Guest Editorial: Kid! Get Off My Lawn.

By Mike Norton

The “growth years” for Scottsdale long ago ended. From 1970 through early 2000’s, Scottsdale grew steadily. Compared to today, we were a vibrant, comparably young, and thriving community. Family Friendly housing developments and the expansion of superb school networks dominated those decades. Not only were there no complaints about growth, we embraced growth and enjoyed it. From 1980 to 2005, from McCormick Ranch on the South to DC Ranch and Grayhawk on the North, Scottsdale was the Valley’s “It Place” for anyone wanting to raise a family. Our City has gone stagnant ever since.

In early 2020, the Athena Foundation Scottsdale and Scottsdale Coalition of Today and Tomorrow jointly completed an eight weekeight-week study of the historical growth of our City. Released in February 2020, eighteen people collaborated to report the then emerging trend towards rapid aging, displacement of young families, and the potential impact on our community. At the time, we had only the U.S. Census estimates through 2018.

As recently reported by Don Henninger of SCOTT, a local civic group, the 2020 U.S. Census confirmed and even heightened the fears we expressed two years ago. For ten consecutive years (beginning 2012 and continuing through 2021), the age group demographics associated with families have been shrinking. Every single year. Now at a faster rate than before.
Through 2012, children (those under 18 years of age)(18 and Under) represented 19.8% of the population of Scottsdale, somewhat lower than the the national or State level, but still a healthy rate of rejuvenation of the population. Since 2012, that same age group has declined to just 15.5% of the population of Scottsdale. At the current pace, kids will be 10% or less of our population by 2030. Young families no longer come to Scottsdale to raise a family. Losing those families is part of the reason that Scottsdale’s average income has slipped behind that of Gilbert and Chandler. Those age groups are always the segment with the highest household income in any community. As well as the biggest retail spenders of their income. The days of those higher income families choosing Scottsdale for their home are all but gone – unless we act decisively.

This was not just about kids growing up and their parents choosing not to have more. Families were actually displaced and left the City. In their place Scottsdale rapidly added residents 55+ and Short Term Rentals. At the 65+ level, Scottsdale now has 60% more senior citizens than the national average. A higher percent of Senior Citizens than any reporting City in the County with the sole exception being Sun City, which bans children altogether.

It is not hyperbole to state that Scottsdale is well on its way to becoming the “West’s Oldest City” instead of the “West’s most Western City”. We will live in our current homes as long as we can. But within the next decade, the single greatest demand for increased housing in this City will be for Assisted Living Centers.

Is that where we really want to go? . . . . . . . If so, just keep doing what we’re doing. If not, it’s time to shock the system. The trend will not go away on its own.

Our School System is our greatest asset in restoring some youth to this City. Peter Bezansen, the BASIS C.E.O., is often quoted saying that Scottsdale has “arguably the best School District and the best Charter schools in the State”. Enrollment numbers support his claim. Kids from all over the Valley commute to SUSD High Schools daily; so much so that we put enrollment limits on some that were overflowing. Kids from all over the Valley commute daily to BASIS and Great Hearts as well. The demand for their KG-6th grade programs is also always greater than capacity. Along with superb K-5’s at the SUSD and PVUSD campuses in our City, Scottsdale parents are blessed with great choices. The problem is not poor schools. The problem is “a rapidly declining number of Scottsdale kids to fill them.”

[Before I leave that topic, there actually is one big problem with K-5 Schools in our City. We purposefully chose not to build any north of Pinnacle Peak. In a Forty Square Mile plus region, not one school was ever considered or built. That should have been the ominously flashing warning sign of things to come as the region North of Pinnacle Peak quickly became the home of “aging wannabe cowgirls and cowboys, country club golfers, and empty-nesters.” No parks. No schools. No sports facilities. No event venues. Hardly any restaurants or grocery stores. And you have to know where the nearest of the few gas stations are at all times or you’ll find yourself too far away when you see the “Empty-Light” start flashing.]

WHAT HAPPENED TO FAMILIES? We stopped building family friendly housing. From 2000 forward not a single major master planned community was added to our City. Windgate was the last. On top of that shortage of new housing inventory, the homes that used to be filled with families were too often converted to Short Term Rentals. In many zip codes, the number of homes available for families actually declined. Add to those factors the impact of a “toxic Party-House neighborhood” – defined as 2-3 Short Term Rentals per block — where no family would dream of raising their little kids. And top it all off with a screaming overall housing shortage that drives the few remaining homes well beyond the financial reach of all, but the wealthiest of young parents.

THE SOLUTION? Build more family friendly homes. They don’t have to be large lots with big yards. Look to DC Ranch and Grayhawk for proof that a 2,000’ home on a 4,000 to 6,000’ lot is a great home for a family (if there’s a school and a park in the middle of the neighborhood).

WHERE TO BUILD THOSE HOMES? On Jomax there are two State owned parcels of 640 acres each. One fronts Scottsdale Road. The other fronts Pima. Set them aside. Designate a place for a school. And throw away the notion that every building lot north of Pinnacle Peak must be 1.5 acres or larger. There are also thousands of Trust Land acres to the East of Pima Road and North of Dynamite. Some would hope to make them additions to the Preserve. If that is the final decision, we’ve put the nail in the coffin of North Scottsdale. It will only grow older. It will never rejuvenate. West of Scottsdale Road, North Phoenix will be vibrant and thriving. The Scottsdale side to the east will grow ever more stagnant. And then there will be great outcry for Rest Homes.

WHAT DO I EXPECT? Given the actions of our Mayor and a portion of our City Council, I fully expect Scottsdale to maintain this completely unsustainable direction at least through 2022 and possibly through 2024. Instead of renewing significant support for Family-Friendly Density, we’re fighting it. Instead of supporting projects with smaller lots, our City Council succumbs to the loud and increasingly gray haired and crotchety mob of folks demanding that all those “kids stay off our lawn.”
This is exactly how great Cities grow old and die.

Mike Norton, 29 Year Resident
Executive Director, Athena Foundation Scottsdale