Matt Troia M.Arch Candidate, IIT
Phoenix Rises Again: Why the American Southwest Could Once Again be a Haven for Architects Post-Recession. Very few times in history does a city get a second chance. A chance to do what it maybe should have done the first time around. A chance to enact policies and create change that will carry it forth into the future. A chance to slow down and rethink its supposed progress while redefining its future relevance. A chance that Phoenix, Arizona now has. Unfortunately, the country’s sixth largest city has the recent global financial crisis and subsequent housing meltdown to thank for this ‘opportunity’. In a region where development was ravenously devouring an acre an hour during the mid-2000’s, thousands of spec homes now sit empty in the sprawling suburban landscape and new construction has reduced to a trickle. Home prices have taken a nose-dive, and in 2009 for the first time ever, home prices in Tucson were higher than those in Phoenix. Phoenix’s population swelled 34% from 1990 to 2000 and the metropolitan area has climbed to nearly 4.2 million people as of 2010, taxing inadequate infrastructure and placing strain on the state’s precious water resources. To further complicate matters, Phoenix’s downtown area is lifeless compared to the downtown areas of other similarly-sized cities. Stroll around after a typical workday and you can hear a pin drop. The innermost areas around the urban core are nowhere near as dense as the downtown areas in other cities like Chicago, Denver, or Philadelphia. Empty and blighted lots in this area are like missing teeth in a mouth and disrupt the continuity of the urban fabric, oftentimes becoming breeding grounds for crime and poverty. Look around at any other major city and an empty lot downtown will cost an arm and a leg. Not so in Phoenix. In fact, a lot within walking distance to the centrally-located Chase Field or U.S. Airways Center is much less than a lot in north Scottsdale, some 25-plus miles away. The city truly faces a great challenge in attracting residents back to the urban core. Arizona as a whole hasn’t been doing so well either. Recent events like the passing of the controversial SB 1070 bill
targeting illegal immigration, and the shooting attack against Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and innocent bystanders in Tucson have caused some people to discount the state as a place where racism and unchecked anarchy reign still free in the ‘wild west’. The state is also facing a deficit that’s expected to widen to $4 billion by 2014, and has already cut deeply into education and public services while trying to keep its head above water. But there’s hope. Phoenix has already made some important decisions that will help it to establish a sustainable foundation as it moves forward in the 21st century. Chief among those is the $1 billion investment into the Metro light rail system. This network links the cities of Mesa and Tempe, to the west, and the north-central Phoenix area with the urban core of Phoenix. Already, the light rail has proved its popularity with Suns and Diamondbacks fans who utilize the park-n-ride stations and enjoy the convenience of not driving or paying for parking downtown. This initial 20 mile stretch of the light rail is slated for expansion further into Mesa and Phoenix to cover a total of 37 miles. For a city addicted to sprawl, the light rail is a step in the right direction. Complementing the light rail, the City of Phoenix has recently implemented several TOD (Tranist-Oriented Development) and TIF (Tax Incremental Financing) districts to properties near the transit routes which have spurred development, encouraged higher-density projects, and increased usage of the light rail. Increasing the amount of activity along the transit lines has the ability of raising sales taxes in the city, potentially alleviating a portion of the city’s current budget woes. Arizona, and Phoenix in particular, have also recently begun a strong push for solar energy in the Valley. This has attracted several large companies like ten-year-old First Solar, which already has manufacturing plants in Germany and Malaysia and offices in places like France, Spain and Belgium. Solar farms are popping up all over the city and state, which in 2010 alone installed 54 megawatts of solar generators, a 50% increase from 2009. The city that averages 85% of annual possible sunshine (compared to 54% in Chicago or 46% in Seattle) seems to finally realize the potential for solar energy. Not only does attracting these large solar companies to Phoenix bolster the city’s national and international presence, but it promises tax revenue for Phoenix and the creation of thousands of new jobs.
But what does this mean for architects? The truth of the matter is that Phoenix still has a long way to go. If the city wants to forge a sustainable future, it is going to have to learn how to accept density. No one moves to Phoenix because of the city itself. The vast majority of people who choose to live or emigrate to Phoenix do so because of its climate, outdoor recreation opportunities, wide-open spaces, and laid-back lifestyle. Attempting to impose an East Coast or European-based high-density housing typology in Phoenix will simply not do. New typologies have to be developed that balance Phoenicians’ love of space with the realities of density and collective housing principles. A few recent projects like David Hovey’s Optima CamelView Village which makes use of extensive landscaping and private outdoor space, and Will Bruder’s ‘The Vale’ multifamily development that combines retail, housing, green space, and community functions in a desert-friendly design, offer glimpses of the many forms that these typologies can take. It’s clear that new ideas are needed from fresh minds to make these future typologies effective. Phoenix also offers a chance for architects and designers to tackle the issue of urban infill in a desert environment. Those ‘missing teeth’ mentioned earlier can serve as important opportunities for architects to not only reweave the frayed urban fabric, but also to make emphatic changes in local communities. The unfortunate removal of many historic buildings in the urban core could also have a silver lining. Architects now possess a blank slate of sorts to work with when it comes to shaping and revitalizing downtown Phoenix. With an emphasis on passive systems, resource efficiency, and community engagement, the downtown area has the potential to become a model for sustainability to other cities around the country and even the world. This kind of change won’t be possible without a collaborative partnership between architects, developers, contractors, attorneys, local businesses, and policymakers among many others. Just as the built environment itself is poised for a revolution in design, the laws and cultural mores also need to be examined with a fresh set of eyes. Limits on growth need to be enacted by local governments to help reduce sprawl and protect many of the region’s unique and diverse ecosystems. Architects and designers can also push policymakers to promote mass transit ridership through higher taxes on automobiles and
the implementation of toll roads which will reduce congestion and provide an additional source of income for the cash-strapped government. While the recent financial crisis has been painful for many cities, the period between now and the full recovery is a valuable time for cities like Phoenix to step back and evaluate their future trajectories. While Phoenix is certainly not unique in its potential to benefit from this economic slowdown, it stands to gain the most. At a time when many architects and designers and pondering their roles and responsibilities in the future, America’s southwest holds several opportunities to greatly impact communities and the built environment. The choice is now in Phoenix’s court; thrive by facing the challenges head-on and build a foundation for the future, or simply try to survive and wait out the recession, keeping business as usual. One enormous choice for a once-in-a-lifetime chance.