Ride it, and you might like it
Some may question whether light rail has drawn enough riders to be considered a success, but few dispute the train tracks have drawn development and created new Valley growth hubs.
Several of the Valley’s most popular new restaurant and shopping areas stretch along light rail from Midtown Phoenix to downtown and out to Tempe and Mesa. Housing has followed the train.
Some planners expect to see similar hot spots for development in Glendale as light rail expands there.
Light rail helped draw Adrian Zaragoza to downtown Phoenix.
He had been living in north Phoenix and found himself driving everywhere, including to central Phoenix to hang out with friends.
Five years ago, he began renting on Roosevelt Row. Now, he’s buying a condo at Portland on the Park.
“Downtown is great. I can either bike or take the train wherever I want to go,” said Zaragoza, 29, a senior financial manager in Tempe. “I only drive my car to go to work.”
Patricia Gober, interim director of ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, said light rail has helped change metro Phoenix’s growth pattern.
“Light rail has created places where people feel like they belong and want to be in the Valley,” she said. “Phoenix is becoming more dense and poised for better growth, thanks in part to its trains.”
Density means less water usage
Urban planners say one of the biggest benefits from higher density housing is how it improves water conservation. Most infill developments use much less water than traditional neighborhoods with single-family homes.
“A very rough but conservative estimate would be that a typical high-rise household would use at least 50 percent less water than a typical single-family home on the Valley’s fringes,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU’s Morrison Institute.
Based on several recent studies, she estimates a metro Phoenix high-rise home uses an average 4,000 to 5,000 gallons of water a month.
That means a Valley single-family home with a yard uses an average 8,000 to 10,000 of gallons of water each month.
“In the Valley, up to 70 percent of household water goes to outdoor uses, though the average percentage per household has been declining,” Porter said.
Water usage is an important growth factor for cities in the West like Phoenix dealing with shortages and long-term droughts.
But not all urban planners think a big shift to infill development is the right growth path for the Valley.
“Areas with high-dense housing and vibrant downtowns like San Francisco, Paris and Manhattan are unaffordable for most people,” said Joel Kotkin, executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His most recent book is “The Human City. Urbanism for the Rest of Us.”
He said metro Phoenix’s big draw for new residents is relatively inexpensive housing.
“Affordable cities like Phoenix are now drawing Millennials and families who can’t afford to live in Southern California or on the East Coast,” he said. “I am not sure those people are looking for more expensive high-rise developments in the desert.”
But Gammage and Stapp said they think there’s demand for both infill and high-rise homes as well as more affordable single-family houses farther out in the Valley.
“Not all future growth will occur in the Valley’s core,” Stapp said. “We will need to build on the edges, but more dense regional hubs can also evolve in Gilbert, Mesa, Chandler and other suburbs.”
Density appeals to Wang, who the Bay Area transplant who is moving to downtown Phoenix.
“Part of my pessimism about living in the greater Phoenix area is that I’ve always felt like it was a large suburb due to the sprawl,” she said. “But the growth of Phoenix has dynamically changed in the past five years.”
She said it’s tough to compare Phoenix to San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles for downtowns.
“But Phoenix can be Phoenix, and it has changed over the years,” she said. “I am happy about the attention and renewal being brought to the heart of the city.”