The Future of the Suburbs Is Unfolding in Arizona's East Valley

Developers on the eastern edge of Mesa are building a new walkable housing development, friendly to both residents and big businesses.

National Journal

This article is part of a weeklong America 360 series on Mesa.

MESA, Ariz.­­ — On the far eastern edge of this sprawling desert community, nearly 100 buyers have already purchased single-family homes in the first major new master-planned development to break ground in the Phoenix metro area in almost 10 years.

At fully 3,200 acres and with a location adjacent to the small but growing Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, Eastmark is being touted by city and state leaders as the next big economic engine for the metro area's East Valley. But it's not just the return of large-scale home construction to a region that was hit particularly hard by the housing crash that has hopes running so high. Two major employers, Grand Canyon University, Arizona's largest for-profit Christian university, and GT Advanced Technologies, a supplier of sapphire-glass iPhone components for Apple, announced in the second half of last year that they would be moving in to Eastmark. The number and type of jobs these two projects are expected to bring to the area — faculty and staff to serve 10,000 students, and 700 permanent high-tech manufacturing hires — are key to developer DMB Associates' vision for a type of mixed-use community rarely seen in this part of the country.

"I really can already see it, people walking here, and with all these connections to be able to navigate by bike," says Dea McDonald, Eastmark's general manager and senior vice president at DMB, on a recent tour of the work completed so far on the project's first phase. McDonald thinks that 20 years from now, Eastmark will be held up as a national model for how to achieve a more sustainable style of suburban growth.

There are reasons to take such claims seriously. A new campus of the nationally top-ranked BASIS Charter Schools has already opened across the street from the first batch of homes at Eastmark, and McDonald points out some of the small touches within the development — community parks at the center of each residential cluster, pedestrian paths and trails that connect neighbors to each other — that he sees as enabling a lifestyle where kids and parents alike will be both willing and able to walk or bike to school or work. Soon enough, he says, multifamily buildings, retail centers, civic areas, and a 100-acre Great Park will all converge down the middle of the development to complete the package — a sort of satellite city core, with an urbanity and a walkable center of gravity of its own, on the far east side of the valley.

That's an uncommon sales pitch for car-dependent Arizona, and indeed it's a bit hard to swallow in this early phase, when standing in the parking lot for Eastmark's welcome center offers vast views of empty desert, a good 30-minute drive from central Mesa. "It does still feel like you're in the middle of nowhere," McDonald admits. But he and fellow DMB executives say they're comfortable taking quite a long view of the planning process for this massive project, thanks in large part to Mesa's willingness to allow them to experiment with the city's first application of a form-based zoning code.

Developers typically start out by working within the framework of existing zoning rules, then request modifications from the relevant city or county piece-by-piece, a process that can not only be excruciatingly slow, but ultimately quite limiting in terms of the strict segregation of land uses that conventional zoning demands (residential, commercial, industrial, etc.). But form-based code adheres to standards based on building types and their relationships to one another, rather than strict uses, and advocates of more compact, walkable urban environments have in recent years seized on its adoption as an important tool in avoiding yet more sprawl. The City of Miami, for example, completely replaced its existing zoning with a form-based code called Miami 21 in 2010, which sets up walkable neighborhood centers as the citywide default pattern for development and redevelopment.

"Mesa was a sleepy bedroom community and a lot of people liked that, but in the long run it's not sustainable," says Karrin Taylor, DMB's executive vice president in charge of land-use entitlements. "We've been quite successful over the past 50 years building houses, but in the long term, as a member of the business community, we've realized we have to get involved in trying to attract new companies and new employers to Arizona as well."

Mesa's willingness to allow DMB to operate within the more flexible framework of form-based code, Taylor says, was a crucial component in Eastmark's ability to land both the Apple facility and Grand Canyon University. The new rules revolutionized the way the company set up its entitlements — the bundle of government approvals any developer must contend with before breaking ground — which in practice has meant a faster and easier approval process than most industrial or institutional projects could ever dream of.

DMB first acquired the property, which used to be the old General Motors Proving Grounds, at the top of the market in 2006 for $260 million, just two years before Arizona's property values crashed. At the height of the recession, the entire project had to be put on ice, suffering further from a string of bad-news announcements like the apparent loss of a planned Gaylord resort and conference center. (It seems Gaylord, now owned by Marriott, may very well be coming back to the table now). But even now that the first phase is finally underway, the maps on display alongside a dozen interactive flat screens at Eastmark's welcome center show only vague swaths of color, almost daring the viewer to ask: Just what is this place going to be?

"This is the first master-planned community I've worked on that doesn't have a plan," says McDonald, which is, again, by design. As additional employers come on board, he says, DMB wants to remain flexible about how and where it crafts the neighborhoods that will come in future phases, and form-based code is helping them do just that.

For all the "walkable, bikable" touches being introduced inside Eastmark already, much of it does look and feel very much like the rest of Arizona, a state that's in no danger of running out of land to develop any time soon. The first single-family houses range from 1,500 square feet up to almost 6,000 square feet, and they sit on large lots with big garages and expansive back yards. Asking prices run from $200,000 to $600,000, putting them in the higher-end range of master-planned properties in East Mesa. When, say, a grocery store does finally open here, odds are good most residents are still going want to drive there. And there's no guarantee that the people who purchase homes at Eastmark aren't going to end up commuting all the way into downtown Phoenix. Still, Jim Holway, director of Western lands and communities for the Sonoran Institute, an Arizona-based think tank focused on land use and community development policy, doesn't see DMB's efforts as something to be dismissed.

"You'd have to look a long way to find another master-planned community that's even trying to do something like this," he says. "It's Arizona, we're not going to create a community where you're never going to get into your car. That's not going to happen. But what if we can create a community where you get in your car half as much?"