Even in sprawling Arizona, downtown condos are now hip

Phoenix and Tucson see a bevy of new condo construction. But is the trend strong enough to slow desert development?

Chela Sullivan, a social worker on the younger side of Generation X, is about to purchase her first home. She's chosen a condo in central Phoenix to keep her lifestyle simple and eliminate long commutes in this vast car-choked metropolis.

Bill Curtis, a now-single baby boomer, has given up spacious homes - he once owned a 10-acre horse ranch - for a condo in northeast Phoenix. He loves the community feel of his plush 600-unit facility, the amenities (five pools, five spas, complete fitness center, and golf course, for example), and the ability to drive no more than five minutes to theaters, restaurants, and shopping.

The two are at extreme ends of a growing movement of Arizonans who are forsaking sprawling suburbia for downtown living. This movement is fueling a bevy of condominium projects in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Other conditions - like rising energy costs, congested freeways, a new, downtown Phoenix campus for Arizona State University, new sports and cultural complexes, and the construction of a light-rail system - are also contributing to the new phenomenon of building up rather than out.

Similar moves have already taken place in America's more densely packed metropolises. But the fact that they're happening in a place like Phoenix - with 60 percent more land than New York City but only one-seventh of its population - suggests that residents of even the most sprawling cities are ready for change.

The region's condominium projects "attract two very diverse groups who have historically not been interested in condo living here," says Jay Butler, director of the Arizona Real Estate Center at Arizona State University in Tempe. "Aging Americans, the empty nesters, want to move away from suburban sprawl, and the young, entrepreneurial worker wants to live where the action is."

Some 8,000 condo units - ranging in price from $200,000 to $5 million - are planned or under construction, including:

• In downtown Phoenix, at least three condominium towers are going up. Several others are in the pipeline.

• In Tempe, the plush Edgewater condominiums just opened, and five other towers are under construction around the man-made Tempe Lakes .

• In Scottsdale, twin 13-story towers are being built downtown.

• In Mesa, two 10-story and two 19-story towers are slated for construction.

• In Chandler, one 15-story office/condo tower is being built with 103 condo units.

• In Gilbert, construction is to begin this year on a project featuring 1,200 loft-style condos as well as business space.

Mr. Curtis, who's been selling real estate here since 1978, says that because of current scarcity, condo prices have doubled in the past four years.

Condos aren't new here, but they've never been built in such numbers.

The demographic impact of such projects remains uneven. The population density of Phoenix and Tucson barely rose between 2000 and 2004. But in fast- growing Mesa, the number of residents per square mile rose 13 percent during that period - three times the average rise in the US.

In the long run, it's not clear how many people will prefer living in densely populated downtown areas rather than moving farther out in the desert, experts say. Some predict that the sprawl will continue and that Phoenix and Tucson will merge in the next decade.

Local residents appear deeply conflicted over building issues. In a survey of area residents last month, 85 percent said that sprawl was a problem, according to Valley Forward, a local environmental public-interest group. And 61 percent said there wasn't enough land set aside for open space and recreation.

At the same time, more than three-fourths of the respondents indicated they would oppose high-density development - like condo projects - in their own neighborhoods.

Mr. Butler of the Arizona Real Estate Center predicts that both trends - sprawl and "building up" - will continue for some time here. "People might get upset over a bald eagle or Bambi," he says. "But displacing Gila monsters doesn't bring out too much sympathy."

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