Phoenix urbanizes itself

Among all of what today are the largest cities of the United States, Phoenix was very nearly the smallest in the middle of the 20th century.1 In 1950 it had only 106,818 people—it was smaller than New Bedford!—and its metropolitan area had a population of 331,770. All the other now gigantic Sunbelt cities were much larger: Houston had a population of 596,163 (metro area: 919,767); Dallas 434,462 (metro area: 1,136,144); and Atlanta 331,313 (metro area: 726,789). Phoenix is now nearly fifteen times bigger than it was in 1950. In 2015, it had a population of 1,563,025 (metro area: 4,574,351). It was the 6th largest city in the United States, and its urban area ranked 12th. That is, while the Houston, Dallas, and  Atlanta urban areas still had larger populations, the gap had narrowed considerably, and the Phoenix metropolitan area is now larger than those around Minneapolis and Denver, not to mention Saint Louis and Cleveland and many other once much bigger places.

Phoenix’s growth has occurred almost entirely during the era when new urban areas were being built to work with the automobile. The city comes very close to lacking the kinds of pre-automotive inner-city neighborhoods that you can still find in several other Sunbelt cities, for example, Montrose in Houston and Midtown Atlanta, that could theoretically form the core of denser and less automobile-oriented urban areas. There are only some scattered remnants of pre-1950 housing. And Phoenix’s downtown for many years was a sad remnant of a downtown built for a much smaller city. My perhaps not altogether accurate memory of central Phoenix in the 1960s and 1970s is of a place with maybe half a dozen government buildings, some low commercial structures, and a great many parking lots.

Despite its status as an essentially post-1950 city, Phoenix, like several of its counterparts elsewhere in the Sunbelt, has been trying on at least a small scale to become a more urban place since approximately the 1990s. The city government with considerable help from the private sector has been attempting to make downtown a bit more substantial, and in the 21st century the Phoenix area has added a longish light-rail line, which has enjoyed considerable local support.

I spent a day in Phoenix last week. It was the first time I’d been there in several decades, and, while I realize that it’s mildly ridiculous to speak of an agglomeration of four and half million people as “urbanizing” itself, I don’t know how else to characterize Phoenix’s recent transformation, which I found fascinating.

About downtown, there are now half a dozen skyscrapers, mostly housing financial institutions; several newish hotels; and some major entertainment venues.

The most distinctive component of downtown Phoenix’s transformation may be the emphasis on housing: the powers-that-be would clearly love Phoenix to be known as a desirable place for millennial members of the “creative class” as well as for retirees. If you believe some of the literature put out by real estate brokers, you’d think that downtown housing in Phoenix was booming. It isn’t, exactly. But several dozen upper-middle-class apartment buildings—including some high rises but mostly of the four-or-five story sort—have indeed gone up, and more are under construction.

Apartment buildings on Roosevelt Street, Phoenix

New apartment buildings on the edge of downtown Phoenix. An “urban lifestyle” is advertised. Is it provided?

The real estate brokers seem especially proud of Roosevelt Row, a street just north of downtown proper where a few pre-World-War-II residential buildings have survived, and where there are also some cafés and restaurants in pre-World-War-II commercial buildings.

Roosevelt Row, Phoenix.

Some of the surviving older buildings on Roosevelt Row.

I thought it was wonderful that these rather small older buildings were being treated lovingly but couldn’t help but note that there are still substantial gaps between them, and there were hardly any pedestrians walking on the cracked sidewalks when I was there. Progress has been made; there’s a ways to go. The other bits of new housing in downtown also mostly seemed rather isolated. There just isn’t enough housing or a full enough range of close-by shops to lead to much pedestrian life. No casual observer would think “urban neighborhood” in looking at the ragged landscape of new residential construction around downtown Phoenix, but the fact that there is new, often pricey downtown housing at all is perhaps the salient fact.

Possibly of even greater consequence: Arizona State University has opened a branch downtown, and there were quite a few university types walking along the campus’s three blocks, which have been in part pedestrianized. This is only area in downtown that felt at all like a traditional city, although I discovered that you can’t actually enter ASU’s buildings without a special key. ASU’s downtown campus is not very inviting to strangers.

Pedestrians are thin on the ground elsewhere, except where homeless (or anyway economically marginal) people congregate, for example in Margaret T. Hance Park, admirably built over a freeway just north of downtown, and in the Transit Center. I’m told that there are many more pedestrians when there’s a baseball game at Chase Field,  a convention at the Convention Center, or an event at the Talking Stick Resort Arena or Phoenix Symphony Hall. Note that list of facilities, all built with government support—the powers-that-be have been willing to spend quite a lot of money to turn downtown Phoenix into a destination. And, since many new buildings are going up, it’s possible that they really will succeed in creating the kind of pedestrian zone to which most people drive.

CitiScape, Phoenix

Advertisement for CitiScape, a major downtown complex still in part under construction. (The ad is mounted on a construction barrier.) Note the throngs of pedestrians. It’s very likely that more people are shown in this ad than were present on the streets of all of downtown Phoenix when I was there.

Perhaps that’s as much as one can expect—downtown Phoenix actually seemed to me more solidly built-up and more pedestrian-oriented than, say, downtown Houston.

The Valley Metro Light Rail line is the other major component of Phoenix’s “urbanization.” It runs 42 kilometers (26 miles) from Mesa on the east (which—with its population of something like 470,000—has sometimes advertised itself as the largest American suburb), through Tempe, past the airport, through downtown, then north along Central Avenue through Midtown (like Wilshire Boulevard a kind of linear extension of downtown along which several office and apartment buildings have been built over the years). It then passes through several residential neighborhoods north and west of Midtown.

Map of the Valley Metro Light Rail line, as well as of Phoenix’s street grid. GIS data from OpenStreetMap and Valley Metro.

The line generally runs in the center of wide arterials.

Valley Metro Light Rail on Central Avenue, between downtown and Midtown.

It splits into two downtown, running on parallel one-way streets, and has its own right-of-way through part of Tempe.

Valley Metro Light Rail in Tempe, almost the only area where it has its own right of way. The downtown skyline can be seen on the horizon just right of center. The Midtown skyline is to the right of that.

The line is not particularly fast—it takes approximately 85 minutes to get from one end to the other, for an average speed of 30 km/h [19 mph]). It does not use signal preemption but does employ a system in which traffic lights can be delayed slightly (although an engineer told me that this doesn’t work very well), and left turns across the tracks are always prohibited when a train is coming. Because the streets along which the line runs are generally much more important than all but a small number of cross streets, traffic lights are green more often than not, and the system suffers fewer traffic-light delays than some of the rail lines in, for example, Los Angeles. Still, there is quite a lot of stopping at places other than stations, especially downtown.

With the exception of downtown Phoenix and pleasant and bustling downtown Tempe (where the main Arizona State campus lies), the landscape through which the light rail line runs is not particularly conducive to walking to and from the stations. Modest areas (like parts of Mesa) feature an assortment of used car lots, trailer courts, fast-food restaurants, small apartment buildings, and motels. More upscale areas like Tempe and some of the neighborhoods north of downtown have new car lots, fancier and occasionally taller apartment buildings, and offices. Much of the route just east of downtown contains low industrial structures, although a few apartment buildings and—near the Airport—hotels are creeping in. Despite Phoenix’s hot summers, there are hardly any neighborhoods along the line with substantial numbers of shade trees; apparently, they just require too much water. Nonetheless, in spite of what looked to me like a hostile landscape, people do get on and off at every stop and make their way to where they’re going—or, in some cases, to a nearby (infrequently running) bus. It must be said that there are sidewalks everywhere, and that car drivers in the Phoenix area seem to respect pedestrians assiduously.

Valley Light Rail is apparently considered quite a success, and extensions are planned. The line’s been carrying more than 50,000 people a day. That’s a drop in the bucket set next to the 6,000,000 people a day who ride New York’s subway, but it’s in line with the number of passengers on new light rail lines in other Sunbelt cities and is three times as many people as ride the Cleveland Rapid—but only half as many as ride the shorter light rail line in much smaller Edmonton.

Phoenix is not and will never be the kind of place of which I’m likely to become fond, but the fact that an urban area so completely of the automobile age would voluntarily put so much energy into becoming a little more like a traditional city strikes me as being exceptionally noteworthy.

  1. Las Vegas gives Phoenix some competition in this respect. Its 1950 population was 24,624. With its 2015 population of 623,727 (metro area: 1,951,269, or CSA: 2,362,015), it’s grown even faster than Phoenix.
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