East Valley
Real Estate

East Valley leaves ‘boomburb’ tag behind, but growth slowing

(Source: EastValleyTribune): Gary Nelson – The East Valley is growing. Back in 2001, life was discovered in Arizona outside the city limits of Phoenix. Fannie Mae, a federally backed mortgage corporation, made headlines that year when it coined the term “boomburb” to describe large and growing communities where much of this life existed.

“Incredibly,” one report said at the time, “some of the boomburbs described by Fannie Mae are so large they exceed the population of actual cities.”

 Mesa was listed as the prime example, already boasting a population larger than that of Minneapolis, Miami, St. Louis, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati.

Even then, one suspects, Mesa would have chafed at being described as something other than a real city. Likewise Tempe, Gilbert and Chandler, which also made the “boomburb” list.

But if the semi-derogatory term was at all true as the century dawned, the East Valley’s four major municipalities have been working overtime to make sure it no longer applies.

Part of that – the part about no longer being known simply for breakneck population growth – is taking care of itself naturally as cities use up their available land and approach buildout.

The other part – the part about becoming a self-sustaining community with an identity and a sense of place – results from a willingness to stick with long-term visions and plans.

That is not to say growth is over. It isn’t, not by a long shot.

But it will be slower than in the past, and some recent population projections have been toned down in the wake of the Great Recession.

The Maricopa Association of Governments, which oversees planning for the metro area, said in its latest projections that the recession put a 10-year dent in the Valley’s expected growth. Previously, MAG expected the Valley’s population to hit 6.1 million by 2030; that number now is not expected until 2040.

For the East Valley specifically, MAG sees a little less clout in the future. In 2015, the area held 34 percent of the region’s population. As growth accelerates elsewhere and slows on the east side, that share is expected to slip to less than 27 percent by 2050.

The East Valley’s share of metro-area jobs also is expected to slip, from 41 percent in 2015 to 35.5 percent in 2050.

MAG projections do show every East Valley city steadily gaining population over the next three decades. But gone are the days when a city could double or even triple its population in the span of a decade.

Surprisingly, the East Valley’s two oldest cities – Tempe and Mesa – are expected to show the biggest growth in terms of both raw numbers and percentages.

Tempe, which is landlocked and already the Valley’s most urbanized city, may add another 89,500 people by 2050, a 52 percent jump over its 2015 population.

How? By growing up, not out.

Mayor Mark Mitchell said it’s no accident that the gleaming waterfront skyline along Tempe Town Lake symbolizes his city’s maturation.

The idea for Tempe Town Lake was born 40 years ago in an Arizona State University architectural classroom, Mitchell said. It matured to the point that a greenbelt along the entire Salt River bed from Mesa into Phoenix was proposed to Maricopa County voters in 1987.

Countywide, the proposal lost. But Tempe voters backed it, which encouraged city leaders to pursue a more local project. Town Lake opened in 1999.

Since then, its once-barren banks have spawned a dazzling array of midrise office and mixed-use complexes.

“As a kid, when I went down there, it was a dumping ground, a landfill,” Mitchell said. “To see it turn around – there’s over 40,000 residents that work in and around the lake. There’s over $1.4 billion in investment in and around the lake.”

Tempe’s vertical transformation extends south from the waterfront to the light-rail line, with construction cranes sprouting like weeds after a spring rain.

Mitchell said Tempe’s urbanization is no accident.

“Because we are landlocked, as we grow, our city is becoming more and more densely populated,” he said. That is happening even in more suburban parts of town, one example being an apartment complex now rising on the site of a former shopping center on the north side of Baseline Road between McClintock and Rural roads.

Mesa’s planning director, John Wesley, agrees with MAG’s prediction that Mesa’s 2050 population will be about 613,000 – a 33 percent jump from 2015.

That growth could take several forms, Wesley said. One is vertical, especially along transit corridors. Another will be infill, as developers use up the city’s vacant land.

And another, he said, could be annexation, possibly into Pinal County.

Mesa is not actively looking at such annexation, Wesley said. But it’s possible that future developers of the Superstition Vistas state trust land could request annexation to facilitate building infrastructure.

Mesa’s buildout population could go up, Wesley said, if resources permit.

“I guess with enough money and assuming there is enough water, there really isn’t an upper limit,” he said, indicating that one possible limit to vertical growth is Mesa’s water system, designed with pressures to serve horizontal development rather than towering skyscrapers.

Wesley’s current focus is reflected in the latest iteration of Mesa’s general plan, approved by voters in 2014. As he and his staff worked on the plan, Wesley told the City Council a major aim would be “sprawl repair,” mitigating the worst effects of past decades’ pell-mell, automobile-centric development patterns.

That does not mean every part of town will look the same, nor will redevelopment sweep away all of the city’s suburban neighborhoods and mobile-home parks.

“I would hope that we can continue to find things that tie us together as a community and give some overall identity and sense of place,” Wesley said. “But we will also have our unique areas that we want to be maintained.”

 Chandler and Gilbert both expect buildout populations of about 300,000, but Chandler should get there a lot quicker.

David de la Torre, Chandler’s principal planner, said the city could reach buildout as soon as 2030. Beyond that, MAG expects slow growth to a 2050 population of about 320,000.

Urbanization also is in Chandler’s future, de la Torre said – especially along transit corridors such as Arizona Avenue.

“Overall,” he said, “the city envisions itself becoming a major urban center within the next few decades.”

But again, that does not mean homogeneity.

Southeast Chandler will likely retain its semi-rural character. West Chandler will develop as an employment corridor. North Chandler will become more dense.

And, de la Torre said, future redevelopment must remain compatible with surrounding neighborhoods.

“We don’t expect redevelopment to occur everywhere in the city,” he said, “but certainly in certain areas like downtown and along high-capacity (transit) corridors.”

Planners in Chandler and Gilbert said those cities have no prospects for annexation other than the numerous county islands within their existing planning areas.

Of all the East Valley cities, Gilbert in 2001 may best have fit Fannie Mae’s “boomburb” label – a town of 110,000 people with not a single hospital or hotel.

The ensuing years have rendered that description obsolete, and modern mid-rise office buildings along Loop 202 speak to Gilbert’s burgeoning employment opportunities.

Still, most of the town’s 70-plus square miles retain an overwhelmingly, and likely permanent, suburban feel.

Kyle Mieras, Gilbert’s development services director, said construction there is now comparable to pre-recession levels. MAG expects Gilbert to add 52,500 people to its estimated 2015 population, reaching about 295,000 by 2050.

Mieras said future changes in density and development patterns could push that number upward. But growth will slow, he said, as big parcels fill in and developers are left with more challenging, smaller tracts.

Infill already is occurring, he said, with most of that occurring in the older northwestern part of town.

In the end, what matters to planners in the East Valley is not the labels chosen by Fannie Mae and other outsiders. Nor is it, primarily, a numbers game for their maturing communities.

The overarching goal, said Chandler planner de la Torre, is to “provide a high quality of life.”

Build that, the planners believe, and they will come – just as they have for decades past, for decades into the future.