Phoenix, Put Aside Dreams of Gotham

Appearing in:

The Arizona Republic

Now that Phoenix’s ascendancy has been at least momentarily suspended, its residents are no doubt wondering what comes next. One tendency is to say the city needs to grow up and become more like East Coast cities or Portland, Ore., with dense urban cores and well-developed rail transit. The other ready option is always inertia – a tendency to wait for things to come back the way they were.

Neither approach will work in the long run. Over the coming decade, Phoenix has to recalibrate its economy into something based on more than being a second option for Californians and speculative real-estate investment. Instead, it needs to focus laserlike on economic diversity and creating good jobs.

The model here for Phoenix is not New York or San Francisco. Phoenix can’t rival these cities for their 19th-century charm or early 20th-century infrastructure. As we would say back in New York (my hometown): fuggedaboutit.

Instead of dreaming about Gotham, Phoenix should think more about Houston. Like the Texas megacity, Phoenix is the ultimate late 20th-century town, dependent on air-conditioning, ample freeway space and a wide-open business culture.

A century away from becoming “quaint,” Phoenix needs to follow Houston’s example of relentless economic diversification: in Phoenix’s case, away from dependence on tourism and construction. Houston has done this by focusing beyond its core energy sector to fields like international trade, manufacturing and medical services.

Phoenix’s opportunities may lie elsewhere but may include some of these same industries. The idea is that the region needs to heal its job problem. Only then can the real-estate market rebound on a solid basis.

This employment focus must replace the current obsession with changing the city’s urban form. Despite the current problems, Phoenix has performed pretty well over the past decade, creating more new jobs than most Sun Belt cities, not to mention job losers like San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. Equally important, it still leads the nation over the past decade in net in-migration among the largest cities

Unfortunately, some in Phoenix still suffer horribly from Manhattan envy. One prominent Phoenix consultant describes the downtown as “the glorious goose that’s laying the gilded egg” that will turn the city into a dynamic trend-setter of a new urban paradigm. Phoenix, he opined, “won’t be a place of renown till it has the Big It.” In other words, Phoenix will not be a true metropolis until it has its own Times Square, Eiffel Tower, Space Needle or other grand attraction.

Yet in newer cities like Phoenix, the quest for the “Big It” is often delusional. In Phoenix, the vast majority of the population moved in decades after the original downtown lost its primacy. People have their own notion of what “it” is, and many times, “it” could be in a different center or in more than one center – think Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa, the Camelback Corridor, or a host of other communities.

The Valley’s $1.4 billion transit system carries barely 15,000 round trips daily – a microscopic proportion of the region’s trips – with the biggest traffic on weekends. Sounds more like Disneyland than New York.

Nor does the high-end condo, art-museum, convention-center thing seem to be working so well. Too bad the extra $1.5 billion spent sprucing up the area could not have been spent more usefully for less critical things, like police and fire, or better roads and schools.

Rather than focus on emulating the urban father figures from the past, Phoenix’s best bet lies with its best assets: being reasonably priced, professionally managed and, well, warm and lovely in December. Shedding its real-estate-obsessed cocoon, Phoenix should focus on creating jobs for both present and future residents. That’s how you can grow up and find your own way.