As Cities Centralize, Are The Suburbs Dying?

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Friday, November 3, 2017 - 5:05am
Updated: Saturday, October 20, 2018 - 11:39pm

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David Crummey
(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
David Crummey, real estate development manager at Newtown Community Development Corporation Community Land Trust, in downtown Mesa.

The New Neighbors project is a collaboration between KJZZ and the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting that looks at how the Valley of the Sun has changed since the economic downturn a decade ago. Today, we’re in the middle of a real estate and rental market boom, our cities are centralizing — it’s all changing the face of our communities Valley-wide. This is Part V of the "New Neighbors" series.

Throughout our “New Neighbors” series on the ways in which communities are shifting in the Valley, we’ve taken a look at many of the areas that have changed most in the years since the recession hit. And most of those are in the central Phoenix corridor, where rising property values and rental prices are most concentrated and they’re changing the face of their surrounding neighborhoods.

But, with all of the focus on urbanization and centralization, what’s going on everywhere else — in the so-called suburbs?

Here is a closer look at two of the communities outside of the central city that stood out on the map when we crunched the numbers: downtown Mesa in the East Valley, and Maryvale in the West.

These were some of the areas that were hardest hit during the Recession, and where, today, we’re seeing things turn around.  

Downtown Mesa

Mesa Typewriter Exchange
(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
Mesa Typewriter Exchange in downtown Mesa has been there for three generations.

To find out what’s happening in downtown Mesa these days, we took a tour with David Crummey. He manages real estate development for a local community land trust, and he’s a dedicated member of the downtown Mesa community. 

“We’ve had a lot of investment, both in new businesses and in older business,” he said, “like this shoe repair shop that’s been here 70 years.”

Then, he pointed out the new comedy place that just opened up, “and then right here is one of the top ten recording studios in the country, Salt Mine. And then right across the street is downtown Mesa’s very first dorm,” he said as we walked around downtown Mesa.

In the last few years, he’s been part of the community-driven efforts to grow Mesa’s downtown, which seem to have worked.

For this project, the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting aggregated rental market data from Zillow, and housing price data from Trulia. And, according to our analysis, over the last five years, since the bottom of the home value slump in 2011, downtown Mesa has seen rental prices go up more than 20 percent. And, during the same time, home sales here have gone up nearly one-and-a-half times over.

“If a house is under $250,000, it will not be on the market for more than 30 days,” Crummey said.


Another area that’s seeing prices go up in the Valley is the sprawling west Phoenix community of Maryvale.

To learn about this part of town, there’s one place to go: Popo’s Fiesta Del Sol restaurant.

Dwight Amery
(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
Dwight Amery, president of the Maryvale Revitalization Corporation, sits in a booth over lunch at Maryvale staple, Popo’s Fiesta Del Sol restaurant.

“Popo’s is a Maryvale staple,” according to Pastor Samson Dunn of Catalyst Church in Maryvale. “If you don’t know about Popo’s, you don’t know about Maryvale.”

We went with the man Dunn called “Mr. Maryvale,” Dwight Amery. He’s the president of the Maryvale Revitalization Corporation, and he’s lived in this part of town since the early 1980s.

“At that time, our two sons were very little, and you could get more house for your money out here, so that’s where we bought,” he said over tacos and chips and salsa. “Thirty-five years later, we’re still in the same house.”

But, 35 years later, you might not be able to get the same deal. Like downtown Mesa, Maryvale has seen a widespread increase in home values in recent years, according to our analysis. While it was also one of the parts of town hardest hit during the Recession, in some areas, home prices nearly tripled between 2011 and 2016.

“It’s always been because of, you know, the housing stock and you could get a good deal,” Amery said. “It’s a lot of first time home buyers. And, most of the time, that’s young families.”

Hover over the map to see household income, rental prices, home values and more.

A 'Reshuffling' Of Population

These are two very different neighborhoods on opposite sides of this sprawling region we call the Valley of the Sun. But like many areas outside of city centers across the country, they are both in the throes of change.

“This is a reshuffling of population. It is not necessarily a good-to-bad, bad-to-good situation. It is a reshuffling, reordering of how we live,” according to Dr. Meagan Ehlenz, an associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

She took a look at our data with AZCIR and said that there are a few major trends happening in the suburbs here in the Valley. And, the first has to do with the fact that many of them — like Mesa — are way too big to be considered suburbs.

“Mesa’s a city of almost 500,000 people,” Crummey said. “We are a big city, but we refuse to acknowledge that we are.”

In fact, Mesa is the 36th-largest city in the country, bigger than Atlanta proper, and Omaha, Nebraska.

“When you look at a place like Phoenix, like the Valley, where you have a large urban center, center city in Phoenix, but you do have all these cities in their own right that are as big as other cities in other parts of the country,” Ehlenz said. “The dynamic is different there.”

Centralization isn’t just happening in downtown Phoenix right now. We’re seeing smaller urban centers popping up all over the Valley, from downtown Gilbert and Chandler to Glendale and Peoria — and, of course, Mesa.

Hover over the map to see household income, rental prices, home values and more.

“It’s creating its own urban center, in its own right. Not as a comparison to Phoenix or as a compliment, but its own urban center,” Ehlenz said.

And, in that center, Ehlenz said, there are demographics shifts happening, as well. She said there has been an increase in the white population, as well as an older contingency moving in.

“So, it’s sort of young professionals to early Baby Boomers,” she said. “And so it’s a different kind of urban center, which I think is really valuable in a place like Phoenix that’s so large.”

Outside of those booming city-centers, though, it’s a different story.

“We are seeing increases in poverty,” Ehlenz said. In fact, she said, nationally, there has been a 66 percent increase in suburban poverty in recent years. And that represents a flip in the way our cities are traditionally structured.

“We’re now seeing a more European model,” she said, “Where the center cities is the place to be.”

(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
A girl jumping rope outside of Broadway Boxing Club in downtown Mesa.

That means that more affluent, white populations that moved out to the suburbs in the 1950s and '60s are moving back to the city centers. And in places like Maryvale, we’re seeing housing prices go up at the same time that poverty rates are going up and demographics are changing.

“You absolutely are seeing immigrant populations going directly into the Maryvale neighborhood,” Ehlenz said.

In fact, Maryvale is now 75 percent Hispanic, according to data collected by the Maricopa County Association of Governments, a massive shift since it was founded as the first master-planned community in the state in the 1950s.  

But, to Amery, the shifting demographics haven’t changed the community’s core.

“It’s no different, I mean, it’s still hardworking people same as the community’s always been,” he said. “It’s just people working hard, they’re not wealthy, and they just want better for their kids than they had.”


So, as city centers become more expensive and poverty increases in the suburbs, are people getting pushed out?  

In downtown Mesa, Crummey said, “That’s sort of the big next question.”

Maintaining diversity and affordable housing in downtown Mesa is a priority to him and others who are invested in the area. But, he said, it’s also a challenge.

Johanna Richards has been living in Mesa for about three years. But, recently, when she started looking to rent or buy somewhere downtown, she said, she noticed something was changing.

“I started to realize that prices were actually going up,” she said. “Like, houses were on the market and then gone. And, on the market, and then gone.”

She got involved in the community in downtown Mesa a few years ago when she said realized there was actually a lot going on there.  

“Mesa has a history; it’s not just like the second-hand Tempe or the place that you live if you can’t afford to live in Tempe,” she said. “But it actually has an identity.”

Johanna Richards
(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
Mesa resident Johanna Richards is involved in shaping downtown Mesa’s future, but is worried she won’t be able to afford to live there in the future.

But even though she’s become one of the people there who is working to shape downtown Mesa’s future. Right now, she said she can’t afford to live there. She is hoping to save up to invest in a property downtown, she wonders if the prices will continue to be out of her range.  

“By the time that I have the money for that, am I still going to be able to afford to live in this area?” she asked. “And that’s a pretty big question for me.”

But, according to Ehlenz, what’s happening in our city centers is not necessarily displacement where the forces of gentrification push minority and lower-income folks out of their longtime homes. “We didn’t have as much housing down there to begin with,” she said.

But, she said, that doesn’t mean it’s not problematic.

“The other real struggle is, as you have higher levels of immigration and, particularly, higher levels of poverty in the suburban areas, you have to try and figure out, ‘How do we connect people to jobs?’” Ehlenz said.

But, she also thinks all of this “reshuffling,” as she calls it, is a chance to improve urban life in our emerging downtowns — and in our suburbs.

“I see this as a huge opportunity to sort of bring these new urbanism building blocks beyond downtown Phoenix and take them and move them into all these other communities,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity because we have the momentum.”

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