Planning in the Grand Canyon State

It was October 22, 1974, and I'd just arrived in Tucson. At the time, planning was a profession unknown to me. Driving around the city known as the Old Pueblo, I was taken by the lack of consistent land-use patterns. Growing up in America's first planned community, Park Forest, Illinois, what I knew was the clear segregation of uses — separated single and multifamily developments and distinct commercial areas.

When later describing Tucson to friends, I said, "It looks like someone filled a water balloon with mobile homes, shopping centers, expensive homes, and other stuff, stood at the Broadway and Pioneer intersection, faced east and went 'splat.'" The social and economic demographics of Tucson appeared to change block to block as I drove east through a mostly vacant downtown to my rental house in a sprawling suburban-style area on the city's east side.

This first impression set me into the "how can they do that?" civics category. It's an attitude dogging collective observations of Arizona planning and development patterns. This is the state where "drive 'til they qualify" and cheap desert land established a mecca for thousands of transplants relocating from the Snowbelt to the Sunbelt.

Planners often refer to Arizona as a "property rights" state, referring to a political-leaning where planning and zoning can be molded to fit an owner's development objectives without regard to public policy or plans. There has been much flexibility in the interpretation of Arizona zoning regulation, and many cities of all sizes have complex regulatory processes that planners from elsewhere would call "contract zoning." Placing conditions, or contractual "stipulations," on zoning actions is a long tradition.

Many Arizona communities use variances in much the same way. In school, planners are taught that variances are intended to provide a minimum property right necessary to have development potential equal to typical land development in a neighborhood. In Arizona, particularly during the construction and land price boom before the Great Recession, variances were used to help private development "pencil out."

Non-mandatory general plan adherence and the politics of land-use decisions, combined with a lack of cohesive zoning, resulted in Arizona's run-up as a land of opportunity. After all, it was opportunity that brought this newly arrived professional over 40 years ago to the land where the sun paints the rocks with fire.

One of the Phoenix-area's technology CEOs, Clate Mask, founder of Infusionsoft in Chandler, said it most succinctly, "We took a place that's hot as heck, has no water, and made it the sixth-largest city in the country. With DNA like that, it's no wonder we have more new businesses succeeding than anywhere else in the country. It's our Western-ness that just finds a way to make things work."

Arizona has struggled politically, socially, and economically to become what it represents today. Over the course of modern time, handling the rapid growth and precious resources has been a challenge for policy leaders. This is a land where expansive vision and narrow-mindedness compete to keep it the kind of place where tens of thousands continue to arrive packed with hope, seeking opportunity, and believing in a better tomorrow.

About the Author

Eric Jay Toll is a recovered planner reporting on the economy for the Phoenix Business Journal.

Images: Top— Tucson viewed from from "A" Mountain (Sentinel Peak). Photo by Flickr user SD Dirk (CC BY 2.0)

March 20, 2016

By Eric Toll