Nearly 1,000 attendees packed the Grand Canyon Ballroom at the J.W. Marriot Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort to hear insights from top-tier presenters at the Urban Land Institute Arizona 11th Annual Trends Day on Wednesday.
Experts and leaders in economics, social trends, education, politics and other disciplines kept a brisk pace across a range of topics. Kicking off the day’s event, K.C. Conway, senior vice president of credit risk management for SunTrust Bank, touched on the state’s development history and the factors that led to its initial growth. He then described a potential future fueled by changes in transportation and manufacturing if Arizona has the vision to act and invest creatively and wisely.
Water an Ongoing Concern Across Region
A panel of water usage and planning experts moderated by Grady Gammage, Jr., discussed the ongoing fights over how to best overcome current challenges and plan for the future while accommodating short, intermediate and long term needs for all users of the Colorado River system.
While no consensus emerged, panelists all acknowledged progress has been made, but that much remains to be done. Numerous areas of contention were noted, including competition between municipalities and states, the demands of different types of industries, processes related to planning and permitting, and the ongoing search for new technologies to help address the problem of satisfying so many diverse user needs via a single primary source of water.
Millennials, Open Space and the Need for Flexibility
The rise of the Millennials and their much-trumpeted social and business impact was an often raised issue throughout the day. In a tightly choreographed joint presentation, DAVIS Co-Founder Michael Davis and President Rory Carder explained how that demographic’s perceived need for flexibility and open, collaborative environments has been a key factor in planning of new work spaces and creative offices.
Carder explained that while the goal has been opening up space and reducing the space required per employee – down from 250SF in 1996 to a possible 50-75SF by 2026 – the unintended consequence in many instances has been reduced productivity. She added that up to 50 percent of offices built on or adapted to open space plans are ending up restoring privacy barriers to some extent due to losses in employee effectiveness.
Davis cited physical location as a factor of diminishing importance in terms of where and how work gets done. “If we’re not careful,” he said, “we may end up building a world in which there’s no there, there.”
Carder added key considerations moving forward in urban space design will include sound economics, socially conscious and sustainable design and construction, flexibility, attractive location, and timeless aesthetics.
The Light Rail Debate Never Dies
The highlight of the day for attendees came as two long-time frenemies discussed one of the Valley’s most protractedly contentious infrastructure and investment issues. In a debate that could have at times been mistaken for a comedy routine, former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods and Republic columnist Rob Robb once again butted heads on the overall value, moral acceptability and general desirability of the area’s implementation and ongoing commitment to light rail as a means of alternative transportation.
Woods took the view there are some tasks only government is willing and able to perform, and the roughly 6x return light rail has seen on its initial $1.4B investment has proven the vision correct.
Robb countered most of the much-lauded investment and building that has popped up near light rail lines would have happened anywhere, and that the notion of aggregate demand being materially generated by light rail is false. In his view, light rail is a hugely expensive way to move a small number of people a short distance, and the results achieved to date are inferior to those the Valley could have seen had the same amount of money been invested into improving bus service and other surface transportation options.
Woods countered that governments should be involved in shaping the future of the areas they serve and the heavy Federal subsidizing of light rail development was an excellent way for the state to finally get back some of the money it has sent out to national coffers.
Growth Will Depend on Funding and Encouraging Education
Prior to ASU President Michael Crow presenting his vision for the university through 2025, a four-person panel of education experts and activists discussed the improvements Arizona has made in education and the daunting problems still facing the state.
A key ongoing challenge is the disconnect between the 85 percent of voting residents polled who name education as a top priority and express a willingness to fund it and the state’s political leadership who have, so far, refused to significantly increase the money provided for teacher retention, as well as improving vocational and technical education options.
Another item of vital importance, according to the panelists, is providing students of all backgrounds the tools and instruction to reach their educational potential.
All members on the state expressed agreement with panelist and Sundt Construction Chairman Doug Pruitt when he said, “Education is an investment, not an expense. It changes when people and business leaders say, ‘We’ve had enough.’”