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May 16, 2010

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Cheap growth is like crack cocaine. At first it's great. Later, it's just a desperate effort not to feel lousy. By the 1990s, the growth machine no longer required hard choices or thoughtful investments. Freeways became the core strategy. When the inevitable crash at long last arrived, freeways remained in place as the one unassailable investment. This is a strategy based on the alchemy of denial and addiction.

At some point, the recession will recede, like a snake eating its tail, at which point the Elliot Pollacks and Bob Robbs of Valley-land will declare victory in their ongoing war against limits, Portland, socialism, and Arizona's irreplaceable topography. That triumph will prove short-lived. There can be no second act in a script written in the gibberish of growth for growth's sake.

What was the real goal behind Phoenix's metastatic growth? What purpose did a city this size serve, especially one that brazenly flaunted its hubris in one act of vandalism after another?. When Ed Abbey called growth the ideology of the cancer cell, or Phoenix the blob that's eating Arizona, he wasn't just being smart at the expense of plain speaking. He was aptly describing his own horror at what was happening to the place he loved. My horror has been anesthetized by the creeping ubiquity of Fast and Cheap. There's no road back for a place that gladly settled for crap at the height of its own economic power. That's worse than simple failure. That's a self-inflicted curse.

The only real question is how quickly this growth racket will collapse into dust. The confidence game of real estate is over. People will still move here but they're likely to be bottom feeders content to find a cheap house in a warm climate. Arizona will be both depressed and charmless. Ed Abbey's dessicated carcass can finally laugh last because there's no mirth in a state this disposable.

To me, the Valley's malaise has a suppressed sub-theme: the cosmic effects of LEGAL IMMIGRATION. As Midwestern transplants moved here in droves, they brought overstuffed baggage containing deep-seated prejudices and ultra-conservative values. No doubt, these have been a major ingredient in our mindless slide to the right.

I'm remembering Morris Massey's "What You Are Now Is Where You Were When". His teachings have reminded us that we're pretty well value programmed by the time we're out on our own. Some folks evolve. Some don't. Old news, huh?

What I don't understand is where the more progressive thinkers landed in their exodus from the Corn Belt and the Rust Belt. Does anybody know? Jon has raised this question and I suggest that it deserves an answer . . if only to help us understand our demographic/psychographic shift.

Jim, the answer to where the more progressive thinkers landed can perhaps be answered by visiting local new and used book stores. I still remember my first visit to a bookstore near Berkeley. I am reasonably well-educated and have read quite a bit of literature and philosphy. I was astouned by both the quality and the esoterica I found at that Berkeley bookstore. It was a world away from Bookmans and Changing Hands.

Soleri wrote:

"At some point, the recession will recede, like a snake eating its tail, at which point the Elliot Pollacks and Bob Robbs of Valley-land will declare victory in their ongoing war against limits, Portland, socialism, and Arizona's irreplaceable topography."

I love this prose. Thanks.

Just spent the afternoon interviewing an educated Arizonan (oxymoron?) who intends to retire early to Minnesota, largely because of the stifling atmosphere here.

Nice observation about the empty freeways. It's weird to drive the 51 at 5:00 p.m. and find the same traffic load we used to see at high noon. It can't be just because 10% of Arizonans are out of work. Either lots more of us than that are unemployed and have just given up, or a lot of people have moved away from this place.

Sorry Rogue, Seattle is boycotting us, so I'm going to have to boycott you, Seattle dude.
As of today, I'm only going to read every other line that Soleri and Emil post. Two can play this game. I was going to boycott Pike Market salmon, but that would be getting a little toooo carried away. See you when the battle is over.

Perhaps the boycott over immigration policy is just a cover for the payback for Arizona for having foisted McCain - and through him, Palin - on the rest of the country? Payback's a bitch.

Az Rebel - LeeLee's oriental market has great fish & a huge selection. If you're near Chandler or Marana, try them. The vegies & fruits are excellent also.

I'm boycotting the boycotters too. Seems Rouge didn't get the word though; he was in Tucson over the weekend peddling his new book.

Thanks terry, as soon as I buy Rogue's latest book, I'm going to start a boycott on his books, at least, until he writes his next book. It's time to play hardball with these Northwest troublemakers.

I wonder whether we're missing an important distinction in discussions about "sprawl". I've been reading David Rusk's comparative urban study, "Cities Without Suburbs" (2nd ed., 1995). It's one of those rare and wonderful "academic" books (published by the Woodrow Wilson Center Press and distributed by The Johns Hopkins University Press) which is nonetheless highly accessible to the interested general reader.

Rusk's thesis revolves around the distinction between "elastic" and "inelastic" cities. Elastic cities "have large inventories of undeveloped land or are able to annex either undeveloped land or new subdivisions. They 'capture' much of suburban growth within their own municipal boundaries."

Inelastic cities, by contrast, can grow little (or not at all) "either through fill-in or annexation. They cannot compete with new suburbs in offering the desired suburban-style model for family life" (for the middle-class -- i.e., lower population density, an affordable dream house with its own yard, a quiet neighborhood, perhaps lower taxes, 'good schools' (sometimes defined in practice as schools without students from working-class minority families) and newer infrastructure).

As Rusk puts it, "elastic cities 'capture' suburban growth; inelastic cities 'contribute' to suburban growth". Rusk created five categories to measure this quality of elasticity (zero, low, medium, high, and hyper), listing 145 major central cities in 117 large metropolitan areas in an appendix. Seattle was classed as low-elasticity, and Phoenix as hyper-elastic. (I doubt that Seattle's category has changed; Phoenix, to the extent that it has been partially constricted by surrounding municipalities and incorporated suburbs, and/or to the extent to which changes in state law governing the annexation powers of cities may have altered in the last 20 years, might need to be downgraded one category -- but I genuinely don't know.)

Rusk's book, though highly progressive in tone, scarcely mentions Seattle; but recalling some of Mr. Talton's remarks about how Seattle has done well despite limited population growth, I began to wonder if we weren't looking at the problem of "sprawl" in the wrong way.

After all, one would expect a 'hyper-elastic' city like Phoenix to grow its population by expanding its municipal boundaries; whereas a low-elasticity city like Seattle would have a static or declining population (with the possible exception of Hispanic immigrants) but growing suburbs outside its municipal boundaries.

After doing a bit of Internet research, I discovered that there are three fundamental ways of thinking about local growth: (a) in terms of the municipal boundary of a city-proper; (b) in terms of the "urban area" (understood as an area of continuous urban development including and surrounding, but connected continuously to, a central city); (c) a metropolitan area, which is larger than the urban area because it includes non-contiguous municipalities as well as undeveloped/rural areas bridging/surrounding them.

For the purpose of discussing "sprawl" the concept of an urban area would seem best suited. This is because simple city boundaries are misleading and artificially limited for inelastic cities with suburbs (e.g., Seattle); and because "metropolitan areas" are statistical constructs which include large undeveloped/rural areas and non-contiguous municipalities.

I decided to investigate and compare Phoenix and Seattle "urban areas" of continuous urban development. I found some information based on the decennial U.S. census (in progress for 2010, most recently completed for 2000).

The results are surprising. The Phoenix urban area had a population of 2.9 million; that of Seattle 2.7 million -- quite comparable. The land area of the Phoenix urban area was 799 square-miles; that of Seattle a significantly larger 954 square-miles. That gives the Phoenix urban area (circa 2000) a population density of 3,630 per square-mile; that of Seattle 2,830 per square-mile. In other words, the Phoenix urban area, at least in 2000, was significantly MORE compact than that of Seattle.

http://demographia.com/db-ua2000pop.htm

(Note that slight differences in figures are due to rounding errors between census/website/my numbers.)

Rusk points out that nearly all growth since 1950 has been "suburban-style, low-density development emphasizing detached, single-family homes". So "sprawl" has been a nearly universal feature of the American landscape. For major cities it's simply a question of to what extent the sprawl has been "captured" within municipal boundaries, and to what extent it has filled geographically continuous but politically separate suburbs.

Obviously, Phoenix's festival of sprawl (paraphrasing Mr. Talton) in the early to mid 2000s may alter these figures: but the essential point remains the same.

Another point to be considered are fundamental economic changes since the date of publication. These include: (a) continued (increased) Hispanic immigration until recently (the Great Recession) -- a trend explicitly remarked upon by Rusk but accelerated since then; (b) recent increases in the price of oil/gasoline and consequent decreases in driving, with altered economic incentives for commuting by auto (though some of the migration to the suburbs was to live closer to new suburban employment); (c) the increase in American "deindustrialization" (incorporated into the book but since accelerated and including additional but related trends such as the outsourcing of white-collar jobs via telephone call-centers and the Internet).

The Rusk thesis is a kind of head nod to realism given Sun Belt growth patterns since WWII. Take smallish cities circa 1950, explode their size with autocentric growth, and then analyze the best ways to maintain their tax bases and urban cores. Unsurprisingly, a city like Albuquerque (where Rusk was mayor) fares well because it annexed its suburban growth, thus sparing itself the pain of of fleeing sales tax dollars and reduced revenue sharing funds. If only Phoenix were so lucky!

All this assumes that there were no other options available, that Portland's example was sui generis or simply too controversial. But even within the limitations of Rusk's argument, we can spot other problems. Seattle and Denvier, which have comparable metropolitan areas (meaning parasitical suburbs and sprawl) also have vibrant urban cores. Phoenix does not, so even tightly-packed suburbs really don't redress our obvious failure to transcend autocentric development and nurture some stray urban energies. The lack of a strong CBD and a downtown business elite is not a coincidence.

A comparative economic survey will also show Denver and Seattle weathering The Great Recession much better than Phoenix. Some of this is simply the success of success. The rich get richer! Both cities had much more diversified economies whereas Phoenix became disproportionately dependent on Growth itself. We neither nurtured smart-growth policies or creative-class endeavors. Fat, dumb, and happy is a no-brainer when the going is good but forlorn and hapless when the good turns south.

Sprawl is inherently expensive and, I suspect, an artifact of a cheap-energy past whose power will decline as we enter more straitened circumstances. Suburbs are here to stay but I suspect there's not going to the kind of explosive growth on the fringes that we've seen over the past 60 years.

Phoenix and Albuquerque did have overlapping civic strategies. Aggressive annexation policies kept Phoenix growing during the boom years. But the intensity of the boom eventually left Phoenix in the dust. Once the inevitable crash came, there was no real fallback strategy since we had mortgaged every other possibility for the sake of metastatic growth.

Talton predicted all of this. There's no reason to hold your tongue in the I-told-you-so department. I say let it rip and rip loudly.

Thanks for that feedback, Soleri.

Rusk does laud Portland's "home rule" charter: following a review of its features and differences, he concludes: "After decades of patient development, Portland Metro is a model structure for multicounty regional governance."

In the second edition, he also develops suggestions for how "four decades of our national suburban policy can be amended to reverse the trends toward fragmentation of government, urban sprawl, and growing racial and economic isolation of inner-city residents *without* requiring new money."

First, encourage formation of metropolitan area governments through tax policy. Rusk outlines revisions to federal taxable income, specifically the federal income tax deduction for state and local income taxes and property taxes, revising the guaranteed 100 percent deductible to reward the empowerment of countywide governments. (He also specifies a variety of actions and policies at the state level which.)

Second, he suggests that since (at the time) federal highway funds and sewage treatment grants are 90 percent of the total funds share, thus making sprawl-oriented infrastructure vitually free for state and local governments, ending such subsidies would tame the sprawl beast.

Third, he suggests some changes to the capital gains tax on home sales to reward (or at least not penalize) those who move inward rather than outward; but I'm not sure I buy his arguments on this one; and in many cases limited space in the city core makes outward expansion a necessity with population growth over time.

Fourth, he suggests the elimination of housing projects and the substitution of "fair share" housing policies (supported by planning and zoning policies) that require most city areas to incorporate low and moderate-income housing, as well as "housing assistance policies to disperse low-income families to small-unit, scattered-site housing projects and to rent-subsidized private rental housing throughout a diversified metro housing market".

Fifth, he suggests "tax-sharing arrangements that will offset tax-base disparities between the central city and its suburbs".

Much of this depends on a strong, metropolitan form of governance, but Rusk admits the political difficulty of this. He gives a number of detailed examples from the real-world to show how these policies can work, and tells what kind of laws and policies state governments need to enact to accomplish these things.

As for Albuquerque specifically, Phoenix could learn a lot. From the book:

As mayor of Albuquerque, I had many meetings with national corporations that were considering Albuquerque as a location for business expansion. What business was looking for was not cheap, non-union labor. What business valued -- and what we successfully sold them -- was a total community package:

* An available labor force, reasonably prepared, very trainable, highly motivated, and with minimal racial and class antagonisms;

* A decent public school system (in Albuquerque's case, a metrowide system, whose operations are financed by state government, and whose capital construction is financed by a metrowide property tax levy);

* A respectable state university and a superb, business-oriented technical-vocational institute (also funded by the state and by a metrowide tax levy);

* Available, reasonably-priced land, industrial bond financing (which almost all states now authorize), good transportation networks, and excellent energy supplies;

* A highly competent city government, adequately financed at moderate [not low!] tax rates, with a tax base covering 80 percent of all residential property and 90 percent of all commercial and industrial property in the metro area.

Mr. Talton,

I enjoyed your interview this week on KJZZ, but thought too late to call in and ask your reactions to Greg Palast's recent observation that 1070 actually had little to do with racism:

http://www.truthout.org/behind-the-arizona-immigration-law-gop-game-to-swipe-the-november-election58877

Instead, Palast argues, the measure has the latex-obscured fingerprints of the old favorites, Karl Rove and Grover Norquist -- both of whom have consulted with the Kookacracy -- all over it.

It actually is, he says, a voter-surpression measure, akin to voter caging and Ken Blackwell's notorious specifications for official ballots.

It's purpose is shock and awe, to scare the beejeebers out of the growing number of Arizonana of Hispanic/Chicano heritage -- intimidating them from showing up at the polls and voting in their own best interests.

What do you think?

George,

Palast makes a valuable contribution by documenting Brewer's dismal partisan record as secretary of state. However, I don't see how the voter suppression can be separated from racism. This is why I keep likening 1070 to the Jim Crow laws. The sentiment behind it and a raft of laws and policies is anti-Hispanic. And it is meant, as I have written, to help intimidate even legal Hispanic citizens.

Remember, Rove's game is merely warmed-over Southern Strategy, which Republicans used for years to lure frightened whites after the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed. "No racism here," they all said, even as Reagan opened his presidential campaign at the site of a horrific civil-rights era murder with nary a mention of the crime, but a call for "states' rights." It's all code, but the target audience gets it.

Hispanics are not inherently "liberal." Probably quite the contrary. But despite the (perhaps) good intentions of George W. Bush, the GOP can't embrace this largest minority. Why is that? Prejudice (racism) is a big part. The white-right has a visceral reaction against people of color. The "pragmatists" say, "why bother," because minorities will see the post-Dirksen GOP's dismal record on civil rights, and the party's general hatred of government, including the good it could do in providing quality public education and opportunity. Instead, catering to the white-right and the fears and grievances of millions more caught in the Great Recession is more profitable.

Arizona is only the most blatant example. Just as Rand Paul blurted out what most of today's Republicans actually believe but won't say publicly.

You might be wondering how one can require developers to include low to moderate income housing without giving them cash subsidies or tax breaks. One method is to give them density variances on those (or other) properties which allows them to build more units (e.g., apartments) by way of compensation.

Rusk's book gives an interesting example of several of the points above in a brief section (text box) on the wealthy Maryland (suburban D.C.) county of Montgomery. From the book:

Montgomery County, Maryland, is an outstanding example of the progress toward social and economic integration that can be achieved by a unified local government with both the authority and the political will to pursue such goals.

A wealthy suburban county outside Washington, D.C., Montgomery County grew from 164,401 residents in 1950 to 757,027 in 1990, surpassing the nation's capital. The area was a prime candidate for typical suburban balkanization. It did not happen for two reasons.

First, under Maryland state law, the county maintains a single, unified, countywide school system. With 117,068 students in 1994-5, the Montgomery County public school system is among one of the nation's twenty largest schools -- and clearly one of the best.

Second, in a far-sighted action the Maryland legislature in 1927 (revised in 1939) set up the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and gave the Montgomery County government exclusive planning and zoning control throughout the county. This legislative action created a "big enough canvas to work on," Richard Tustian, long-time county planner, once told me. This led to perhaps the nation's most comprehensive growth management system.

Most remarkable is the county's Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit Ordinance. First adopted in 1973, the policy requires builders of 50 or more residential units to set aside 15 percent of the units for low- and moderate-income tenants or buyers. To compensate developers for providing housing below market prices, the county allows a density increase or "MPDU bonus" of up to 22 percent above the normal density for the zone. By 1994 more than 9,000 housing units had been created under the policy.

Both buyers and renters are subject to maximum income limits set by the County Department of Housing and Community Development. Rent limits are controlled for 20 years. Sale and resale prices for MPDUs are controlled for 10 years, and a portion of resale profits is recaptured by the county's revolving Housing Initiative Fund.

MPDUs are sold to individual purchasers. One-third, however, may be purchased by the county public housing authority or by non-profit organizations for rent to public housing eligible households.

The MPDU program has helped the county accomodate -- and even encouraged -- a remarkable social transformation. In 1970 Montgomery County had the look of a classic suburb -- wealthy and White (92 percent). By 1990 Montgomery County had a "rainbow" look -- 12 percent Black, 7 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian. Although Montgomery County is one of the country's richest urban counties, it also has a rich diversity of income groups.

Montgomery County's critics can point to unresolved social problems. But through the decades the Montgomery County government and Montgomery County public schools have demonstrated the ability of broad-based governments to resist the short-term, exclusive "Not-in-my-backyard" syndrome and to act in the long-term interest of the larger community.

Mr. Talton wrote:

"While median family income rose only slightly in Seattle from 2000 to 2008, it actually fell in Phoenix by 6.2 percent."

First, a technical quibble. It's median household income, not median family income. That includes single adults living alone and other arrangements, as well as families.

Second, I'd feel a lot more confident in the conclusions here (about how Phoenix was doing before the Great Recession) if the data ran from 2000 to 2006 so as to avoid including the results of the recession. This is because Phoenix's economy was based on housing development and the associated retail sectors depending upon it, much more than some areas, and it's important to know how much of the decrease in median income occurred as a consequence of the recession.

Third, note that the U.S. as a whole experienced a decline of 4.1 percent in median household income according to Brookings (figure 1, p. 134 of the pdf).

http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/Programs/Metro/state_of_metro_america/metro_america_report.pdf

So, while it's great that Seattle and a few other areas did well (and we should study them to see what they're doing right, and emulate where feasible and applicable), the problem is wider than just poor vision by Phoenix area political administrators.

Fourth, there's something screwed up about these numbers. They purport to be city numbers, but when one checks the Brookings rank listing in the interactive map one sees that they are something considerable wider, listed as "Seattle, Tacoma, and Bellevue" (rank #13) and "Phoenix, Mesa, and Scottsdale" (rank #50).

http://www.brookings.edu/metro/StateOfMetroAmerica/Map.aspx#/?subject=8&ind=76&dist=2&data=Percent&year=2008&geo=city&zoom=5&x=207&y=684

Yet, it's apparently not for the Seattle and Phoenix Metropolitan Statistical areas either because those are shown as changing 0.2 and -2.6 percent respectively from 2000 to 2008. Perhaps they are urban area numbers?

Furthermore, while the Brookings data cites the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the Phoenix city median household income in 2008 was $49,933 (not $52,747 as shown at Brookings) in 2008 inflation adjusted dollars, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's ACS.

http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/STTable?_bm=y&-qr_name=ACS_2008_3YR_G00_S1903&-geo_id=31200US380600455000&-context=st&-ds_name=ACS_2008_3YR_G00_&-tree_id=3308&-_lang=en&-format=&-CONTEXT=st

This brings us to another problem in interpreting data: when incomes across a range of years are compared, what kind of dollars are being used? Presumably in the case of real income, adjusted for inflation: but what is the base year used? Brookings says that all figures are expressed in 2008 dollars, so the mystery continues: where is it getting these numbers from?

I've been pulling my hair out for the last two hours trying to get hold of U.S. Census bureau ACS Table B19013 (which Brookings cites) for city median household incomes for the years 2000 through 2008. Both Google and the U.S. Census Bureau website are maddening. If anyone can pull these up, please do so and provide links.

P.S. Even if I had those ACS tables, the income data from each year would still have to be adjusted for inflation and expressed in 2008 dollars. So let me ask you: does anyone know if the Census Bureau has an online document showing city median household income for the period in question, with incomes expressed in 2008 dollars?

Great article.

The jim crow parallel is spot on. Have you heard about the film '9500 Liberty'? the same group that wrote the anti-immigration bill in 2007 is also behind the arizona bill. I did a little write up here:
http://desertstandard.com/2010/05/06/fear-politics-and-hate-sb-1070-is-a-repeat-it-can-be-beat/

It is amazing how easily the public's tempers and fears can be prayed upon so that they stop worrying about issues that need to be addressed.

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