I17 Phoenix

It’s hard to drive the 17 into Phoenix without remembering my first trip down that interstate.

 It was spring 1995 and I was piloting a half-empty 24-foot Ryder rental truck packed with one ratty couch and a few feet of miscellaneous junk, which was everything I owned in the world.

Three things about the Valley immediately became apparent:

One, you couldn’t get a good Philly cheesesteak anywhere. Two, the Phoenix Suns were destined to break my heart. And three, people like me – people moving here from elsewhere – were viewed as a serious problem.

“Too much growth,” the natives grumbled. “Too much sprawl,” the Phoenix newspaper blathered. “We’re bulldozing an acre an hour,” the environmentalists wailed.

Now, it’s 23 years later. The cheesesteaks and the Suns still will not win championships. But we’ve completely abandoned whining about growth and urban sprawl.

I was reminded of that attitude change when the Census Bureau released its latest population figures last week.

The stats ranked Phoenix second in the nation for adding new residents, with more than 24,000 people moving to the city last year. Also on the Census list: Buckeye, ranked as the fifth-fastest growing city in the U.S., with a 5.9 percent spike in population.

Back in the day, such a boom would have caused much gnashing of teeth. Community leaders would have convened think tanks to discuss how to pay for things like roads and utilities, and how to fund schools, cops and firefighters for thousands of new residents.

 Today? We actually seem proud of chewing up the desert at a record pace. Buckeye even put out a cliche-ridden press release about its growth.

The release prominently mentions the city’s nearly 5,000 new home permits. And Buckeye’s city leadership touted their “award-winning Public Works Department” as one of “the many benefits making Buckeye a great place to live, work and play.”

I can personally attest to Buckeye’s public works prowess, having recently driven West Main Street, where there appeared to be very few potholes. And yes, the city has world-class storm water drainage.

That quote should look fantastic on a slick brochure for Buckeye’s next master-planned community.

Sprawl was such a big deal back in the mid-1990s, the New York Times actually noticed – a rarity given that Arizona is located west of the Hudson River.

They sent a reporter to town in December 1996, for a few thousand words headlined, “Urban Sprawl Strains Western States.” Scottsdale got a prominent mention as a place “brimming with prosperity, resorts and lawyers in tank-tops doing business by cellular phone in the shade of saguaro cacti.”

Because as all true Arizonans know, no tree outperforms the saguaro for creating shade. So long as you’re 7 feet tall with a 14-inch waist.

Rob Melnick, then director of ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, told the Times: ‘’I’ve been driving from one meeting about sprawl to the other for the last 15 years, and the only thing that’s changed is that now it takes a lot longer to get there.”

That was 20-some years ago. Buckeye had 6,000 residents then. The Valley had only about half today’s population of nearly 5 million residents. You still can’t find a decent cheesesteak here. The Suns seem further than ever from an NBA title.

And urban sprawl?

 So long as the sun stills shines and the land is still cheap, I’m sure we will continue to build new houses as far as the eye can see.

Me? I draw the line at cell-phone-bearing lawyers in tank tops crouching behind saguaros to glom some shade. Sprawl is one thing, but that has got to stop.

David Leibowitz has called the Valley home since 1995. Contact david@leibowitzsolo.com.