Little Town of Mesa Tied to Phoenix's Growing Pain : Smaller Neighbor Is Fierce Rival for Developments

Times Staff Writer

Students of marine life will remember the remora as a small scavenger that swims in tandem with the shark, living comfortably on the larger fish's food droppings.

And, in metropolitan America, it's analogous with the aggressive suburb living on the "fat" of the adjoining urban center for which it serves as a bedroom community.

But in this desert oasis of explosive growth, the shark that is Phoenix is currently eyeing, apprehensively, a remora to its southeast that is handily outstripping it in terms of both growth and vitality, thanks to accidents of natural boundaries (and ample water supplies) and just plain old competitiveness.

Hub of Growth Area

It has become impossible--and some say dangerous--to ignore what is happening in the once-sleepy, once Mormon-dominated, little town of Mesa, the hub of a growth area known loosely as the East Valley.

The "how" and the "why" of such one-upmanship is an unusual case study of the nature of urban growth, what forces nurture it and shape it, and the effect that political maturity has on it.

Any "worries" that Phoenix's planners may have about the future seem odd when measured against the concerns of many urban areas in the country facing declining population and a stagnant or declining economic base because none of that--not even in the eyes of the most pessimistic viewers--is in the cards for sprawling Maricopa County, of which Phoenix is the focal point.

Explosive Growth Seen

Far from it, because the near-tripling in size that it has experienced in the last 15 years--from 581,000 in 1970, to 1.5 million today--is, incredibly, expected to double again in the next 15 years to a mind-boggling 3 million population by the turn of the century.

"In effect," said James A. Chalmers, a principal in Mountain West Research, "we've gained every year for the past 10 a city equivalent to the size of Billings, Mont., about 66,000 people. From 1980 until the turn of the century that translates into a 3% annual growth--as against a gain of less than 1% for the country as a whole.

"Twenty-five years ago Phoenix didn't even make the top 50 cities in terms of population."

And while the World Almanac this year ranks metropolitan Phoenix ninth in the country in terms of population, "we're actually about fourth in terms of absolute growth, or perhaps even second, behind only Dallas and Fort Worth," Chalmers said recently from Mountain West Research's offices in adjoining Tempe.

"We're about to go into the growth phase that Atlanta went through in the '70s when it became the premier Southeast regional corporate headquarters city."

So, why the gloom reflected in a recent projection released by Southwest Savings & Loan Assn. in Phoenix? "For more than a century, central Phoenix has been the focal point of political and economic activity for the state, county and city itself. Today, however, this dominance is threatened by problems of competition and identity. Central Phoenix is headed toward an ever-declining share of residential, commercial and industrial growth . . . and political strength."

The key is in Southwest's use of the words "central" Phoenix and "share," and in a curious geographic girdle that is tightly laced around the city's midriff and that is literally "squirting" the area's new growth into Mesa's eagerly waiting hands.

The ominous part of all this, from Phoenix's standpoint, is not so much a growth rate in Mesa that is even greater than the parent city's--a doubling of the Phoenix area's population between now and the end of the century versus a tripling of Mesa's in the same period--but in the nature of that growth.

Or, as Southwest Savings put it: "By the year 2000, this (East Valley) area will have 34% of the entire Metro area's population . . . up from 27% in 1980. At the same time, Central Phoenix's share will decline to less than half the East Valley's share.

"In terms of jobs, this current trend shows clear dominance by outlying areas over Central Phoenix throughout this decade. Of the 250,000 new jobs to be created, 200,000 will emerge in those outlying areas.

"Central Phoenix, by comparison, will capture only 50,000 jobs. And, by 1995, if these current projections hold, the East Valley will be home to 30% of the Metro area's new large manufacturing employers. Only 15% of these big firms will be located in Central Phoenix 10 years from now."

Magnet Was Predictable

And, in this process, of course, Phoenix's still-mushrooming rate of growth over the next 15 years will have to be financed from a tax base that, in no way, is keeping pace with this growth.

Mesa and the East Valley's emergence as the hot, new magnet for in-migration, in the opinion of Gary Driggs, president of Phoenix's statewide, $4-billion, Western Savings & Loan Assn., was not simply predictable, "it was inevitable, given the placement of the natural barriers around Phoenix."

"Inevitable" because of the funnel-shaped formation of the metropolitan Phoenix valley--the wide end of the funnel lying northwest of the city and the small end zeroed in on 62,000-population Tempe, the home of Arizona State University and the gateway to the East Valley.

Original Access Road

A city trapped to the north by the Phoenix Mountains and landmark Camelback Mountain and, to the south, by both the roughly parallel South Mountains and the Salt River--inadequately bridged because of its historic presence as a dry river bed until weather changes in recent years have made a mockery of its "dry" reputation, at least in the winter months.

"In addition to the mountains and the river," Driggs adds, "you've got Grand Avenue, the original access road to Los Angeles, running diagonally from downtown out to the northwest with all of the problems that it creates."

Long a thorn in the side of Phoenix commuters, and a deterrent to housing developments on the city's west side, the diagonal Grand Avenue slashes across a city that otherwise is laid out in neat north/south, east/west grids. The rush-hour consequence for westside commuters: massive traffic snarling at every major east-west corridor that bisects the maverick thoroughfare.

"This funnel-formation that Phoenix has," Driggs continues, "is only about six miles across at its widest and tapers down to a three-mile bottleneck to the southeast. The mountains, Salt River, Grand Avenue and Indian reservations surrounding Scottsdale on the northeast and metropolitan Phoenix on the south give the whole metropolitan area only one direction to grow--right into Mesa's lap."

And it is here, in the East Valley, that miles of flat, fertile ground for both commercial and residential development spill out literally without natural barriers.

"Water is no problem in the East Valley," Driggs adds, "because the water rights are all grandfathered--unlike developments beyond the mountains to the north and northeast, around Scottsdale, where, project by project, the water rights have to be negotiated individually."

Downtown Access

But even more important than these factors is the fact that the East Valley, with Mesa as its hub, is virtually the only suburban area with freeway access to downtown Phoenix--a relatively fast and easy detour around the funnel bottleneck that chokes off the parent city's growth. It's a tremendous plus, Driggs admits, in the country's most freeway-poor metropolitan area.

With only two patchwork freeways connecting parts of outlying areas to downtown Phoenix (and still years away from the completion of connections that will give the city truly non-stop north/south, east/west commuting) the fact that the one section that is in place hooks the East Valley and its limitless land for growth to downtown Phoenix is the all-important umbilical cord.

Although far less important in slowing Phoenix's growth than the natural, funnel-shaped basin in which it finds itself locked, another deterrent is frequently cited: a relatively new (and, critics say), near-rabid preoccupation with commercial zoning matters that frequently has the Zoning Board, the City Council and Mayor Terry Goddard flying off along wildly divergent paths.

Change From the Past

It's something of a phenomenon in a city where, for decades, the entire subject of zoning barely got lip service and where saddle horses peacefully grazed in pasture land a short stone's throw from the doors of Sak's swank, high-fashion, side entrance on Camelback Road . . . where a $150,000 home could suddenly find a mobile home park zoned next to it.

Now, suddenly, critics say, a preliminary zoning hearing for a new four-story building can bring out as many as 600 residents from the affected area in a noisy, contentious, brouhaha . . . that may see the flat turn-down of a development in an area clearly zoned for that type of structure.

And, a few blocks away, a variance permitted without discussion for a similar structure clearly not in the master plan. And then, either or both actions being countermanded by either the City Council, the mayor, or even, on second consideration, by the zoning board, itself.

'Noisy Constituency'

"It's having an effect on developers, certainly," one observer of the local scene adds. "Why go through this kind of hassle when you can go out to the East Valley and get the kind of zoning you want? It all started when Phoenix went from charter government--with council members all elected at-large--to districts.

"Now, suddenly, they've all got a very noisy constituency to listen to and they don't yet know how to handle it."

But, all hands agree, the "threats" to Phoenix's future posed by the explosive growth on its coattails to the southeast notwithstanding, both cities retain an allure that any two other cities in the country would slash their tax base to have.

From only 500,000 square feet of Class A office building space in 1970, the East Valley now has in place, or in the blueprint stage, no fewer than 7 million square feet. And a veritable "Who's Who" of big, commercial, names are streaming into the area--Hughes coming in with a facility that will make the East Valley "the helicopter capital of the world;" ITT, Courier, Motorola, General Semiconductor, GTE, Digital, Garrett, Intel, Rogers, General Instrument and Gould.

Central Corridor

But, tremblings in Phoenix-proper aside, the growth there, too, is far from tacky with giant cranes and gaping foundation holes scarring almost every city block up the Central Corridor from downtown to dominant Camelback Road on the north side, and along the Camelback Corridor from bisecting Central all the way out to 44th Street on the east.

A sampling: Oxford Properties' 24-story, $35-million, office tower at Central Avenue and Osborn Road; Opus Corp.'s new 14-story mid rise at 2700 N. Central Ave.--its third major office project on the Central Corridor, totaling $82-million in value; Western Devcor/Johnson Wax Development Corp.'s $160-million office complex at 24th Street and Camelback Road, the Biltmore Financial Center, less than a mile away the $35-million Biltmore Commerce Center at 32nd Street and Camelback Road, and, still fighting the zoning battle, SSH Venture's giant, mixed-use, $400-million development, Camelback Esplanade, on "the country's most valuable piece of real estate," at the southeast corner of 24th Street and Camelback Road.

Strategically Located

And, strategically located just inside the narrow end of the Phoenix funnel that spews into the East Valley, Sunbelt Holding's 37.5-acre, $175-million, Phoenix Gateway Center at 44th Street and East Van Buren Street, a complex well under way that, ultimately, will encompass a 244-unit all-suite resort hotel (completed), three four-story office buidlings and three 12-story office structures.

Both young, as such things are measured in this still-young country, and both undeniably vigorous, the rivalry in the desert between Phoenix and its smaller rival to the southeast--far from being a bitter one--has, in a curious way, drawn them closer together than they have been in the past.

No one in Phoenix, any longer, dismisses Mesa "as a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
63°