The Future of the Suburbs Is Unfolding in Arizona’s East Valley

Developers on the eastern edge of Mesa are building a new walkable housing development, friendly to both residents and big businesses.

National Journal
Sommer Mathis
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Sommer Mathis
Jan. 30, 2014, 7:59 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a weeklong Amer­ica 360 series on Mesa.

MESA, Ar­iz.­­ — On the far east­ern edge of this sprawl­ing desert com­munity, nearly 100 buy­ers have already pur­chased single-fam­ily homes in the first ma­jor new mas­ter-planned de­vel­op­ment to break ground in the Phoenix metro area in al­most 10 years.

At fully 3,200 acres and with a loc­a­tion ad­ja­cent to the small but grow­ing Phoenix-Mesa Gate­way Air­port, East­mark is be­ing touted by city and state lead­ers as the next big eco­nom­ic en­gine for the metro area’s East Val­ley. But it’s not just the re­turn of large-scale home con­struc­tion to a re­gion that was hit par­tic­u­larly hard by the hous­ing crash that has hopes run­ning so high. Two ma­jor em­ploy­ers, Grand Canyon Uni­versity, Ari­zona’s largest for-profit Chris­ti­an uni­versity, and GT Ad­vanced Tech­no­lo­gies, a sup­pli­er of sap­phire-glass iPhone com­pon­ents for Apple, an­nounced in the second half of last year that they would be mov­ing in to East­mark. The num­ber and type of jobs these two pro­jects are ex­pec­ted to bring to the area — fac­ulty and staff to serve 10,000 stu­dents, and 700 per­man­ent high-tech man­u­fac­tur­ing hires — are key to de­veloper DMB As­so­ci­ates’ vis­ion for a type of mixed-use com­munity rarely seen in this part of the coun­try.

“I really can already see it, people walk­ing here, and with all these con­nec­tions to be able to nav­ig­ate by bike,” says Dea Mc­Don­ald, East­mark’s gen­er­al man­ager and seni­or vice pres­id­ent at DMB, on a re­cent tour of the work com­pleted so far on the pro­ject’s first phase. Mc­Don­ald thinks that 20 years from now, East­mark will be held up as a na­tion­al mod­el for how to achieve a more sus­tain­able style of sub­urb­an growth.

There are reas­ons to take such claims ser­i­ously. A new cam­pus of the na­tion­ally top-ranked BASIS Charter Schools has already opened across the street from the first batch of homes at East­mark, and Mc­Don­ald points out some of the small touches with­in the de­vel­op­ment — com­munity parks at the cen­ter of each res­id­en­tial cluster, ped­es­tri­an paths and trails that con­nect neigh­bors to each oth­er — that he sees as en­abling a life­style where kids and par­ents alike will be both will­ing and able to walk or bike to school or work. Soon enough, he says, mul­ti­fam­ily build­ings, re­tail cen­ters, civic areas, and a 100-acre Great Park will all con­verge down the middle of the de­vel­op­ment to com­plete the pack­age — a sort of satel­lite city core, with an urban­ity and a walk­able cen­ter of grav­ity of its own, on the far east side of the val­ley.

That’s an un­com­mon sales pitch for car-de­pend­ent Ari­zona, and in­deed it’s a bit hard to swal­low in this early phase, when stand­ing in the park­ing lot for East­mark’s wel­come cen­ter of­fers vast views of empty desert, a good 30-minute drive from cent­ral Mesa. “It does still feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere,” Mc­Don­ald ad­mits. But he and fel­low DMB ex­ec­ut­ives say they’re com­fort­able tak­ing quite a long view of the plan­ning pro­cess for this massive pro­ject, thanks in large part to Mesa’s will­ing­ness to al­low them to ex­per­i­ment with the city’s first ap­plic­a­tion of a form-based zon­ing code.

De­velopers typ­ic­ally start out by work­ing with­in the frame­work of ex­ist­ing zon­ing rules, then re­quest modi­fic­a­tions from the rel­ev­ant city or county piece-by-piece, a pro­cess that can not only be ex­cru­ci­at­ingly slow, but ul­ti­mately quite lim­it­ing in terms of the strict se­greg­a­tion of land uses that con­ven­tion­al zon­ing de­mands (res­id­en­tial, com­mer­cial, in­dus­tri­al, etc.). But form-based code ad­heres to stand­ards based on build­ing types and their re­la­tion­ships to one an­oth­er, rather than strict uses, and ad­voc­ates of more com­pact, walk­able urb­an en­vir­on­ments have in re­cent years seized on its ad­op­tion as an im­port­ant tool in avoid­ing yet more sprawl. The City of Miami, for ex­ample, com­pletely re­placed its ex­ist­ing zon­ing with a form-based code called Miami 21 in 2010, which sets up walk­able neigh­bor­hood cen­ters as the city­wide de­fault pat­tern for de­vel­op­ment and re­devel­op­ment.

“Mesa was a sleepy bed­room com­munity and a lot of people liked that, but in the long run it’s not sus­tain­able,” says Kar­rin Taylor, DMB’s ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent in charge of land-use en­ti­tle­ments. “We’ve been quite suc­cess­ful over the past 50 years build­ing houses, but in the long term, as a mem­ber of the busi­ness com­munity, we’ve real­ized we have to get in­volved in try­ing to at­tract new com­pan­ies and new em­ploy­ers to Ari­zona as well.”

Mesa’s will­ing­ness to al­low DMB to op­er­ate with­in the more flex­ible frame­work of form-based code, Taylor says, was a cru­cial com­pon­ent in East­mark’s abil­ity to land both the Apple fa­cil­ity and Grand Canyon Uni­versity. The new rules re­vo­lu­tion­ized the way the com­pany set up its en­ti­tle­ments — the bundle of gov­ern­ment ap­provals any de­veloper must con­tend with be­fore break­ing ground — which in prac­tice has meant a faster and easi­er ap­prov­al pro­cess than most in­dus­tri­al or in­sti­tu­tion­al pro­jects could ever dream of.

DMB first ac­quired the prop­erty, which used to be the old Gen­er­al Mo­tors Prov­ing Grounds, at the top of the mar­ket in 2006 for $260 mil­lion, just two years be­fore Ari­zona’s prop­erty val­ues crashed. At the height of the re­ces­sion, the en­tire pro­ject had to be put on ice, suf­fer­ing fur­ther from a string of bad-news an­nounce­ments like the ap­par­ent loss of a planned Gaylord re­sort and con­fer­ence cen­ter. (It seems Gaylord, now owned by Mar­ri­ott, may very well be com­ing back to the table now). But even now that the first phase is fi­nally un­der­way, the maps on dis­play along­side a dozen in­ter­act­ive flat screens at East­mark’s wel­come cen­ter show only vague swaths of col­or, al­most dar­ing the view­er to ask: Just what is this place go­ing to be?

“This is the first mas­ter-planned com­munity I’ve worked on that doesn’t have a plan,” says Mc­Don­ald, which is, again, by design. As ad­di­tion­al em­ploy­ers come on board, he says, DMB wants to re­main flex­ible about how and where it crafts the neigh­bor­hoods that will come in fu­ture phases, and form-based code is help­ing them do just that.

For all the “walk­able, bikable” touches be­ing in­tro­duced in­side East­mark already, much of it does look and feel very much like the rest of Ari­zona, a state that’s in no danger of run­ning out of land to de­vel­op any time soon. The first single-fam­ily houses range from 1,500 square feet up to al­most 6,000 square feet, and they sit on large lots with big gar­ages and ex­pans­ive back yards. Ask­ing prices run from $200,000 to $600,000, put­ting them in the high­er-end range of mas­ter-planned prop­er­ties in East Mesa. When, say, a gro­cery store does fi­nally open here, odds are good most res­id­ents are still go­ing want to drive there. And there’s no guar­an­tee that the people who pur­chase homes at East­mark aren’t go­ing to end up com­mut­ing all the way in­to down­town Phoenix. Still, Jim Hol­way, dir­ect­or of West­ern lands and com­munit­ies for the Son­or­an In­sti­tute, an Ari­zona-based think tank fo­cused on land use and com­munity de­vel­op­ment policy, doesn’t see DMB’s ef­forts as something to be dis­missed.

“You’d have to look a long way to find an­oth­er mas­ter-planned com­munity that’s even try­ing to do something like this,” he says. “It’s Ari­zona, we’re not go­ing to cre­ate a com­munity where you’re nev­er go­ing to get in­to your car. That’s not go­ing to hap­pen. But what if we can cre­ate a com­munity where you get in your car half as much?”

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