Phoenix, Put Aside Dreams of Gotham


Now that Phoenix's ascendancy has been at least momentarily suspended, its residents are no doubt wondering what comes next. One tendency is to say the city needs to grow up and become more like East Coast cities or Portland, Ore., with dense urban cores and well-developed rail transit. The other ready option is always inertia - a tendency to wait for things to come back the way they were.

Neither approach will work in the long run. Over the coming decade, Phoenix has to recalibrate its economy into something based on more than being a second option for Californians and speculative real-estate investment. Instead, it needs to focus laserlike on economic diversity and creating good jobs.

The model here for Phoenix is not New York or San Francisco. Phoenix can't rival these cities for their 19th-century charm or early 20th-century infrastructure. As we would say back in New York (my hometown): fuggedaboutit.

Instead of dreaming about Gotham, Phoenix should think more about Houston. Like the Texas megacity, Phoenix is the ultimate late 20th-century town, dependent on air-conditioning, ample freeway space and a wide-open business culture.

A century away from becoming "quaint," Phoenix needs to follow Houston's example of relentless economic diversification: in Phoenix's case, away from dependence on tourism and construction. Houston has done this by focusing beyond its core energy sector to fields like international trade, manufacturing and medical services.

Phoenix's opportunities may lie elsewhere but may include some of these same industries. The idea is that the region needs to heal its job problem. Only then can the real-estate market rebound on a solid basis.

This employment focus must replace the current obsession with changing the city's urban form. Despite the current problems, Phoenix has performed pretty well over the past decade, creating more new jobs than most Sun Belt cities, not to mention job losers like San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. Equally important, it still leads the nation over the past decade in net in-migration among the largest cities

Unfortunately, some in Phoenix still suffer horribly from Manhattan envy. One prominent Phoenix consultant describes the downtown as "the glorious goose that's laying the gilded egg" that will turn the city into a dynamic trend-setter of a new urban paradigm. Phoenix, he opined, "won't be a place of renown till it has the Big It." In other words, Phoenix will not be a true metropolis until it has its own Times Square, Eiffel Tower, Space Needle or other grand attraction.

Yet in newer cities like Phoenix, the quest for the "Big It" is often delusional. In Phoenix, the vast majority of the population moved in decades after the original downtown lost its primacy. People have their own notion of what "it" is, and many times, "it" could be in a different center or in more than one center - think Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa, the Camelback Corridor, or a host of other communities.

The Valley's $1.4 billion transit system carries barely 15,000 round trips daily - a microscopic proportion of the region's trips - with the biggest traffic on weekends. Sounds more like Disneyland than New York.

Nor does the high-end condo, art-museum, convention-center thing seem to be working so well. Too bad the extra $1.5 billion spent sprucing up the area could not have been spent more usefully for less critical things, like police and fire, or better roads and schools.

Rather than focus on emulating the urban father figures from the past, Phoenix's best bet lies with its best assets: being reasonably priced, professionally managed and, well, warm and lovely in December. Shedding its real-estate-obsessed cocoon, Phoenix should focus on creating jobs for both present and future residents. That's how you can grow up and find your own way.

This article first appeared at The Arizona Republic.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His next book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, will be published by Penguin Press February 4th.

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Those were the days. In

Those were the days. In today's time, Phoenix can race with other big cities which are very progressive. Based on the Wikipedia, the city has a lot to offer. I grew up in Phoenix so I know how well the city is. The industry around Phoenix is also in good statistics. I can attest to that because I have worked in one of the big companies there which provides window blinds products both for homes and for industrial.

You are missing the point entirely.

Phoenix can stagnate, into an autometropolis, and watch it's value rise & fall based on the price of fuel. It can become a town of industry only. People can go to work, then run home, draw their blinds and watch American Idle (pun intended). The market states otherwise. Home values plummeted in cities that lacked civic amenities. Humans are by their very nature social. Gathering places, transit, and pedestrian spaces are in demand.

I'm honestly beginning to wonder, where you get your information.

How did our forefathers do it?

Back at the turn of the 20th century, city leaders in places like New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Pittsburgh managed to grow jobs and build urban cities. All grew or maintained their status as economic powerhouses. But now we're told that doing both at the same time is too taxing for modern city leaders. According to Mr. Kotkin, it's impossible for leaders in places like Phoenix to do both at the same time. You have to choose jobs or you have to choose to grow like a city. But according to Mr. Kotkin, you can't do both. Right.

Kirk - you contradict yourself

Kirk, you're right that municipalities shouldn't dictate how people should get around. That's why they need to build light rail, to give their citizens a transportation alternative. It's pretty arrogant to assume that car ownership must be a requisite for living in Phoenix, Houston, Atlanta, or any other sprawling city.

It's about freedom, and liberty

I have just as much right to move freely, with the assurance of safety, as an automobile user. Cars do not have rights, people do.

Light Rail

You're right. Light rail was great in the early twentieth century when it was competing with steam-powered cars and horses but now it is merely delusional to think that a municipal government can dictate how we move from place to place. The car, one of the great industrial miracles of the twentieth century, has allowed the residents of cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Atlanta, Silicon Valley, and the suburbs of up and coming urban areas like Bombay, Shanghai, Hong Kong a far greater quality of life than would have ever been possible in less automobile oriented cities.

steam-powered cars?

too much Jules Verne? I suppose such places as Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Portland, Paris and Berlin are horrible places, since pedestrian, bicycle and transit are encouraged?

I find your comment flawed, and your argument falls short.


I agree we need to focus on job creation and not try to emulate other urban cities. At the same time I disagree on your criticism of light rail and the convention center.

Light rail is in its infancy and has outperformed expectation. It is part of well planned future transportation schemes. Freeways are expensive and expansion projects are obsolete before completion. Expanded rail is a smart choice well demonstrated by older cities in Europe and Asia.

The convention center has taken Phoenix to new levels as a destination. If you study hotel occupancy rates this past year, the Sheraton Downtown has outperformed nearly every other property in Phoenix and Scottsdale. The vertical markets the convention center helps create and support are also important to job creation and growth.

You are on-target about the need to know itself. Failures like 44 Monroe demonstrate downtown Phoenix is not the place for million dollar condos. Affordable row houses and medium density housing would be welcomed and salable.

Thanks for the thoughtful article.

Phoenix Rail

I lived in Tempe/Phoenix for 5 years, 2 of which I owned a moderately priced condo in the downtown core. The land was city-owned and was sold to a developer at a discounted rate with the hook that the condos had to be priced at $150,000 and $250,000. At the time (2002-04) there were very few amenities for residents because, quite frankly, there were very few residents. Some of that seems to have changed although I hear there have been some failures with overpriced condos and luxury buildings.

While the article is correct - Phoenix shouldn't try to be a Chicago or a New York - that's no reason to abandon things that make sense. Light rail, investments in ASU downtown, hotels, convention centers, and incentives to help lure large employers to the core are all smart moves to keep the momentum going. If it's done too quickly and forced, it will never succeed...but if it's just left to itself without any plan or structure all that has been done to this point could be wasted.

San Antonio has their River Walk, Austin has 6th Street, San Diego has GasLamp, Denver has the LoDo area, and so on. Phoenix is starting to define its core in a similar way. I think it's important that the city/state and private groups are working to partner on the heavy lifting which allows the more organic and "home grown" amenities to take root.

I've been to a non-chain breakfast restaurant is now just north of downtown and it's a wonderful addition, something that I don't think would have survived without the investments that have been made in light rail, condos, etc. Same goes for the Patriot Square Park businesses (last I checked, there was another pub there as well as the famous pizza spot).

I live in Chicago now and while it's clear that Phoenix will never have the draw of the Loop or the pedestrian-focused development of the city neighborhoods, there's a great chance for Phoenix to develop into something unique that has aspects of these things.