If you want a metaphor for how the East Valley was doing as this decade began, here’s one for you: A gaunt, rusting multistory steel skeleton in Chandler.
Elevation Chandler sat at the corner of South Price and Frye roads, the abandoned dream of a whiz-bang developer who had launched the hotel-condo project in 2006 only to run out of money – as did much of the world about that time.
The ruin loomed over every shopper who visited the next-door mall, every driver who rolled past on Loop 101. It stood as a haunting reminder of the Great Recession until the decade was almost half-past, not coming down until 2014.
If you want a metaphor for how the East Valley is doing as this decade ends, this same site will do.
Go there and you’ll see gleaming new offices, fine apartments, places to eat and no sign the skeleton was ever there.
Ten years will do that to a place. Start low, end high. Or vice versa.
Along the way, the nearly finished decade produced a kaleidoscope of events, in retrospect, roared past like water gushing through a busted Tempe Town Lake dam – about which, more later.
To begin, think of an East Valley aflame with Tea Party passion and still screaming in pain over the Great Recession. An East Valley in which not one person owned an iPad. An East Valley without marijuana shops, self-driving cars and an army of fed-up teachers willing to turn the Arizona political establishment on its ear.
Those first two stories – the Tea Party and the recession – were actually carryovers from the previous 10 years.
Right-wing anguish over the economic policies of President Barack Obama had spawned the Tea Party movement in early 2009 and before long the East Valley had a plethora of Tea Party “patriot” groups.
Ironically, as the movement flourished, one of its local heroes bit the dust.
That would be Russell Pearce of Mesa, a legislative veteran who had carved out a national reputation as a foe of illegal immigration and who, in 2010, was the chief promoter of Senate Bill 1070, this strict anti-immigration measure became a law despite howls of protest from immigrant advocacy groups and civil libertarians.
Pearce’s rhetoric and political proclivities, which at times led him to at least the fringes of the far-right, led to a rebellion among moderate Mesa Republicans who forced him into a bitterly fought 2011 recall election.
Republican Jerry Lewis replaced Pearce in the Senate – the first time in U.S. history a sitting Senate president was forced from office on either the state or national level.
Pearce tried to reclaim his seat in 2012, but Mesa Republican Bob Worsley won it instead, effectively ending Pearce’s electoral career.
As for the Tea Party movement itself, its spirit survives in deep-red enclaves of the East Valley political landscape and in the President whom they helped elect in 2016. As the decade ends, most of the websites and Facebook pages for area Tea Party groups seemed to have gone dark.
This early-decade political angst played out against the backdrop of the Great Recession, the first local signs of which had appeared as early as 2007 in the form of slowing real-estate sales and plummeting sales-tax revenues.
Economists say nationally, the recession already ended by mid-2009. The East Valley didn’t get the memo.
The decade dawned with some sections of the region resembling ghost towns, with rows of empty houses, forests of “for sale” signs and code-enforcement officers battling blight in hundreds of abandoned properties.
The climb out of this hole has been long and slow.
From a peak of more than 10 percent in 2010, unemployment in the East Valley has gradually declined. But at roughly 4.5 percent in 2019, unemployment was still higher than the national average.
This statistic notwithstanding, the decade ends to the tune of a deafening chorus of hammers, backhoes, cement trucks and buzz saws as housing, apartment and commercial construction flourishes across the region.
Median values of existing real estate, meanwhile, soared past peak pre-crash levels in what some analysts called a “very hot” housing market all across the East Valley.
But as hundreds of new apartment units began going up, the affordability of homes in the East Valley became an increasingly bigger issue – one undoubtedly to continue resonating in various ways well into the new decade.
What else, you ask? Here’s where the kaleidoscope really begins to spin as we revisit, in no particular order, a smattering of headlines from the past 10 years….
Gilbert grows up
The Town of Gilbert – it’s still proudly a “town” despite a population greater than those of the biggest cities in several states – began to develop a bit of urban ’tude.
This was especially notable in its downtown, which became a lively nightlife and dining hub.
Meanwhile, development flourished along Gilbert’s Loop 202 San Tan Freeway corridor, including an ongoing $200 million expansion of Mercy-Gilbert Medical Center will cement the town’s role as a player in the East Valley’s burgeoning medical-services field.
In addition, the first phase of a 272-acre regional park opened this past September at Queen Creek and Higley roads while two months later, Desert Sky Park opened on Power Road south of Williams Field Road.
Other downtowns boom
Other East Valley downtowns didn’t do too badly themselves.
Chandler pursued its aim to turn downtown into an entertainment district, symbolized by the opening of the Overstreet multi-use project at Chandler Boulevard and Arizona Avenue. But it also encouraged a live-work-play approach to downtown development with the approval of new condo and apartment complexes.
Chandler also built a new City Hall, an encouragement to a developer who is now building a complex on a long-empty lot across from it on Arizona Avenue.
Mesa saw its first new downtown residential construction in 30 years, with numerous other projects underway or planned.
One of the largest is being undertaken in conjunction with a dramatic interior and exterior renovation of the Mesa Arizona Temple, which is expected to reopen by next Christmas. Adjacent to the temple site is an eight-building, 100,000-square-foot residential/commercial complex being built by City Creek Reserve, the development arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Tempe added density and height with a plethora of office and residential projects
Growing be degrees
Concerned about a local shortage of higher-education venues, East Valley cities sought to expand their options.
Gilbert created a downtown campus for Chicago’s Saint Xavier University, but the school pulled out after only one year. Missouri-based Park University now occupies the space.
The University of Arizona College of Nursing also opened a four-year bachelor of science program in downtown Gilbert.
Mesa’s most successful college recruit was Benedictine University, which now has a solid downtown footprint. Mesa also made a deal with Arizona State University to build a campus adjacent to the city office complex.
Fed up after years of penny-pinching by the Legislature, East Valley teachers joined colleagues around the nation in a “Red for Ed” movement.
A six-day teachers strike in the spring of 2018 ended after the Legislature approved giving them a 10 percent raise in the next school year and 5 percent raises in the following two school years.
But public-school officials and advocates say Arizona still has a long way to go when it comes to restoring the massive cuts in K-12 and university funding the Legislature whacked in the wake of the Great Recession.
Mesa voters agreed in 2010 to spend $84 million for a new Chicago Cubs stadium on the site of the old Riverview Golf Course. Without it, the team threatened to move its spring training operations to Florida.
The new stadium opened in 2014 and continues to set Cactus League attendance records – and perhaps not coincidentally, the Cubs won the World Series in 2016 for the first time since 1908.
Meanwhile, the Oakland Athletics returned to Mesa and how host spring games at Hohokam Stadium.
Speaking of baseball
Gilbert and an outfit called Big League Dreams partnered in the mid-2000s to build a $40 million youth baseball complex near Power and Elliot roads.
But Gilbert ended the deal in 2017 because of concerns over safety and maintenance. The park reopened under town management in early 2019 as Cactus Yards.
Meanwhile, Gilbert and Big League Dreams have settled their litigation against each other. Although each side claimed in court papers the other side owed them millions, they settled without exchanging a penny.
Two that got away
In 2010 Mesa still hoped for some sort of partnership with Waveyard, this Scottsdale company promised to build a world-class water sports facility in the Riverview area. And plans were on the books for a huge Gaylord resort complex on the north end of what used to be the General Motors Desert Proving Ground.
Waveyard died for lack of funding and the Gaylord sank under the waves of the recession.
Ironically, the recently opened Great Wolf Lodge in Scottsdale/Talking Stick offers both – big resort-style lodging and an immense water park.
One that didn’t get away
State and local officials were giddy in early 2011 when First Solar of Tempe agreed to build a 1.3 million-square-foot solar panel manufacturing plant, also on the old GM property.
But by the time the plant was built, the solar panel market had crashed, and it never went into operation. Eventually, Apple Inc. bought the building and, after investing $2 billion, now uses it as a data command center – the keystone in southeast Mesa’s burgeoning tech center.
The city has identified the area as the Elliot Road Technology Corridor and has invested millions in infrastructure to lure data storage and other high-tech firms.
Driving the future
When, and if, self-driving cars take over America’s roads, Chandler will have played a key early role.
Google chose the city as a testing ground in early 2016, and now its spinoff company, Waymo, has made its vehicles ubiquitous in the East Valley.
The technology does not come without cost: In early 2018 an Uber self-driving car being tested in Tempe fatally struck 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg. She is believed to have been the first person in the world struck and killed by an autonomous car.
So far, Waymo has maintained a sterling safety record. The few times its vans have been in accidents have been when they’ve been hit by errant motorists.
Meanwhile, with an eye on the future of autonomous vehicles, Chandler became what is believed to be the first municipality in the country, if not the world, to adjust its zoning regulations for developers whose office buildings are designing to accommodate a significant percentage of workers who will use ride-sharing driverless vehicles.
Another new addition this decade has been the advent of electric scooters and bicycles, which have forced East Valley municipalities to regulate them since users were abandoning them in heavy pedestrian areas – or on the front lawns of residential neighborhoods.
Intel Corp., which first announced in 1979 it would expand into Chandler, deepened its investment in the city over the past decade.
It announced in 2017 it would spend more than $7 billion to complete Fab 42, touted as the most advanced semiconductor factory in the world.
When President Barack Obama dropped by in early 2012 to visit the aforementioned Intel plant, he was met at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport by then Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.
Pictures of the Republican governor shaking her finger in the president’s face flashed around the world; Brewer said she had taken umbrage at Obama’s reaction to a book she had written.
Meanwhile, Brewer termed out of office and was succeeded by Gov. Doug Ducey, who has made it his mission to keep Arizona “open for business” by cutting regulations and beefing up its transportation infrastructure.
Mesa twice extended its Main Street light-rail line, which now terminates at Gilbert Road. The city is thinking about other expansions, possibly through the Fiesta District and Chandler is studying light rail in the long term as well.
The developers of the Cooley Station community in southeast Gilbert are so hopeful about an ongoing state-county study of existing commuter rail lines they’ve included a transit station in their own plans in case commuter service is ever implemented along the Union Pacific Railroad line.
Meanwhile, Tempe began construction of a three-mile downtown streetcar system slated for completion in 2021.
Only days before the decade ended, the final segment of the state’s Loop 202 system was completed as Arizona opened the 22-mile Congressman Ed Pastor Freeway linking the Chandler and West 59th Avenue interchanges of I-10 – the single largest highway project in state history was finished in three years after four years of legal fights aimed at stopping it.
In 2014, the first mile of the new State Route 24 freeway opened in southeast Mesa; it eventually will reach into Pinal County and connect to a planned freeway from Apache Junction south to Eloy.
Every city in the East Valley saw robust population growth after the recession.
Mesa, which is believed to have actually lost residents during the downturn, soared past the half-million mark. Altogether, the region’s population now exceeds 1.2 million.
Death of a mall
Fiesta Mall, a mecca for Valley shoppers since 1979, closed in 2018 with only a Dillard’s clearance center keeping the lights on until last summer, when it too folded its operation there.
Just across Southern Avenue, the long-dormant Fiesta Village finally saw city approval of a redevelopment plan consisting mostly of apartments.
But brick-and-mortar retail in the East Valley is hardly dying, as attested to by the continuing expansion of the areas around both San Tan Village in Gilbert and the Chandler Fashion Center.
There goes the lake
Town Lake, the crown jewel of downtown Tempe, became a vast mud puddle within minutes after one of its rubber dams burst on the evening of July 20, 2010.
The four dams were supposed to have lasted up to 30 years after being installed in 1999, but Arizona’s merciless heat wrecked them in short order.
They were replaced by a hydraulically operated steel dam, and in November 2019 Tempe celebrated the lake’s 20th anniversary.