Master-planned communities must create legacy of innovation

December 06, 2012

Thursday, we reported on a new master-planned community on the site of the former General Motors proving grounds in Mesa. The development could eventually include 15,000 houses, along with parks, shopping areas, and office towers. In the second of two parts, we look at how planned living has shaped the Valley, and if it can remain relevant. 

Master-planned communities are so common around here, it can be easy to forget how much they contributed to the Valley’s development -- and vice versa.

Former GM proving grounds Construction crews at work on the site of the former GM proving grounds in Mesa, Ariz. (Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez - KJZZ)

“To a large degree, the history of master-planned communities nationally is tied to Phoenix,” said Taylor Mammen, a consultant with the real estate firm Robert Charles Lesser & Co. He says that in the 1960s, Del Webb’s concept for the Sun City retirement community was groundbreaking, and it lead to the creation of planned communities that catered not only to seniors, but also to families.

They became so common that some developers and builders saw these communities as likely to fare better during a downturn. But during the recent recession, Mammen says that wasn’t true. 

“In large part that was due, we believe, to the fact that they are located, generally, far from employment," Mammen said.

"Buyers in the most recent market, due to higher energy prices and changing preferences, have certainly voted with their feet to buy or rent housing that is closer to where they work and to other amenities.”

After years working for developers, Paula Randolph now deals with urban livability issues at the Sonoran Institute. She sees the market moving toward master-planned communities that don’t force their residents to drive quite so much.

“People might be close to where they work, and wouldn’t that be exciting, that they didn’t have to get in their car! That they could bike to get there, that they could walk to get there," Randolph said. "I think people are looking for that opportunity, and to have options for housing. Not everybody wants to have a three bedroom, two bath single-family home.”

Paula Randolph The Sonoran Institute's Paula Randolph. (Photo by Nick Blumberg - KJZZ)

Randolph envisions planned communities with different housing options and all the important amenities close by, including entertainment, transportation, and good jobs.

That’s what the development on the former GM proving grounds in Mesa hopes to be: almost a mini-city. That kind of idea sounds good to Kaid Benfield, who directs the sustainable communities program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He talks about the idea of suburban retrofit -- taking empty areas (say, abandoned proving grounds) and redeveloping them smarter, and with urban density in mind.

“They don’t have to be a lot more dense, but they’ve got to be a little bit more dense," Benfield said. "So I do think there’s potential in the right circumstances for a good new development in a suburban setting to improve that setting both environmentally and as a place to live.”

And even though many master-planned communities have thrived on cheap, empty land at the outskirts of metro areas, Benfield said sprawl is losing in the marketplace. “Developers that are attempting to sell new sprawl, they’re kind of on the wrong side of a number of trends.”

Even if investors start shying away from the old model of planned living, the Sonoran Institute’s Paula Randolph said it’s still too familiar for some companies to toss it in the trash. “[With the] market being still somewhat shaky now, it makes builders continually nervous. They look back to where they’ve been successful.”

While builders might like the familiar, that’s not always what consumers want. Randolph said companies who develop planned living projects wouldn’t want the reputation of being behind the times.

“It’s a money proposition, it’s a business proposition, but at the end of the day, there’s a legacy piece that becomes very important to large master-planned community developers," Randolph said. "They want to be able to say to their grandkids, ‘I had a piece in this.’”

Whether the legacy is one of continuing the status quo or of innovating ... well, that depends on the developer.

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