Mesa

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
Add to Briefcase
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?”

What We're Following See More »
BUT WHITE HOUSE MAY USE AGAINST HIM ANYWAY
Ethics Cops Clear Mueller to Work on Trump Case
2 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Former FBI Director Robert Mueller has been cleared by U.S. Department of Justice ethics experts to oversee an investigation into possible collusion between then-candidate Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign and Russia." Some had speculated that the White House would use "an ethics rule limiting government attorneys from investigating people their former law firm represented" to trip up Mueller's appointment. Jared Kushner is a client of Mueller's firm, WilmerHale. "Although Mueller has now been cleared by the Justice Department, the White House may still use his former law firm's connection to Manafort and Kushner to undermine the findings of his investigation, according to two sources close to the White House."

Source:
BUSINESSES CAN’T PLEAD FIFTH
Senate Intel to Subpoena Two of Flynn’s Businesses
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and ranking member Mark Warner (D-VA) will subpoena two businesses owned by former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Burr said, "We would like to hear from General Flynn. We'd like to see his documents. We'd like him to tell his story because he publicly said he had a story to tell."

SAYS THEY CHEATED TESTS
Government Sues Fiat Chrysler Over Emissions
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

The government alleges the company put eight “software-based features” on diesel engines in nearly 104,000 Ram pickups and Jeep Grand Cherokees from the 2014 to 2016 model years, which allowed the vehicles to emit fewer pollutants during EPA lab tests than during normal driving conditions.

Source:
KEY ON TRUMPCARE
MacArthur Resigns As Tuesday Group Co-Chair
7 hours ago
BREAKING

Rep. Tom MacArthur resigned Tuesday from his position as co-chair of the Tuesday Group, the House caucus of more moderate GOP members. MacArthur was one of the key engineers in getting an Obamacare replacement plan passed through the House of Representatives, which has caused a rift within the Tuesday Group. "You can't lead people where they don't want to go," MacArthur told POLITICO New Jersey. "I think some people in the group just have a different view of what governing is."

Source:
COULD RUN AFOUL OF LAW
Trump Wants to Sell Half of Strategic Oil Reserve
8 hours ago
THE LATEST

The budget proposal would raise $500 million in fiscal year 2018 and as much as $16.6 billion in oil sales over the next decade. However, selling half of the reserve would risk taking it below the legally required minimum of 450 million barrels.

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login