The interior of Los Arcos Mall, at Scottsdale Road and McDowell Road.
I was recently interviewed by a graduate student at Arizona State University, who is writing on the history and prospects for the area of south Scottsdale around the former Los Arcos mall. Zonies might find the exchange of some interest:
What are your memories of Los Arcos growing up?
I lived about half a mile away during high school, from 1970 to 1974. We had moved there from central Phoenix. It was very much a cohesive neighborhood. Like most of Phoenix then, it was very lush with grass, trees and landscaping. It was homogeneous: middle-class Anglo families, many of whose fathers worked at Motorola.
It was fairly new, and much of McDowell didn’t even have sidewalks. You could still see farming going on a quarter mile north of Thomas Road. Scottsdale Road was barely developed; we have a stunning view of the buttes out the back of our house. Scottsdale itself was still partly rural, with a rustic/touristy downtown. There was not much north of Chaparral Road.
The neighborhood was centered on Coronado High School, which then was a very fine school, including one of the best fine arts departments in the country.
Los Arcos supplemented Papago Plaza, an older shopping center on the southwest corner of McDowell and Scottsdale Road. It was the area’s newest mall, and quickly became a hangout. It was very new and pleasant, especially for high school kids who didn’t know any better. So I remember seeing movies at the basement theater, such as Soylent Green. I remember running into friends at the mall, especially Susie, a girl I had a mad adolescent crush on. Los Arcos quickly became a centerpiece of the area.
During college, I worked as an EMT and paramedic in Scottsdale in 1974 and 1975, before being reassigned to downtown. We were the first advanced life support unit in the state, maybe the Southwest. On the job, I often was called to the mall. And off duty, it was still a great place to hang out and shop, with Sears on one end and Broadway on the other, and cheap Mexican food at Pancho’s. I moved away in 1978 and didn’t live in Phoenix until 2000. During my return trips in-between, I rarely made it to Los Arcos. I do remember stopping there in 1990, and the mall still seemed vibrant – although by then, I was definitely not a mall person.
What were your thoughts on the possibility of having a WalMart instead of SkySong?
Wal-Mart would have been bad. WMT has abysmal employee practices, and its control of the supply chain gives it near monopoly power. It’s not as if Scottsdale had many local merchants to crush, but the principle of the thing. A huge surface parking lot would have only added to the heat, which is much worse and lasted much longer than when I was a kid and teenager. Moreover, WMT would have added nothing in spinoff economic development. So obviously Skysong was a better bet. But the drift and lack of vision concerning Los Arcos was telling. A hockey arena – far from downtown and easy transit, and disrupting the neighborhood. One example of the bad ideas.
How do you think the results of the mayoral election may impact SkySong? Why?
Scottsdale seems to have a very self-destructive element controlling city hall: inward-looking, parochial and held hostage by the thuggish bullies who show up at meetings demanding low taxes and their “property rights.” The result is that Scottsdale is unable to deal with its many problems. The northern part works simply because that’s where the rich people are. Yet the city can apply no vision on issues such as transportation or even quality of life. To the extent that this element rules, it will continue the drift and self-destructiveness. That means being an unreliable partner for ASU, and certainly one that is unable to leverage Skysong as an asset. In many ways, it would be better to let Tempe annex south Scottsdale up to Thomas Road.
Whose responsibility is it to stimulate economic development in a community? Why?
It’s a complex dance. Successful communities have powerful business leaders who can deploy capital and knock heads – the latter so the “veto elite” of nut-cases that besiege Scottsdale City Hall can’t carry the day. They have substantial headquarters companies that reinvest in the community, attract talent, spin off entrepreneurship and are magnets for talent. These companies demand forward-looking policies on transportation, environmental issues, etc. These communities tend to already have a population that is affluent and educated – and progressive, eschewing radical politics. They have a tradition of stewardship, with wealthy patrons and powerful foundations that are deeply committed to the city’s well-being. They are outwardly focused and forward-leaning, leveraging the world economy. And they have a manageable urban form, with a real downtown, urban centers and neighborhoods. Metro Phoenix has none of these assets anymore.
As its few assets have faded, it was left with land speculation, sprawl and house building as its “economy” – it was the last and biggest factory town in America. That and tourism, along with the enclave of the very wealthy in north Scottsdale and Paradise Valley. These players by their nature create low-wage jobs, a huge gap between rich and poor, draw a huge illegal immigrant workforce that is left on the margins, and they have little involvement in community. They are averse to even having a real discussion about the region’s problems, because fixing them would involve stopping sprawl. It would involve higher taxes to make the investments necessary to change course and make Phoenix appealing to 21st century companies. Sprawl is particularly destructive, leaving behind neighborhoods to become linear slums as the dwindling middle class moves farther out, or clusters behind walls in tribal communities such as Gilbert. Los Arcos and much of the surrounding neighborhood was a victim of this cycle.
In the Phoenix lexicon, economic development is “growth” – meaning population growth. By this measure, it was successful, until the current recession. “Leaders” of various groups talk about economic development, but lack the ability to deploy capital. This has left ASU as about the only real player in economic development. It’s a fortunate situation, but more than any one institution can handle alone.
But I can’t emphasize enough how little attention Phoenicians are paying to the calamity developing around them. We can discuss this further if you wish.
What should the role of a public university be in its community? Should public universities be responsible for cultivating entrepreneurship and innovation? Why?
Obviously, universities should be major players in entrepreneurship and innovation, as is shown in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. They should also provide superb liberal arts educations to cultivate educated citizens, not merely worker bees. Sometimes that latter mission can get short shrift. But, again, a university can’t do it alone. It has yet to be shown that ASU or the UofA alone can create a more diverse economy in Phoenix. Were it the size of Madison, Wisconsin, the task might not be so huge.
Skysong has yet to prove it can be transformational. And it also has to prove it will not merely siphon assets from other parts of the region – a phenomenon that keeps the region behind.
Do you have any thoughts on the possibility of gentrification being in issue in the area?
I see little chance. First of all, the cookie-cutter single-family subdivisions were built inexpensively and have aged badly. This makes rehabbing them much less likely than, say, a city neighborhood of 1910-era houses. Secondly, it has become more and more home to first-generation, non-English speaking immigrants and other low-income demographics, which are especially shut out of the mainstream in Arizona’s limited economy and intolerant atmosphere. This further discourages reinvestment.
And metro Phoenix does not have an ethic of reinvestment in neighborhoods – all the expertise is in sprawl building on the next Greenfield “master planned community.” Transportation is south Scottsdale is limited to single-occupancy car trips and abysmal bus service – hardly the thing to attract urban pioneers. The schools are poor. Finally, the region is not attracting nearly its share of high-paid jobs, high-skilled immigrants and well-educated people (aside from retirees and the gate people of north Scottsdale). It is openly hostile to gay people. All of these demographics make for gentrification.