A Relatively Brief History of Development in Phoenix

Phoenix skyline featuring downtown and midtown “skyscrapers”

Phoenix skyline featuring downtown and midtown “skyscrapers”

Brookelynn, here!

I manage the For(u)m initiative at Local First Arizona; my official title is Community Planning Manager. For(u)m’s mission is to promote the growth of civic engagement and pride around thoughtful, sustainable, walkable, and inclusive infill development in the Phoenix metro area, with a particular focus on the Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa urban cores. We’re a membership-based group, but you don’t have to own a business in the development industry to join; individuals can join the movement through our localist program (which you should do as soon as you’re done reading this).

I’ve lived in Phoenix my entire life. From growing up around Paradise Valley Mall to attending college at ASU, the valley’s been my one and only home for about a quarter century. This being a “city of transplants,” I know I’m in the minority as an Arizona native, but it helps a whole lot when discussing the evolution of Phoenix, particularly since the introduction of the light rail and development of ASU’s satellite campuses. I remember when Roosevelt Row was mostly vacant lots, a few galleries, and a local coffee shop, Jobot - a much different look and feel from what exists today.

A lot of people ask me why we have the type of development we do, particularly in the downtown core. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I wanted to provide a bit of background on the development of metro Phoenix, and what For(u)m plans to do moving forward.


Let’s Take It From the Top

We all know that Phoenix is a relatively young city. By 1930, while Denver, one of the closest “big” cities, had a population of about 288,000; Phoenix had just over 48,000 residents. To be fair, Arizona didn’t establish statehood until after the second industrial revolution which was a critical time for urban development. During this “golden age of city building,” cities in the North East became meccas of gothic revival, late victorian, and art deco architectural marvels; they had the population and capital to support that kind of development before the Great Depression and World War II completely changed the landscape of the nation. Phoenix saw a few of these buildings go up (Luhrs Tower and the Professional Building to name a couple), but given our size, we were capital poor and short on labor. Additionally, our massive amounts of land and burgeoning sprawl dispersed development, and density never became part of our building culture. We’ve since outpaced Denver and other major metros like it (that’ll be important later in this brief), but we didn’t have the opportunity to build great bones.

As with the rest of the country, the Great Depression and World War II halted most development. From too little capital in the 1930’s to too little material in the 1940’s, urban development was hardly possible. During this time, Phoenix’s major industry was agriculture, and much of the business around it was concentrated in downtown Phoenix. The Sante Fe and Union Pacific railroads serviced the produce warehouses just south of the downtown core, which was a bustling commercial and governmental center. Because Phoenix was so young at the onset of these timeframes, our downtown core didn’t have the framework of older, larger cities, but the concentration of activity in the region made it a typical downtown in a small city. Despite the lack of traditional downtown skyscrapers, the core was dense, had mixed primary uses, and was serviced by a reliable and well-loved streetcar that was able to accommodate much of the population despite its small geographical footprint.

Downtown Phoenix in 1958, photo courtesy of Jon Talton

Downtown Phoenix in 1958, photo courtesy of Jon Talton

Downtown Phoenix in the 1960’s, photo courtesy of Jon Talton

Downtown Phoenix in the 1960’s, photo courtesy of Jon Talton

Now, let’s take a look at post-World War II expansion and the Baby Boomer boom.

It’s easy to forget that Phoenix was, for quite a while after settlement, the Wild West. That is, until you look into the Phoenix 40. The Phoenix 40 was small, exclusionary group of elite businessmen who virtually controlled the political and economic scene statewide through generous financial support and favorable media exposure for the politicians they handpicked. Because many of those in the Phoenix 40 were land owners or investors, they had quite a bit of interest in increased development, giving Phoenix a “pro-growth” bias that has persisted through today. Servicemen, having fallen in love with the valley while training here, wanted to move back after the war and could easily do so with the massive city boundary expansion that was happening. By 1950, Phoenix entered the list of the 100 most populous cities, at No. 99, with 106,818 residents in 17 square miles. Unfortunately, as our population was booming, our urbanism was shrinking. That well-loved street car? Torn out in 1948.

Between 1950 and 1960, Phoenix saw massive growth throughout the built environment. The city was developer-friendly, automobile-centric, and air conditioning could be found in just about every building. In this decade, the city’s population quadrupled to 439,000 as its land area soared from 17 to 190 square miles (catching up to Denver pretty quickly, see?).

The city began to sprawl out with an influx of single-family structures, moving middle and upper-middle class families out of the downtown core. This contributed to their former neighborhoods falling into disrepair as commercial corridors continued to expand around them. Phoenix’s economy was beginning to look more like the National mix, moving away from majority-agriculture and gaining traction in manufacturing, services, and retail. Because of the lobbying power of the Phoenix 40, the city began approving skyscrapers outside of the downtown core, resulting in a split commercial district: government and legal services largely staying downtown while financial institutions and marketing and design firms moved north of McDowell Road.

In response to this geographical sprawl and the increased popularity of the automobile, traffic engineers and planners wanted to widen streets and prioritize parking for commercial developments. So, rather than storefronts up to sidewalks, parking lots would be placed in front of the store (before, they’d be behind). All of these planning and development decisions, setting the stage for policy shifts as well, would set a precedent for decades to come: Phoenix streets were for cars; dense, walkable neighborhoods became a thing of the past; and big (often out of state) developers were king.

1970’s Phoenix, photo courtesy of Jon Talton

1970’s Phoenix, photo courtesy of Jon Talton

Moving into the 1970’s,

We begin to see the baby boomers move out on their own, start families, and build out their neighborhoods as far as the eye could see. These were not only young adults coming of age in the valley, but massive influxes of out-of-towners moving to the city in search of a favorable climate, affordable property, and job opportunities. Because the income of these young newcomers was low, relative to the Phoenix-area median, many of the homes being built were inexpensive and on small lots, but this trend would quickly shift to larger, more expensive homes being built as boomers aged into them.

In an effort to manage this growth, the city of Phoenix established 15 “urban villages” which would be empowered to establish their own cores. Things didn’t quite pan out this way, and instead pulled residents further from the original downtown. Even within the core, the car-centric lifestyle and concentrated power of a few developers was proving problematic. Some of the most beautiful buildings downtown (such as the Fox Theatre) were being razed to make way for brutalist civic centers and massive parking garages. If you’re noticing a pattern, you’re right: the sprawl we see in the valley was not just city sanctioned, it was essentially facilitated by various planning and development policies that are proving quite difficult to reverse.

While the economy was beginning to reflect the national mix, Phoenix’s reliance on construction as an employment sector made boom and bust cycles a little more severe. The young professionals that migrated here during downturns would leave when they no longer had a job or reliable prospects. This pattern resulted in a culture of impermanence, lack of community involvement, and few long-term or lifelong residents of the valley. Power remained with the elite few (though no longer the full Phoenix 40) and private interests could get away with just about anything.

Enter: Terry Goddard.

Until the election of Terry Goddard as mayor of Phoenix in 1984, there was a massive lack of smart growth leadership in the city of Phoenix. We've covered a few of the factors that contributed to this, but imagine by this time the city was sprawled, downtown was a proverbial wasteland, and public transit was criminally underutilized. Previous mayors had supported the policies lobbied for by the Phoenix 40 and their successors. Goddard was urbanism-minded, transit supportive, and understood the negative effects of private interests wielding so much power.

This new leadership signaled a shift in downtown Phoenix, encouraging several artists to relocate to the warehouse district to open galleries and studios. With their newfound sense of place and momentum, the artist community began efforts that would prove successful to save and protect the Roosevelt, Willo, and F. Q. Story historic neighborhoods. The city was still sprawling, but had a new vision to return the downtown core to a mixed-use, walkable space that could support real density. In 1990, a Business Improvement District (BID) was established in the downtown core to be managed by the Downtown Phoenix Partnership. The area saw significant reinvestment through 2005, culminating in the development of light rail and ASU’s downtown campus. Still, developers were able to combine several parcels of land (lot assemblages), creating monolithic structures and superblocks that feel cold and inhumane.


Crystal Point Towers on 10th St. and Osborn Rd. in Phoenix, AZ.

Crystal Point Towers on 10th St. and Osborn Rd. in Phoenix, AZ.

Quick note: vertical sprawl.

While the city moves toward “true urbanism” and emphasizes dense, mixed use developments in the core, it’s important to note the difference between tall buildings and smart urbanism.

The Possible, a digital and print magazine focused on improving the evolution of cities, published a study on rapid urbanization. A key takeaway is the value of thoughtful planning. When buildings are allowed to go up wherever, and there’s no true vision behind the development of the city as whole, city’s likely encounter vertical sprawl.

You can have vertical sprawl... If it’s all high-rise city, if it’s not linked to transport networks, if we haven’t learnt to mix uses and create places that feel humane, then that’s going to be a problem. Planning can get sacrificed because it’s all happening so quickly.
— Andy Altman, Fivesquares Development

The Great Recession to Today

Phoenix suburbs.

Phoenix suburbs.

Despite the downtown revitalization,

Suburban development was hot well into the 2000’s. Fringe land was significantly cheaper to build on, just about every family had at least one car, and young professionals could be living in Glendale and working in Tempe (both considered Phoenix metro). Leading up to the stock market collapse in 2008, banks would lend to just about anyone, and construction of new homes could hardly keep up with demand.

Thankfully, this trend didn’t stop the city from investing in public transit infrastructure. In 2000, a regional transit plan was approved, allocating a .5 percent sales tax to fund the development of a light rail system that would connect the Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa urban cores. Construction started in 2005, and the rail was operational by 2008. In a similar time frame, ASU and U of A relocated some of their programs to new campuses in the downtown core, a move which further increased the population density of the core. These would prove to be the most impactful changes to downtown Phoenix since Goddard’s tenure.

With preferred transit options, increased educational amenities, and leadership from the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, Phoenix proper’s core was getting the love, attention, and recognition it needed to build momentum that would last beyond the Great Recession.

When the market crashed, new home builds decreased dramatically, and a lifestyle shift for many began.

Roosevelt, in downtown Phoenix, AZ.

Roosevelt, in downtown Phoenix, AZ.

Nationally, Since recovering from the Great recession,

Union @ Roosevelt in Phoenix, AZ.

Union @ Roosevelt in Phoenix, AZ.

The trend we’ve been seeing is migration from suburbs into city centers, and Phoenix is no exception. As our economy shifts, so too must our dwelling habits. Those employed in city centers tend to want to live in relatively close proximity to their jobs, or at least close to transit options that can get them to and from work. Because of our massive freeway systems and grid network of streets that are really more like mini-freeways, Phoenix has seen a slower shift. Where urbanization has happened, it is largely infill development which builds on vacant land, though the vacancies largely exist due to the massive demolitions that happened throughout the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. There are still some demolitions today, but the “tear down culture” that wiped out many historic properties has faced significant community backlash and largely slowed as a result.

A study conducted by Kevin Kane at ASU showed another, more promising indicator of urbanization:

“There is support for the idea that the recession was the start of a long-term upturn in compact growth. During the recession, the odds of new single family homes being near commercial and public lands increased substantially... Developers appeared more willing to develop more expensive parcels with more expensive neighbors. Together, these results suggested a move towards the urbanist vision of mixed-use, centrally-located neighborhoods.”

With this history, these politics, and the economics of development in mind, let’s answer some of those burning questions.


Pure Fillmore Apartments in Phoenix, AZ.

Pure Fillmore Apartments in Phoenix, AZ.

Why do all our new mixed-use developments look roughly like picture on the top, and not the one on the bottom?

The single biggest complaint I hear about our housing development in the central Phoenix region is how expensive it is, and the closest second is how ugly it is.

The affordability component is a larger and separate discussion, but let’s take a look at what leads to aesthetics that miss the mark.

We have huge lot assemblages. A single developer on a piece of land as big as Pure Fillmore’s means a few things.

408 Greenwich in New York, NY.

408 Greenwich in New York, NY.

  1. The developer has to have or have access to massive capital. Lenders tend to approve conventional, tried and true projects much more easily than creative and cutting edge projects, so if an out of state developer (say, Wood Partners for example) has a portfolio of cookie cutter projects that are fully occupied at all times, they’ll likely get the investment they need quickly and without objection.

  2. There’s no need to build vertically. If you can fit the same number of units in a project without building above 4-5 stories, you can build with wood frames rather than steel and concrete.

  3. As a pedestrian, you’ll be walking along the same facade for a longer distance, making the street feel less interesting and less humane.

Developers and architects don’t always speak the same language.

Have you ever seen a picture of what a new development is going to look like, and when it’s built many of the beautiful, exciting features are nowhere to be found? Not everything makes the final cut. Architects, particularly local firms that have a deep understanding of the valley’s context, usually come to the table with brilliant designs that consider not just the look of a single building, but how that building will be woven into the fabric of the city. When massive, often out of state, developers have to trim the fat of a project, exterior elements tend to go first (if they were ever there) because future residents are generally more concerned with what the inside looks like. If there’s no buyer demand for quality design, and there’s no policy that mandates it, it generally behooves the bottom line to focus on the bones and guts of a project.

Speaking of policy, the best of Phoenix is not always enforced.

Downtown Phoenix has a fairly comprehensive form based code (standards that consider the design, function, and uses of buildings and spaces). However, this code is not entirely prescriptive, and isn’t uniformly applied to every new development. For example, the code states that the ground floor of a mixed-use development should be an amenity, but does not mandate that it be public. So, while the whole neighborhood would benefit from a ground floor restaurant or retail space, the developer can put a gym down there and check that box. While the public would prefer the former, the developer runs the risk of that space not being occupied.

For(u)m encourages developers to create smaller retail + restaurant spaces that can accommodate smaller local businesses and maintain public activation; and advocates for smaller lot assemblages so that local developers have greater opportunity to create context sensitive projects that contribute positively to our neighborhoods.

Chase Tower in Phoenix, AZ.

Chase Tower in Phoenix, AZ.

Why is chase tower still the tallest building in downtown Phoenix?

First and foremost, we’re geographically massive. It’s far more expensive to build vertically, and if there aren’t enough residents and businesses in close proximity to the building to fill the spaces, developers would go bankrupt on these projects. Phoenix never had a need to build up when building out was cheaper, easier, and almost always approved by the city.

What about other sprawling cities with tall downtowns like Houston, you ask? One major difference is age. We’ve talked about Phoenix’s relative youth and how that impacted the development of pre-Great Depression skyscrapers, but a secondary effect of that youth was early sprawl. Without population density to support these types of developments, the risk to developers tends to be too high.

Finally, until 2010, the city’s zoning code didn’t really encourage height. While height hasn’t been overtly prohibited, excessive parking requirements and individual unit limitations made it more difficult for developers to build up on the limited land available.

One of For(u)m’s top three policy initiatives is to eliminate parking minimums, which has benefits well beyond ease of high rise development.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Potter

Photo courtesy of Lauren Potter

Why is it more expensive to build along the light rail?

To determine a property’s value, the county assessor’s office gathers several pieces of information from various sources, including previous sales from the area, zoning, topography, view, livable square footage, lot size, other component information, and proximity to economic activity. This information is then plugged into an algorithm and a value is spit out. So, as amenities are added that increase economic activity in an area, or make it easier to access that activity, property values increase

However, our current tax system assesses the land and property value, rather than just the land value. If someone owns a vacant piece of land along the light rail corridor, their taxes will skyrocket once they develop on it. This makes it far less expensive to sit on vacant land rather than build on it. Once a project goes up along the light rail, the developer must lease and/or sell for a higher rate to ensure a sustainable return on their investment given the higher property tax rate.

One way to incentivize building on vacant land is to switch to a land value tax methodology, discussed by Strong Towns (among others).

Where Do We Go From Here?

The valley is constantly getting new developments, and that doesn’t seem to be slowing any time soon. Where we build and what will shape the valley for the next generation, and we have an opportunity to evolve. By building a coalition of development professionals, urban-minded neighbors, and city officials that recognize the value of smart growth policies, we can demand better and get it. The days of concentrated power can end as we establish a culture of permanence and engagement. As a coalition, For(u)m seeks to connect residents to the developers that will be building their neighborhoods and facilitate the co-production of the build environment.

Join For(u)m; go to your neighborhood and city council meetings to advocate for high quality projects and improved development policies; and support the developers, designers, architects, engineers, realtors, and financiers that are already doing great work in the valley.


Special thanks to Tom Rex, author of Development of Metropolitan Phoenix: Historical, Current, and Future Trends for the Morrison Institute of Public Policy; Jon Talton, author of Phoenix 101: What Killed Downtown; and Kevin Kane, author of Residential development during the Great Recession: a shifting focus in Phoenix, Arizona.