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City Hall 101:
If you don't ask the question,
you won't have to dread the answer...

by Greg Swann

In May of 2005 the City of Phoenix held a cheerleading session, called City Hall 101, for the Phoenix Association of Realtors. It amounted to a one-way information dump on all the ways the City has devised to use expropriated land and expropriated money to enrich politically-favored groups – mostly government employees of various kinds, but also plugged-in developers and Realtors. There was a smug kind of 'our crowd' clubbiness throughout the event. For example, two of the presentations began with racist jokes that, had they been told by a Realtor, would have been federal, state, county and city Fair-Housing violations, subject to steep fines. But the truth of the matter is – because I believe in political liberty and private property – I always feel out of place at these kinds of things.

In any case, an open and honest debate on the issues was the last thing on anyone's mind. Not one of the public opponents of the City's grandiose plans was invited, and there were no question-and-answer sessions. It could be there were other Realtors in the audience who were as disgusted as I was, but none of us offered any evidence of discontent.

We live in a city where one insane Cargo Cult after another is proffered as the salvation of Phoenix. The mystical incantation, never intoned aloud, is that if we mimic the effects observed in some other city – performance halls, a downtown mall, a massive government housed in massive government buildings, subsidized art, a convention center, a trolley, etc. – we will have mimicked the causes of urbanization and Downtown Will Rise Again! One silly grand plan after another, one spectacular failure after the next, with the stuffy establishment echoing every Cargo Cult mantra, eagerly imbibing every new dose of Cargo Cult Kool-Ade. And no one – not the political opposition nor the newspapers nor the broadcast media – dares ever to offer a discouraging word. We are speak-no-evil monkeys, all of us. No absurd proposition is ever publicly doubted, and no intelligent question is ever asked out loud.

This is an intellectual policy unlikely to have happy consequences.

And so I am resolved to ask my questions, now if not at the City's event, here in the public prints if not outright, out loud, in public.

For example, when former Phoenix Deputy City Manager Jack Tevlin, in defending the value of the forthcoming trolley system, told us that rush hour buses are actually full, why didn't he tell us what proportion of those bus passengers are schoolchildren? Doesn't that seem like a reasonable question?

When he compared the costs of new highway construction to the cost of trolley construction, why didn't he tell us that highway drivers pay 100% or more of their own costs through taxation, while trolley passengers will be subsidized by the taxpayers by as much as $12.00 per trip? Is there anyone who would support the trolley if he knew that each rider will be subsidized as much as $6,000.00 per year – enough to buy each one a brand new car every three years?

Tevlin also argued that one of the purposes of the trolley is to limit labor costs, with one driver per multi-segment train as opposed to one driver per bus. My simple question is this: Will anyone – ever – be laid off from Valley Metro?

The words "transit-oriented development" were in fact uttered, so no one can say we were deceived. But in Tevlin's presentation, transit-oriented development seemed to imply shiny, happy people skipping up the sidewalk to hop on the trolley for the ride to their exciting bio-tech jobs downtown. Missing entirely from the discussion was the true nature of transit-oriented development – zoning overlays that forbid by fiat of law certain uses of the land along the trolley's route. An intelligent question would be this: Is there any sort of justice in a free country – and is there any sort of benefit to the actual tax-base of the City and not just to the transit orienteers – to forbidding a landowner from using his own money to build a Wendy's or a McDonald's or any drive-up restaurant on the streets to be encroached upon by the trolley? Is it reasonable to think that Realtors and the commercial community of Phoenix would be quite so solidly behind this trolley boondoggle if they knew how many commercially valuable uses of the most valuable commercial real estate in Phoenix are forbidden by so-called "transit-oriented development"?

And that leads to the obvious next question. Almost a year-and-a-half ago, the Goldwater Institute demonstrated with devastating logic and so-far entirely unchallenged arithmetic that the trolley will be a spectacular failure at achieving every one of its attested objectives. Precisely how confident are you, Mr. Tevlin, in its success, if you have to stack the deck by preventing every sort of development that can be of benefit to drivers?

There were other speakers, but the one who was most objectionable to me was Phoenix Assistant City Manager Sheryl Sculley. Perhaps without intending to, she let slip the words "Creative Class." This may have flown right past the other attendees, but Creative Class is the name of the current craze, the new Cargo Cult, the next salvation of Phoenix to rise from the ashes of all the earlier failed Cargo Cult salvations of Phoenix. The idea is propounded by an academic named Richard Florida. In his formulation, the Creative Class consists of young college graduates who favor hip, tolerant, urban scenes with funky restaurants, offbeat clubs and tiny, ugly art galleries infested with tiny, ugly art. Florida's belief, and apparently Sculley's, is that these people matter so disproportionally to the future of a city that not just the entire city government but in effect the entire city is to be given over to them.

Thus we are to have the Translation Genomics Research Institute, a small building employing a very small number of people. And around that we are going to build a huge new ASU campus, whether or not ASU students are willing to come downtown. We're going to build the Civic Plaza Convention Center for the third time because it hasn't failed spectacularly enough the first two times. We're going to build a big new taxpayer-subsidized hotel because the other big taxpayer-subsidized hotels aren't empty enough yet. We're going to build a trolley, you betcha by golly. And we're going to do all of this by expropriating virtually every square inch of developable real estate downtown.

Downtown Phoenix will be like the State Capital, one government facility after another. South of Washington Street a few tiny residential projects will be suffered to be erected – subject to the intense oversight of the City and selling for $300 or more per square foot.

All of this raises no end of questions in my mind. For instance, if there is any truly creative class in a free economy, it is the entrepreneurial class, the people who create the wealth that is expropriated by taxation. Why, Ms. Sculley, given the track record of the City of Phoenix, would any entrepreneur invest in commercial real estate downtown? Is there any business owner with offices at 411 North Central Avenue, for example – where every lease was abrogated so the structure could be given to ASU – who will take another chance on downtown Phoenix?

Taking account that the only viable pedestrian-oriented nightlife in the Valley is on Mill Avenue in Tempe, it is understandable that you would conflate viable pedestrian-oriented nightlife with the idea of 'downtown' – especially when you are under the influence of this Creative Class Cargo Cult Kool-Ade. But do you honestly fail to understand that a 'downtown' is the commercial heart of a city, not a bohemian enclave grafted onto a college campus?

The Realtor in me would like to know if Sculley and others in the City government truly believe that the land in Phoenix that has the highest potential commercial value – and therefore the highest potential taxable value – should be expropriated and given to what we used to call, in our younger and wiser days, a land grant college? Is there some benefit to the tax-base of Phoenix to destroying the taxable value of this land? Is there no substantially-less-valuable land – for instance the blighted area just south of downtown – that would not serve just as well?

More significantly, even allowing that some entrepreneur might be wide-eyed enough to invest downtown, might be willing to let you tell him what businesses he can and cannot undertake, might even be eager to let you and other so-called 'stakeholders' – called this because they have zero financial stake in the business – dictate to him every last detail of his business plan – even allowing for all of this – where, precisely, will he erect his structure?

Sculley showed us a map of downtown illustrating all of the parcels of land that have recently been co-opted by the City. Vast tracts of land have been taken, some with a roar, most with a whimper. Allowing for these new expropriated parcels and all the others taken previously, there is almost no privately-owned land left for an entrepreneur, no matter how wide-eyed – or gullible – to develop. The Creative Class Cargo Cult will succeed where all others have failed because there will be absolutely no alternative to it. If entrepreneurs won't build a true downtown in Phoenix, then Phoenix will expropriate their land and their tax dollars to build a fake downtown. Drink the Kool-Ade – or else.

It is important to understand that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with Phoenix, nor with Maricopa County as a whole. As author Joel Kotkin pointed out in a recent op-ed in the Arizona Republic, Metropolitan Phoenix is healthy in exactly those ways that the anemic coastal cities that Cargo Cultists long to mimic – the cities attestedly favored by the Creative Class – are not. Phoenix is clean, safe and affordable. It has an extremely high rate of home ownership, an ever-expanding job base and a diversified economy that cannot be devastated by downturns in a specific industry. It has everything the antique cities on the coasts lack, and this is why Metropolitan Phoenix is growing while those cities are shrinking. Why then would Sculley and the other speakers devote so much effort to trying to cripple Phoenix in exactly the same ways that coastal cities have crippled themselves? It's one thing to build – and re-build and re-build – an empty Cargo Cult Convention Center. It's quite another to co-opt billions of dollars worth of land and pour billions of tax dollars into a Cargo Cult Kool-Ade concoction that will actually prevent a true downtown from arising in downtown Phoenix – while doing billions upon billions of dollars worth of future damage to the city's commercial and tax bases. It does not seem to me to be beyond the pale to ask if the City government of Phoenix is actually trying to destroy this community for being what it is, in vengeance for its not being what it is not. And if this is not their actual intent, how does one tell the difference?

There are many more questions I'd like to ask. For example, Sculley says that the eternally youthful Creative Class craves culture. Why, then, are the audiences at the Herberger Theater and Symphony Hall – talismans of past failed Cargo Cults – so incredibly old? There may be a Birkenstocker or two in the house, but the septuagenarians arrive by the busload. If tiny, ugly art galleries are so much to be desired, why is the City's First Fridays art event such a flop, when the reviled professional sports franchises are such a huge draw? I guess my main question for Sculley and for the other speakers is this: When you say Creative Class, are you saying anything other than that you want to crash this Phoenix, this Thunderbird – so successful despite all your pet theories – this desert paradise that you so palpably despise? Isn't it your hope, at the least, to craft a few plausible counter-arguments to make to your envied colleagues in New York or San Francisco, to cover your embarrassment for living in a city that actually works for its ordinary taxpayers and not just its tax parasites? Isn't it true that your ultimate objective is to use stolen land and stolen money to build upscale amenities for yourselves and your cronies? When you envision this imaginary Creative Class, do you see anyone other than yourselves?

But my most important question isn't for Sculley, nor for Tevlin, nor for any of the other speakers. The question arising from City Hall 101 that seems most vitally important to me, as a Realtor, is this one:

Why are Realtors – or at least their membership organizations – always so much at war with private property? The freedom of Americans comes not from the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, nor from the Second. It comes from the right of each individual to own, improve, use, enjoy and sell his private property free from the corrupt intrusions of government. To the extent that our governments undermine the right to private property, they undermine all of our rights. When the City of Phoenix takes land by force, or uses the threat of force to forbid certain uses of the land, it is directly attacking the real estate industry. Why then are the Realtors and their attested leaders in the Phoenix Association of Realtors, the Arizona Association of Realtors and the National Association of Realtors always so eager to align themselves with the government in one conspiracy after another against individual property owners and taxpayers? Why are they always first to line up to drink the Cargo Cult Kool-Ade?

Lucky for us, we are speak-no-evil monkeys. If we lived in a city that dared to ask a question, we might get some disquieting answers...

Greg Swann is a Realtor who resides in North Central Phoenix. Like virtually everyone who lives here, and unlike seemingly everyone in City government, he thinks of Phoenix as a paradise on Earth, the perfect place to live, work, play and raise a family.

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