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November 03, 2015


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The university that never happened, like the dog that didn't bark, tells us how the mystery unfolded. Phoenix, unlike Los Angeles didn't have a balmy Mediterranean climate, an ocean coast, and seductive allure that attracted wealth and benefactors, all of which contributed to the founding of its universities. Instead of a major research university the Salt River Valley had Tempe Normal School that only later became a major university. ASU today is credible and competitive but it didn't quite transition to an economic driver like older, more established schools. The subtext is just as important: older universities leaven their communities, making them more cosmopolitan and liberal. Tucson, for example. ASU, late to the show, couldn't do that for its much larger region although Tempe itself has benefited.

Seattle is much more dynamic than Portland for this reason. Like ASU, Portland State University was created in the 1950s. Today, its enrollment makes it the biggest university in Oregon but apart from its urban-planning department, it doesn't attract top-notch students and scholars. Oregon State in Corvallis is the state's main tech school, but it only graduates about 100 computer engineers per year. This means Portland is dependent on attracting outside talent (read: Californians) to make its software start-ups viable. Hipsters would just as soon they stay home but Portland is a better city because of these techies.

Boosters make their arguments with smiles and enthusiasm, so it's not surprising that Arizona is seemingly content to be economic backwater. Look at that golf course! It's January and 75 degrees outside! I'm not sure if there's any realistic economic plan that Arizona could adopt this late in the game anyway. Understandably, economic development arguments are dependent on circular reasoning, sort of like the epistemic closure that defines the state's politics. You work with the economy you have, not the one you wish you had. I've seen a lot of a brave and enthusiastic people descend on Phoenix hoping to make it a better and more vibrant place. When they finally leave, I'm sure they're ruefully wiser for everything they learned about the state's oddly passive leadership.

"There's land. More land than brains.."

That's why we'll fund schools with more state land trust sales, right?

Soleri makes some good points about the Universities. And I do think that's why the success of Portland is so remarkable, because the city and the entire state are relatively bereft in quantity/quality of education, perhaps somewhat like Arizona. I think it shows the power of building a brand, a culture, that attracts people, e.g. all the young people who take less money and work lesser jobs than they're qualified for so they can live in a "hip" place like Portland.

Other examples than Los Angeles' great universities which Rogue wrote about include Stanford and Cal (and a number of other universities in the area that don't get much credit) and the economy of not only Silicon Valley but the greater Bay Area.

Certainly the Ivy League and the countless other quality, long-standing schools in the northeast have done an awful lot to imbue the entire northeastern seaboard with quite a lot of economic stimuli and talented local workers. I think Northwestern, U. Chicago and U. Illinois have a solid impact on Chicago as well, although maybe not to the same extent since a lot of the Midwest could be seen as feeding into Chicago in terms of some of the talent migration from more rural states/cities/schools, to the major metro. E.g., there are a lot of graduates from, say, U. of Iowa that end up in Chicago.

I think the irony if there is one would be that the land is the economy, yet the land (the geography of our situation) holds back our economic development, because we don't have a sea coast, a port, a natural feeder system of talent funneling regional talents and businesses to us naturally. Instead, we have to go out there and fight for businesses and investments against the Austins of the world that also lack tremendous geographic advantages. Unfortunately, Austin would be winning in the cool/hip factor as well as the quality of the local university, but I kind of assume over time as Austin grows and grows...can it sustain that flavor people seem to love or will that fade?

No one ever talks about San Antonio but that's another booming Texas city, maybe we can learn some lessons from them, too.

Mark, I know a couple of academics who retired from Austin to Portland. They say the "cool" factor there is very overrated and that Austin's suburban-like character is really a major strike against it. But the university is clearly a big plus for it, along with the music scene the hipsters inculcated.

I did some of my military duty in San Antonio way back when and I thought the city was almost enchanting. It looked and felt much older than other sunbelt cities. The River Walk downtown is incredibly lovely, and the Hispanic character gave it some exotic flavoring. That Texas has low housing costs is a mixed blessing. Like Arizona, the state has more land than brains. Fortunately (or not...) it also has oil.

Land is clearly a double-edged sword in Phoenix. Yes, it's the economy but the lack of planning, good architecture, environmental sensitivity, and complete car dependence means the city and state lose mystique and livability as time goes on. It would be one thing if Arizonans actually loved their state enough to put some growth limits in place. But, as we see over and over, love really has nothing to do with an economy that functions like a serial rapist in a convent. So, even as Arizona relentlessly chews up its capital to make a quick buck, it can't imagine a future where people might ultimately reject its shortsighted trade-offs. All the brave talk about the free market is merely a brazen excuse to justify a free-for-all for the purpose of making some rich people even richer. Once Arizona is degraded to the point it has no allure left to sell, the rich will decamp with their money to Santa Barbara or La Jolla and live the good life. Of course it helps to do it in places smart enough to protect their best assets against the kind of pillaging that is ruining Arizona.

If anyone thinks the hipster scene is a sustainable way to attract talent, please slap some sense into them.

Scott, the hipster scene is an inevitable byproduct of the arts & culture scene; the hipper a place is to "be seen in," the more people there are trying to be mistaken for poets with dark and tortured souls.
I don't have any explanation for why trust-funders think they should drink that Pabst Blue Ribbon, though, that one just beats the hell out of me.

Well, Jon, the reality is we as a country resemble the economy of Phoenix. We don't make much, we distribute it for pennies, and we are extracting our former wealth and selling it for pennies on the world market. We allow the poor of the world to come here and outcompete our own poor, driving down wages, and then we wonder at the system.

Lol. We bought free market capitalism from the British, and look what long term benefits they got from it.

I call it the boom town mirage. Drive prices higher, and get out before the crash, then buy cheap. Lather, rinse, repeat.

In reality, most of them lose, but we venerate the winners. Long term gains actually work better, but humans are programmed to be mostly short run thinkers.

The really funny part is the relentless drive to lower taxes as part of competition to get more business. Lol. We should be grateful enough rubes from the midwest and california think our cheap houses, cheap food, and relatively cheap utilities are a bargain.

Bargain shoppers, welcome to the land of retirement. I think we are just beginning to recognize the immense impact of the retiring boomers- and what that is going to do to our country.

The hipsters never are going to be a significant part of Phoenix, in spite of the University influence, because the market here is driven by old. Period.

I look at my block in a 30 year old neighborhood, and it is old. Two widows next door, the new folks who just moved down from SLC are in their 50s, retired couple across the street, new older couple just moved in, the young folks with kids live down at the bottom of the hill- they are the exceptions. Few of them.

But what of the economy? Scottsdale is half scam, and half rich wastrels, along with some real economy stuff.

I see older office buildings all with the for lease signs out front, and new ones too.

But now, with the virtual office (lol, work from home), driving down the demand for office space long term, one begins to wonder at the need for that space. Slow 1% growth in population has very low needs, so CRE is either fill, or cannibalistic.

The only hope is that we get colonized by silly con valley, but they would rather fly to China or India- not enough bright cheap talent here.

So our Universities export quite a bit of our talented grads. Brain drain.

The inevitable conclusion is we are going to be a backchannel state, one following on the crumbs of California and the midwest.

And that is the reality of what we have been since 1970. The few big plants were good for a small base, but the majority of the people were still engaged in the business of being old.

And now the biggest retirement wave in history has just kicked off with a giant recession.


In short, we live in an extract driven economy, and Phoenix has been the metaphorical end of the line for a long time. The Ag heyday you remember was in reality a long decline as cheaper places sucked out the ag producers- they left because cities are too expensive in terms of taxes and labor- and the big land cash in allows them to get bigger out in the hinterlands.

Great comments, especially from Soleri, Concern Troll and Ex-Phx Planner. Thanks.

Great post. The city of Phoenix government also viewed land as the primary economic development program and, unfortunately, continues this philosophy although to a slightly lesser degree. The narrow focus on increasing the tax base was the driving force behind planning and municipal management decisions, beginning with the fear of white flight draining the tax base that prompted Phoenix’s massive annexation campaign that led to the current, unsustainable 520 square mile city.
This economic strategy, called “fiscalized land use policy” in professional jargon, is the single biggest policy mistake Phoenix leaders have ever, will ever, and continue to make. The billion dollar South Mountain freeway is a continuation of this thinking: annex and pave over the remaining prime farmland in Laveen so more tax-paying Phoenix sprawl can feed city coffers. What no one is talking about is that Phoenix’s structural budget problem is not “employee pensions”, but simply the massive infrastructure liability (with the corresponding massive city staff liability) combined with a poorly performing sprawl tax base. That unsustainability many warned of, and nearly every Phoenix leader ignored, is now not being sustained.

I can't think of any examples of cities in Arizona that disincorporated, and I know it is very rare. Speaking hypothetically, though, might decreasing in size or somehow splitting up the city of Phoenix result in more nimble and capable communities, versus the current Colossus standing astride the entire Valley from north of Anthem to the edge of the Gila River Reservation?

I think of this because of previous posts and discussions on RC about how downtown Phoenix and the Desert Ridge/Deer Valley area have so little in common in terms of goals and planning. And that just makes Phoenix's job so much more challenging than a smaller city where you could have a clearer, simpler idea of what you want and what you want to do. There is no single vision that works for a 520-square-mile city.

I just wonder if there is a way to accomplish it, or if everyone would get so tied up in bickering about where the dividing lines would be that it could never happen if an attempt was made to explore it.

Mark: deannexation is technically possible - Ahwatukee to Chandler/Tempe and North Phoenix to Scottsdale/PV would make some sense; however, such a scenario is unlikely due to the complexities.

I don't really think there is a “solution” to Phoenix’s sustainability problem at this point - the best that can be hoped for is to stop worsening the problem and try to mitigate as much as possible.

One problem is the Council-Manager form of government. I was skeptical of those who made this argument but now I’m a firm believer that having a weak Mayor is indeed a major hindrance on progress. The city has some great bean counters (we have a AA+ bond rating!) but not many visionary leaders that are pushing for policies in the city’s long term strategic interest. A good bond rating is irrelevant if you can’t actually issue any bonds because your economy hasn’t produced any bonding capacity.

If amending the City Charter to create a Strong Mayor system isn’t feasible, a less difficult change could be to make the City Manager appointed by the Mayor instead of the full Council. This would help enable more strategic, geographic prioritization of city investments instead of what has been done both historically and currently: an even “spread the peanut butter” across the entire city approach to the budget.

I'm loving Ex Phx Planner's comments.

It seemed to me that the "strategic choice" Phoenix made to annex its way out of the problem of being an older city in a booming region made the original problem its defining characteristic. That is, once you give up on a truly galvanizing core in the center, there's nothing left to do but milk the sales' tax revenue on the fringes. It would have been one thing if the city had better bones so a genuine renaissance might eventually happen. But the no-limits growth machine exposed how delusional that faint hope was. Even in the 1950s, Phoenix looked like it had cancer, with vast stretches of the city appearing disconnected from any urban pulse. Organic growth couldn't occur once zoning itself became a high-stakes hustle for land flippers. As time went on, Phoenix actually shed urban fabric even as it added population.

The temptation now is just to fake it well enough that people don't really notice how fundamentally weak the central core is. Light rail, new apartment complexes, and a few historic neighborhoods help disguise that fact but it will likely always be an issue going forward. The original strategy is Phoenix's original sin. Once you lock into the suburban paradigm, escape becomes impossible.

Soleri and Mark in Scottsdale,

The Arizona University System needs to be restructured as indicated by my website:


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