Superstition Vistas

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Public hearings will be held soon on how to manage the growth of an area in Pinal County that could be home to up to a million people. Learn more about Superstition Vistas as Dr. Jim Holway of the Sonoran Institute and Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club discuss the massive project.

Ted Simons: Up to one million people could be living in a 175,000-acre area known as Superstition Vistas, located in Pinal county, east of Phoenix and north of Florence. The land is currently owned by the state land department. An 18-month effort to plan for the growth of the parcel culminates in two public hearings tomorrow and Wednesday. Those attending the meetings will get to give feedback on which of four scenarios they like best for the development of the project. Each of the scenarios will include information about economic development potential, housing and liveability profiles, and environmental impacts. Here to talk about Superstition Vistas is Sandy Bahr of the grand canyon chapter of the Sierra Club. Also here is Dr. Jim Holway, who is the director of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Sonoran Institute Joint Venture. Thank you both for joining us on "Horizon."

Sandy Bahr and Jim Holway: Thank you.

Ted Simoms: Why is this a good idea?

Jim Holway: It comes down to how are we going to grow? What's the future of Phoenix and central Arizona going to be? We've been a state for almost 100 years now. What is it going to look like? Most projections say it's going to be maybe triple with what we have now and what's important about the Superstition Vistas is it's an effort to envision and label for the public one idea of how we can handle the growth in a fairly well planned way and get the dialogue going.

Ted Simons: Why is this not the best of ideas?

Sandy Bahr: It's all about location and the first thing is to question some of the assumptions. We assume because it's always been a particular way, it always will be. This idea that Phoenix and Tucson are going to grow together, is that the preferred method? In the documents relative to Superstition Vistas, you hear them talk about a blank slate. Well, do we need a blank slate to do things right? How about looking inward at the communities we already have and looking how we can accommodate growth there, where there's already infrastructure. Where we already have pretty much bulldozed over the desert. Think about how we can make those communities more livable and deal with urban heat island effect and make them more sustainable and energy efficient. This proposal seems like we're going to abandon that and we have this area we're going to do over.

Ted Simons: Why this particular area?

Jim Holway: A couple of reasons. And maybe two responses. The first thing I'd say I'd agree with what Sandy says about what we need do with our communities. We need to strengthen them, we need to try to revitalize them where they have issues. But if you look at how an area is going to grow, we're going to add five or six million people in the next few years to central Arizona, maybe a quarter of them, maybe 40% might move back into existing areas. Where are the rest going to go? And this is the idea of by building a new -- it'd be a city. Phoenix will be a city, Mesa, and Superstition Vistas will be another part. When you look at the whole corridor, it does sit in the middle of it. The idea of a high-speed rail line from Phoenix to Tucson would run through Superstition Vistas. The other unique thing about it, it's a single piece of land all owned by the state land department and we have to remember what it means to be trust land. Trust land is not intended to be open space. It's intended to be land from which we'll take the revenues to support our education system. That creates an interesting mix here. Those are two reasons for why that piece of land.

Ted Simons: That piece of land is trust land and we can talk a little bit later about reforming trust land laws, but is it not wise, instead of leapfrogging that you get now, to go ahead and, say, 50 years from now, we can picture what's going to go there instead of wonder what's going to go there.

Sandy Bahr: I would hardly advocate leapfrog development although that's not all related to state trust land. We've seen it happen. And part of the reason is because there are massive subsidies for what's occurring. If we take the resources that would go into planning and developing Superstition Vistas and again, looked at what we have and how we can improve it, maybe we should see if we can make things work in a more sustainable way in the communities we already have instead of planning a brand new city. And there's great opportunity in Phoenix and Mesa and Chandler to look at promoting a more sustainable way of living in the Sonoran desert. Before going out and saying we've got a brand new area we're going to develop. Yes, state trust lands are to generate revenues for the beneficiaries and the primary one is the public schools but that doesn't mean everything has to be developed quickly, and many of us think that trying to conserve some of those lands would make sense for the schools not to just continue the same old same old.

Jim Holway: A couple thoughts I'd add. One would be -- there's multiple partners. Pinal county, state land department. They own the land and most of the surrounding communities. And then the unique one is the one I represent, the Lincoln institute land policy and we're in it because we care about how this region is developed. But also to Sandy's other point, one of the key issues, we need to develop better models. Deal with heat island and energy and water use. For us, the resources being put into thinking about how we would build a whole new city from scratch in the desert would be building tools and we'll take what we learn and try to do that in downtown Phoenix too.

Ted Simons: We have video of the first scenario which is the least dense of the ideas for what's going on out here. We're taking a look at it right now. This is something that probably would make sense to most Arizonans to what they see now, correct? Not too much in the way of density.

Jim Holway: This looks similar to our current development pattern. The overall density is 20% higher. This looks a lot like we look today.

Ted Simons: I know the idea is they're going to come out here. The question is what are we going to do when they get here. But does it make sense for that huge parcel of beautiful desert out there to go ahead and be transformed into what we just saw so that people can live so far away from the core, the center core of the valley. Does that make sense?

Jim Holway: I personally like the much more dense development scenarios. But what does this region want to be 50 years from now? For me -- I have a 16-year-old son. Where will my grandson buy their first house in 2040? That's what we're talking about. In my mind, we create a whole new city and live and work there and we design it to be built at the density where it becomes an independent city that interacts with the rest of the community.

Ted Simons: The idea of an independent community interacting, even if you did all infill in the valley, you probably need room for folks who want to come out here. Why not go ahead and prepare for it?

Sandy Bahr: We're not advocating for not doing planning. Obviously, we have to plan. But we're questioning whether this is appropriate. Whether we should plan for Phoenix and Tucson to grow together. That's an assumption that's been made for a long time. We're questioning it. We should be questioning the growth rate. Are they sustainable? I think what has happened in the last couple years indicates probably not. An economy so based on residential development, an economy that's sustainable? Not at all. Many of the ideas that are associated with this proposal are good ones. We should have more efficient housing. We should accommodate more mass transit and should have more community parks and think about, you know, where we don't develop, things like washes and important wildlife areas shouldn't be developed. But to say, you know, we -- I guess the bottom line is, it's like giving up. It's like we're giving up on the communities we already have and that we're helping to make some of those predictions about those communities true. We've heard a lot of discussion about the suburbs becoming the slums of tomorrow. That's something that we've heard repeatedly. Maybe we shouldn't let that happen. Maybe we should look first at focusing on improving the livability in the communities we have.

Ted Simons: We have the other scenario is the most dense of the four scenarios, and this is one in which -- we're talking density on a par with Miami and Chicago.

Jim Holway: Right.

Ted Simons: The question hits you. Will people want to live out by the superstition mountains in an environment like we're seeing right now, in terms of density that we don't even have in Phoenix? Look at these high-rises. Is that a realistic scenario?

Jim Holway: I think it can be. What do we want? Clearly cities like Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, are highly desirable to the people who live there and we're not saying everybody in Arizona would want to live here. We're talking about 50 years from now when we're a region with 10, 12, 13 million people. Will one million want to live this way? I think there's a good chance they will. There's demographics saying we're going to smaller households and immigrant populations that want an urban lifestyle. And no one is saying this is the only model but it's another model that could appeal to our population.

Ted Simons: Could this not be an example, not only other areas of Arizona, of the world, on how to prepare for those heading this way?

Sandy Bahr: It would be a great example if we did it in Phoenix. And I think one of our concerns is we're more likely to see scenario A than D. One, what is going to make scenario D happen out there? And the other thing is again, we have light rail system, we have a bus system, we have increasing density in some of the urban core but there's so much vacant land still. There's ways to incorporate it into our existing neighborhoods and show how it can work. To demonstrate with cool roofs and less pavement and more trees how we can be more livable communities. I think it's important to prepare for the people coming, but we really need to think about the people who already live here. Let's think about the quality of life of the people who are already here, their children and their children.

Ted Simons: We're going to have to stop it right there. We have a couple of meetings coming up in a couple days.

Jim Holway: Gold canyon and then Florence on Wednesday evening and there's a website that people can go to find out. And it's If you google Superstition Vistas, you'll find it.

Ted Simons: Thank you for joining us.

Sandy Bahr and Jim Holway: Thank you.

Dr. Jim Holway:Sonoran Institute;Sandy Bahr:Sierre Club;

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