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Low interest rates
in a seller's market...

We're going to take an excursion into the blue skies of the real estate future of Phoenix, but first we ought to take account of what's going on right now. The Arizona Republic reports on the rabid seller's market to be found in Gilbert, but the fact is that residential neighborhoods all over the Phoenix area are oscillating at an incredible rate. Meanwhile, Logan Hall at SallieMae Home Loans advises us that mortgage interest rates are down again. I've been expecting the inventory of homes for sale to rise to meet demand, but I've also been expecting demand to abate with rising interest rates. Clearly neither is happening yet. The upshot is this: It's an excellent time to sell your home, and continuing low interest rates make it a great time to buy. Here's a great idea: Let's do both!

Phoenix Rising: Downtown...

The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go downtown.
Things'll be great when you're Downtown--
No finer place, for sure Downtown--
Everything's waiting for you...

My friend Richard Riccelli writes with respect to my investment ideas:

I am interested in following your model in emerging SoHo (SoWa in Boston) style neighborhoods / condo properties. Are there any such emerging Greenwich Villages / properties in Phoenix or are non-car-culture neighborhoods just a non-concept there?

This actually comes up a lot when people are relocating from Back East. They say things like, "We'd like to be able to walk to work." Or: "We need to have shopping nearby." Or: "At least put us near workable public transportation."

Alas, in Phoenix, as in many cities of the West, none of these things is possible, or at least practical, and nothing seems likely to change soon.

There are reasons for this, and we'll get to them. But first consider Verrado, a master-planned community--a subdivision of subdivisions--being built in the Far West Valley. Cathy and I went there last weekend, because it's my job to stay up on stuff like this. The Verrado idea is "home-town Arizona", and in its core it is conspicuously modeled on old-Arizona towns like Prescott and Flagstaff, with a close-in, semi-vertical "downtown" area that is supposed to sprout towny retail stores. Actually, it had the look and feel of real Newburyport, Massachusetts, a town Richard and I both know. Minus the history, of course. And the Merrimac River and the Atlantic Ocean. And the population.

For the core of Verrado is intended to be a fake downtown, a reintroduction of an idea long since vanished from the vast Phoenician sprawl. But it is truly wrong to call it fake if it works. When you see the faux-Princetonian scullers on the Tempe Town Lake, you are no longer seeing a fake-lake. The lake is as real as the rowers, as real as any lake anywhere. And what makes a downtown work is not architecture of differing ages and styles, not grit, not dirt, not winos being harried by Salvation Army bands, but simply this: A critical mass of around-the-clock urbanites.

Phoenix is not a city, not a city with a downtown, because in the spot with all the vertical architecture, the downtown-of-the-business-world, there are no around-the-clock urbanites. They go home at the end of the business day, just as they do in Wall Street in New York, and just as they don't do in Greenwich Village or Midtown Manhattan, the downtowns of Petula Clark's desiring.

Verrado, as it happens, is 210 avenues west of that downtown-of-the-business-world, that place where the high-paying jobs are, and for this reason it is probably doomed as anything but a fake downtown. Those 210 avenues come to 26.25 miles, which is a long way in Phoenix, but it's really nothing in suburban Boston. I used to live in North Andover, Mass., which is 35 miles from downtown Boston, and a much, much longer commute. Yet Boston has a downtown. And so does North Andover. But Boston and downtown North Andover were settled before the automobile, which makes for a huge difference. Boston is walkable, where virtually nothing in Phoenix is--including the fake downtown at Verrado. The cities that developed primarily after the introduction of the automobile, starting with Detroit and motoring west, will probably never, ever be walkable, downtownable cities. Not without a lot of blasting, in any case. The cities of the West that Easterners love are Seattle and San Francisco, precisely those cities that did their important development before the advent of the automobile. The reason is that with the automobile came "free" tax-supported roads, and there can be no walkable city where the tax-payers are gleefully subsidizing the development of the endless horizons. Verrado is being built on the old Caterpillar Proving Grounds, which was there because the land was useless and therefore very cheap. The I-10 Freeway gets you out there now, but Indian School Road and the SR-303 Freeway are being built to deliver traffic to and from this once nearly-useless land.

Phoenix goes this once worse by being, from the first, a pioneer's town. The wayfaring Latter Day Saints had grown weary, by the time they came to the Salt River Valley, of having to drive their wagons out of town to turn their teams around. They decreed when they came here that a street would be wide enough to turn a wagon pulled by two oxen around without backing up. In consequence, the side streets of Phoenix are about twice as wide as in other cities, and perhaps four times as wide as the cobbled streets of Olde Boston Towne. And the consequence of that one little bit of unintended urban planning is that Phoenicians play in their back yards, having little or no interaction with their neighbors. We are not the downtown sort.

But wait. There's more. The fact is, it's hot here. Really, really hot in the Summer, and what people from Back East consider pretty darned hot through most of the Winter. A Verrado-style downtown is a hard sell even with jobs and people, simply because much of downtown life is lived outdoors, while in Phoenix, much of outdoor life is unlivable. The one place in this Valley where there is a substantial and self-sustaining downtownish kind of life is in Downtown Tempe, just off campus from Arizona State University. It's just as hot there, but young people are willing to suffer through a lot for music, beer and careless rapture. And even then, excluding the dorms, there is no downtown vertical residential living. Downtown Tempe is a downtown full of commuters--with lots of free or vouchered parking.

There is one other factor, and this is not peculiar to Phoenix: Zoning. It's actually bigger than that, the epidemic infestation of government into all aspects of real estate. But every city young enough to have its own suburbia has been ruined by zoning. Houses here, churches there, factories here, stores there, and everywhere smiling happy people in neat and orderly lines, boy-girl, boy-girl, single-file.

A city is spontaneous, an anchor in the harbor, a shovel in the ground, a hope, a promise, then a bankruptcy and a new hope and a new promise erupting from that same spot of ground. By decreeing their orderly sameness, the zoners made it impossible for young cities like Phoenix to develop as anything except vast, bland suburbs. There is no there there? How could there be? Spontaneous human action, infinite and illimitable, has been smothered under the dead hand of the state. In Phoenix, decade after decade, the town fathers promise to make a new downtown, but this never happens because it never can. Downtown, Back East or in the Pacific West, is that part of town that developed before government presumed to muck everything up in the name of "improvement" or "order" or "planning" or "growth". In a real downtown, a school can be next door to a tavern, and the principal and the custodian can meet for a snort over lunch. Nothing like this, neither the structural nor the social juxtaposition, can happen in a city afflicted with zoning.

So, what do we have? Phoenix doesn't have a downtown because it is car-addicted. Because its streets are too wide. Because it's almost always blisteringly hot outdoors. And because like most young cities, it is afflicted with zoning. The heat alone is probably decisive: Without "free" roads and "free" Federal dams, Phoenix would probably never have developed beyond the size of Cheyenne (which, incidentally, does have something resembling a downtown, although it is still a car-addicted downtown). No free roads, no wide streets, no zoning--but still no downtown Phoenix, just because it is too uncomfortable to be outdoors for long.

What are the implications from a real estate investor's point of view?

We have to take downtown indoors, of course. I first had this idea more than 25 years ago, long before I'd ever thought about Phoenix. I was living in New York City at the time, and I thought it would be a wonderful thing to develop the entire length of the Long Island Expressway as a ribbon city, a skyscraper park nearly 200 miles long. The idea of mixed-use skyscraper development originated at Rockefeller Center in New York--office, retail and recreation. A very nice expression of the concept can be found at Copley Place in Boston, a shopping mall anchored by two hotels with office space between them, all built over the Massachusetts Turnpike. My way of doing this is much bigger and much more ambitious, but we don't need to worry about doing that much to give Phoenix a real fake downtown.

What do we need, the sine qua non? A critical mass of around-the-clock urbanites. How can we have them? They have to start and stay indoors. That means that the downtown space has to be connected to where they live. The there where they are has to be right there.

Don't hang around and let your problems surround you
There are movie shows--Downtown
Maybe you know some little places to go to
Where they never close--Downtown

It's a mall, of course. The mall was the answer to the unsavory facts of downtown life: The grit, the dirt, the winos being harried by Salvation Army bands. It is important for urban pioneers and rapacious city planners to remember that America's downtowns died because car-addicted suburbanites much preferred the mall to downtown. But if we were to build a mall in an area like the downtown-of-the-business-world in Phoenix, then use the superstructure of that mall as a platform for residential skyscrapers, then--with some selling--we could build a workable fake downtown. Walkable. High-paying jobs nearby. Continuously air-conditioned. And lots of free and vouchered parking underneath everything--because this is still Phoenix after all.

This is doable, 20 acres, 40 acres, every cubic inch a profit center, with many, many spin-off businesses to keep the capital flowing in development. Below ground is the parking lot. The mall begins at street level, anchor stores and high-volume stores and theaters. Above that is more boutique-retail, plus restaurants and food courts. And above that are those downtown services Phoenix suburbanizes--supermarkets and drug stores and dry cleaners and doctor's offices and health clubs and Montessori schools. And above that is the outdoors, a huge park by now 60 or more feet above street level, with pools, jogging trails, tennis courts. And sprouting among them are the residential towers, ownable condominiums or rentable apartments, each one its own business. Apartment-like housing can be a hard sell in Phoenix, because people very much want that American Dream home with the yard and the garage. But, built right, a structure like this can take a lot of those objections away. The needle skyscraper, for example--outlawed in New York for reasons of envy--provides a home that feels like an in-city estate. More traditional residential architecture will work, too, at an amazingly low cost per home. And all of these buildings are connected by elevator to the superstructure below--recreation, retail, dining, entertainment, parking and the blistering heat of the bristling street.

This is a downtown that works in a car-addicted America, a twenty-first century downtown, not a sad replica of fading photographs from the nineteenth century. The bad news is, no one is doing anything at all like this right now. Just lately we have high-rise residential happening in Phoenix for the first time in 30 years, but it's not even timidly mixed-use. This is a stop we would like to hit in our real estate journey, but we're a long way from that kind of capitalization now.

I have a lot of fun ideas for real estate development in the New Millennium. As an example, while Swinging Singles apartments were outlawed by the Fair Housing Police, I think there is going to be a significant market for in-city, high-rise 55+ condominiums. True Baby Boomers will not ever move to Sun City, but that doesn't mean they won't pay a premium for a residence with no kiddies shrieking at the pool. There are a lot of other things that ambitious investors can do to capitalize on the very slow but ultimately inevitable reurbanization of cities like Phoenix.

And in the long run, we will have the kind of master-planned downtowns that I describe here.

But that will be a very long long run...

A workable compromise...?

This is one of three projects being built in Phoenix under the name Metro Lofts. Another is a brand new high-rise building going up on Central Avenue just south of Camelback Road, the working presumption seeming to be that the forthcoming Light Rail system is going to make lower-priced high-rise residential living more acceptable to Phoenicians. No jobs within walking distance, and none of the mixed-use amenities discussed above, just a residential tower.

The project pictured above is a remodel on an existing office building directly across from Saint Joseph's hospital. This seems much more viable to me. Still no nearby shopping or other amenities, but incredible jobs right across the street, with a population that has no qualms about paying whatever it takes to have a home close to the hospital.

In the end, the building offers nothing of the downtown life, but these condominiums should work out very well as rentals, with virtually no maintenance required from the landlord.

Cargo cults pray for urbanization...

Two articles from the Arizona Republic highlight the kinds of approaches to crafting a downtown in Central Phoenix that have failed repeatedly.

The first concerns the supposed magical mystical power of historical preservation to create a downtown out of what used to be... a downtown. We sell a lot of historic homes, and there's a lot to love about them, but historic homes and buildings in Central Phoenix worked in the downtown of the 19th century because there were no cars in the 19th century. The Willo district, the most famous and priciest historic district in Phoenix, was built to be a car-addicted suburb. The idea of commuting by car, wagon or horse was baked in the cake from the very beginning.

The second article argues that using tax dollars to subsidize artists downtown will cause a real, actual, dynamic downtown to erupt where the artists are.

Both of these are instances of Cargo Cults. Downtowns Back East have old buildings, so if we forbid the destruction of old buildings, we'll have a downtown. Downtowns Back East have Bohemian enclaves of artists, so if we cultivate a Bohemian enclave of artists, we'll have a downtown. The actual logical fallacy is post hoc, ergo propter hoc--after this, therefore because of this. But as above, the sine qua non cause of a downtown is a critical mass of around-the-clock urbanites. In this way, the Downtown Phoenix Cargo Cults are not just risibly inefficacious, their efforts actually frustrate their goals. Forbidding owners to do what they want with their own property by zoning or historic preservation does two things: It exports capital to less-regulated markets and it prevents the high-density development needed to house and retain that critical mass of around-the-clock urbanites.

A Cargo Cult with a future...?

The latest "if you build it they will come" Cargo Cult mantra is a vortex of biomedical research to be built near the intersection of 7th Street and Van Buren. The Translational Genomics Research Institute is nearing completion, and Arizona State University and Arizona University have announced plans to build a new medical school on land donated (that is, condemned from private ownership) by the city of Phoenix. Amazingly for this kind of tax-funded boosterdoggle, the Arizona Republic actually raises intelligent questions about the project. But unlike other downtown Cargo Cults, this one might actually work--eventually.

It's a matter of synergy. Between the two medical facilities, neither of which will be very big, at least at first, is the Arizona Center. This is a previous iteration of the Cargo Cult fallacy, the idea that a shopping mall by itself would induce a downtown in Downtown Phoenix. The project included no residential development, so, of course, it's void of people at night. It's an outdoor mall, which was also a big mistake--the high temperature was 112 yesterday afternoon. For now it serves as a lunch-time food court for the dowtown office buildings, with a smattering of after-dark visitors when there are games at Bank One Ballpark or America West Arena.

But the medical campuses could engender enough demand for downtown residences, with Arizona Center there to supply at least some of their retail needs, that there might eventually be enough around the clock urbanites to form the critical mass that makes a downtown.

Don't hold your breath. None of this will be big or fast, and right now the residential development to be found in the neighborhood is decidedly low-rise. But it could happen...

Boomers incite downtown boom...

The idea of reurbanization senior style is borne out in this article from AARP Magazine:

The Shannonhouses are part of a growing trend: 50-plus empty nesters are abandoning sprawling suburbs for pedestrian-friendly cities, towns, and planned communities.

In the past decade, affluent boomers and retirees have helped fuel major growth in the downtown populations of several cities. "The upper end of the downtown condo market is all boomers," says John McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute. In the same period, town centers ringed with housing are popping up in big-city business districts, close-in suburbs, and new-urbanist, master-planned communities.

"Ten years ago, the concept of a town center was an anomaly," McIlwain says. "Now there's a significant trend toward the old urban retail style of parking your car, walking along the street to do your shopping, then going to a movie or a restaurant."

But builders surge ever
outward on "free" freeways...

On the other hand, the notion of suburbs unending is far from dead. As the Arizona Republic reports, Pulte Homes is about to sing their newest Anthem in far-flung Florence:

One of the country's biggest builders is extending the Valley's borders into the tiny town of Florence with an Anthem "do-it-all-here lifestyle" development.

The move by Pulte Homes' Del Webb division further cements Pinal County's position as the next epicenter of growth.

The newest Anthem is going up on 3,200 acres along the Hunt Highway. Plans call for 9,000 houses at the site, which cost Pulte $87million.

That many homes translates into about 25,000 residents.

The article details a number of other new Pinal County subdivisions in the works, but omits to mention the Loop 303 Freeway, which, if all goes as planned in next month's elections, will be paid for by sales tax receipts from Maricopa--not Pinal--County.

Even so, investors are a scourge...

Meanwhile, the Arizona Republic also reports that new home developers are turning would-be investors away:

Home builders are fighting back against investors targeting metro Phoenix as a new place to make a quick buck buying and selling houses.

Enticed by fast-escalating home values, investors are lining up to buy houses in bunches. They'll either rent them while values increase or make a fast sale and move on.

But builders are cracking down, limiting the number of homes they will sell to investors or shutting them out completely. They're worried that too many rental houses can diminish neighborhoods, and they don't want to see for-sale signs lining brand-new streets of communities still under construction.

Another worry: Rampant speculation can drive up prices, making it more difficult for rank-and-file home buyers to afford a new house and contributing to a price bubble that could burst if demand falls and investors sell in mass, killing property values.

"We really don't want to look down the street and see a sea of for-sale or lease signs," said Carolyn Morrison, vice president of sales and marketing for Beazer Homes in Arizona, which is banning investor sales other than deals for certain model homes, which the company leases back. "We don't build homes to increase people's investment portfolios or to increase their net worth. We build to create neighborhoods. We need to keep that as a primary focus."

The onslaught of investors was sudden and unexpected, though the phenomenon has hit markets such as Las Vegas and high-value California cities where home prices have zoomed. There are no hard numbers that track the number of investor sales, but some market watchers put it in the 30 percent range.

The article is fairly well balanced, but it omits to mention the materials shortages, particularly plywood and cement, that are causing builders to restrict sales across the board. If you had a limited inventory, would you rather sell to no-frills, bottom-dollar investors or all-the-options, damn-the-expense owner-occupants?

Investing in advice...

But frustrated investors should not despair. There's plenty of inventory in the resale market. And from the Arizona Business Gazette comes news of Personal Real Estate Investor Magazine, which is devoted to the concerns of real estate investors:

[Publisher Andrew] Waite calls his publication a trade magazine with a consumer spin, helping people find, make and save money in investment-grade real estate. He and a staff of six people work out of their homes.

The most recent glossy 64-pager features write-ups on loans, termite inspection and investing in the fringes of the Valley. Waite hopes to draw $60,000 in ad sales per issue.

The magazine's web site is here.

Waite "shopped" me. That is, he approached me for information in order to test his real estate theories. In the article noted above, he says, "Phoenix is the last affordable West Coast city." This is surely true, whether you're buying low-rise or hi-rise, in town or out, investor owned or owner occupied: Phoenix is the perfect real estate market. And--who knows?--someday we may even have a downtown...

-- Greg Swann

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"Just wanted you to know that the home warranty you bought for us saved our butts. The AC compressor failed completely and the cost of fixing it is $40 with the warranty, $1,500 estimate just for labor without it." – Bruce and Kina S.


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     If you are selling, the Bloodhounds will develop and implement a marketing plan that is second to none - anywhere in the country. As a world-class marketer, Greg paints compelling pictures with his eloquent words that just might make you think twice about selling... and Cathleen will ensure your home has been properly staged to help you get top dollar in this competitive market.
     Most importantly, you will receive the unvarnished truth - which you need more than ever in this market. Honesty is not only the best policy - it is their ONLY policy.
     If you are buying, you'll get the very best representation by folks who are committed to YOUR success in the transaction. If integrity is important to you - then you'll be in good hands with Greg and Cathleen.
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