(Source: PhoenixMagazine): Lauren Loftus – When most people who live north or east of Central Avenue think about the West Valley, they imagine a strip mall sea of Olive Gardens and Walmarts. They’ll travel to Glendale for a Cardinals game, but they won’t make the same trip in a pizza pilgrimage the way many suburbanites do for Pizzeria Bianco in Downtown. Sam Fox – arguably the Valley’s most powerful restaurateur – hasn’t touched the west side since his Glendale outpost of North Italia closed in 2010. But seven years later, residential and commercial real estate developers are snatching up WV parcels of land like they’re never-ending breadsticks. Is the west side, dare we say it, getting cool?
“I think the west side gets a bad rep,” says Walter Crutchfield, whose development firm Vintage Partners is opening a 17-acre shopping center in Avondale. It wasn’t so long ago that parts of the East Valley were ignored the same way Goodyear or Peoria are now, he says. “For years, nobody would go to downtown Gilbert… there was no ‘there’ there.” Now there’s a Postino and a Lo-Lo’s because of one risk-taking developer: Joe Johnston, the “visionary” behind Agritopia and Joe’s Real BBQ in Gilbert.
“The West Valley has been a snowbird mecca, with an older demographic,” says Zach Willekens, the manager of Cuff restaurant in Old Town Glendale. “But in the last two years, I’ve seen a younger crowd popping up.” (Traditionally, the West Valley has been home to both retirees and young families. What’s been missing are the in-betweeners, single 20- and 30-somethings who often act as harbingers of urbanization and gentrification.) The 24-year-old, who also coordinates events at Cuff’s new onsite venue for live music and stand-up comedy, says he grew up in the area and often ventured to Tempe or Downtown Phoenix to escape the chain restaurant sprawl typically associated with neighborhoods west of 19th Avenue. But recently, Willekens says he’s seen a concerted effort by business owners and culture fiends to make downtown Glendale a place worth sticking around. In addition to Cuff, he applauds the Brelby Theater Company that fosters young (30ish and younger) playwrights and actors in the area, and looks forward to the western light rail extension.
Glendale economic development officer Kristen Stephenson says it’s always been a “fairly young city,” with the average age hovering around 34. This year, Stephenson says the city contracted with Glendale Chamber of Commerce to create a new downtown manager position whose occupant will work to bring even more independent merchants to the area. Farther west, Stephenson says more job creators are moving in, with more than 2.7 million square feet of new building projects under construction or review, including the first West Valley location of Cold Beers & Cheeseburgers and a $40 million expansion to the Conair Corp. warehouse expected to bring 300 jobs. Plus “there’s a high-end [Alpina] BMW dealership that’s coming to Glendale, and I think that speaks volumes,” she says.
Not everyone is convinced Glendale and the West Valley at large is on the verge of a hip-aissance. “I haven’t had anybody express to me, ‘I’ve gotta live in Glendale,’” says Fred Cleman, president of the West Maricopa County Association of Realtors. To Cleman, the West Valley is being built out simply because it has the land to do so, and as a result housing is more affordable. Given the choice, though, between living in downtown Glendale and Downtown Phoenix, Cleman thinks most people would choose the latter. Still, the Avondale resident admits, “We get more bang for the buck out here.” Hey, that’s something.