save Phoenix. It may end up killing it.
The roots of growing fast by annexing land go back to the 1940s. Phoenix had grown from its original half-square-mile to 9.6 square miles in 1940, with a population of 65,414. It was surrounded by agriculture and well separated from small farm towns such as Glendale, Tempe and Mesa.
But even before the old city commission was swept away by the "reformist" Charter Government Movement, leaders looked east and worried. They knew the Salt River Valley would grow, especially once World War II ended.
They saw how cities in the Midwest and east (St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, etc.) had become surrounded by incorporated suburbs that were already sucking away people and tax dollars. They, and all their successors, were determined not to repeat that mistake.
In addition, the abundant, mostly flat land of the Valley had numerous unincorporated settlements. Also, the War Department had decentralized training bases and war plants in the early 1940s — sites that could become future towns and urban nodes. Virtually none was within the city limits.
Ironically, considering the worry about white flight "back east," most of the barrios and African-American neighborhoods were also in unincorporated areas south and southeast of downtown.
Early annexation was small and piecemeal, often fought in court and the Legislature by land owners. One big battle was over absorbing the Phoenix Country Club and its surrounding neighborhoods into the city. On the pro side was a department store executive and aspiring politician named Barry Goldwater, soon to be a city councilman. Still, by 1950, when Phoenix claimed 106,818 residents, it had only expanded to around 17 square miles. This is the compact old city about which I often reflect.
Annexation took off in the 1950s and the acquired territories grew from being measured in acres to square miles. By 1960, Phoenix was 185 square miles, 439,170 people. Even South Phoenix was added.
One of the biggest annexation "victories" was successfully absorbing Sunnyslope in 1959. Although "the Slope" had begun as a rustic hideout and then a Hooverville, by the '50s, it had its own business and civic organizations, shops and restaurants on Dunlap, Hatcher and around the Five Points intersections. More affluent houses were being built, including a deed-restricted subdivision to keep out the minorities.
Of all the areas Phoenix would annex, Sunnyslope came the closest to being a real, stand-alone town. The Slope was done in by the pre-Tea Party veto voters who didn't want their taxes to rise or for government to interfere with their desert idyl. Repeated incorporation measures were defeated. Phoenix moved in.
Another coup was Maryvale, although builder John F. Long never resisted the city and indeed became a councilman. Phoenix also had a small range war with Scottsdale, which wanted to annex all the way to 40th Street, a sign of a much bigger fight to come.
Even from the start, however, annexation was problematic. It cost money to extend city services. In many cases, the subdivisions being absorbed had lower building code standards. Although Phoenix started to sell bonds in the late 1940s to cover some of these costs, it was still a relatively poor farm town.
The annexations of the 1950s also saw the coherence of the city start to fall away, even though downtown and Central Avenue remained booming. That wouldn't last. With a combination of the auto age and cheap gas, leapfrog development and malls, the city's heart would begin a long decline.
The irony: Annexation had been sold as a way to preserve the core by preventing encirclement.
By 1960s, however, the peculiar levitation act had begun, as fast population growth kept the economy thriving and the city's geographical growth seemed inspired. What's easily forgotten is that Phoenix also had a much more diverse economy than today and better paying jobs thanks to the visionary recruitment of technology and defense companies by local stewards.
The concern about encirclement continued. Starting in the 1970s, Phoenix used "strip annexation" to head off Avondale and Tolleson to the west. Thanks to a loophole in state law, a city could annex a strip as narrow as 20 feet wide; once done, another city couldn't cross it. The county still had to provide services inside the strip.
The city also continued to move north aggressively against Scottsdale. Here began what Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard called the "blood sport" of annexing to preserve tax dollars from retailers and auto dealers that kept moving farther out.
Once upon a time in the '70s, when it was a two-lane highway, Bell Road was set by planners as the absolute northern boundary of Phoenix. This was long after the city had leapt out of the Salt River Valley proper into the Paradise Valley section beyond Dreamy Draw and into Moon Valley and Deer Valley and beyond toward the Yavapai County line.
But with so much land, no sensible land-use restrictions and few natural barriers, the development continued and more annexation followed.
Providing advanced city services proved impossible, no matter the gloss of "urban villages" put on the map. The Valtrans initiative in 1989, which would have included light rail and heavy commuter rail, was voted down. Since then, most of the city has been "served" by minimal bus routes on long-wait schedules.
Other cities took their cues from Phoenix. Chandler strip annexed out Chandler Road to I-10. By a fluke, Phoenix, not Tempe, got Ahwatukee. Bell Road was left far behind. This was not the Unigov experiment of Indianapolis, merging city and county government. It was just an increasingly costly and pointless land run.
Now, at 517 square miles, few in city leadership would advocate more annexation. Phoenix stretches from the Gila River Indian Reservation to the south to Wander Lane, beyond Anthem, to the north. (Anthem, with its inferior infrastructure, will never become part of the city — and a good thing, too). A piece of the city runs as far west as the Agua Fria River. Five-hundred-seventeen square miles and little to show for it.
The treadmill to avoid encirclement ultimately didn't prevent just that, and by suburbs much more populous and powerful in the Legislature than is common elsewhere. They have taken much capital investment, many assets and affluent white flight, all of Phoenix's annexation notwithstanding. The city is left with scores of miles of automobile slums, aging badly, and the problem growing worse every year.
Size ultimately didn't trump quality.
Seattle consists of 84 square miles (609,000 people) and is a world city in its economic and cultural assets and influence. Denver, another city that far outpaces Phoenix, was banned from further annexation by a constitutional amendment in 1974 (it gained land for the new airport in the 1990s). This limitation forced Denver to build and retain a great city within its ample 153 square miles.
Sadly, Phoenix, so besotted with population growth, failed to fill in the rest. The thinking once was that it would naturally follow. Nor did the growth ultimately pay for itself, another article of faith. Huge costs remain from absorbing so much land with no means to pay for real urban infrastructure, much less deal with cheap subdivisions that have become linear slums.
As for Desert Ridge, although it attracts affluent suburbanites and cuts off Scottsdale, it is as much a burden in services and demands. Its residents have little connection to, or interest in, the city at large or downtown.
Now Buckeye claims 375 square miles for its 51,000 residents. But climate change and energy discontinuity will ensure this little farm town doesn't get the superficial boon that Phoenix enjoyed in the last half of the 20th century. It would be funny if it weren't so tragic.
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