Grand Canyon University; Photo by Shavon Rose for AZ Big Media
Arizona’s Valley of the Scholars
Phoenix may be built on a grid system, but it’s not too hyperbolic to say all roads (and, one day, light rail routes) lead to Arizona State University.
It’s the theory of diffusion of innovations, says Sundt Construction’s Business Development Manager Ryan Abbott. The theory, which has been around since Everett Rogers published a book about it in the ‘60s, suggests how cultures change and adapt to new ideas. What it takes for inertia to kick in on a cultural change is innovators (first 2.5 percent), early adopters (13.5 percent) and an early majority (34 percent). For an idea to carry, Abbott says, it has to reach a tipping point of 15 to 18 percent.
“That is exactly what the university and city did in downtown Phoenix,” says Abbott. “They started by innovating ways of being multiple places at the same time, using integrated technology, synergistic relationships, taking full advantage of mass transportation. Next, they brought in early adopters — Millennials who wanted to understand and report on society. Where better to be than fully immersed in it at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism?”
Phoenix gets schooled
Sundt Construction built the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, a bright orange and maroon building that sits along Central Avenue and very much serves as the front door of the ASU downtown campus. It was completed even before the first dorms, Taylor Place, were done. The university sits right along the Central and Van Buren light rail stop, which shuttles thousands of students a day to and from classes.
Years later, Sundt was asked to build the downtown’s campus’ Sun Devil Fitness building by the YMCA across the street.
“When we were selected to build ASU’s Sun Devil Fitness, (the university was) approaching the fulcrum that pulls the early majority with it,” says Abbott. “They had a reason for adaptive, creative people to be downtown; now, they were creating the places that keep them there.”
“Part of ASU’s mission is to deliver positive impact in the local community, where we are socially embedded,” university spokesman Mark Johnson says.
Universities serve as the catalyst for business attraction, with its well-educated labor force, as well as a hub for the Millennial generation that is changing the way society looks at work and life.
“At the nucleus of that new societal space is the university supplying its innovation, early adopters and early majority,” says Abbott. “The universities (in downtown Phoenix) are landlords to fantastic restaurants, creators of walkways that connect and amenities that inspire,” Abbott says. “And now that they’ve pulled in the early majority, the late majority and laggards are only to follow.”
Sunbelt Holdings (Portland on the Park) and P.B. Bell are two examples of the Valley’s largest commercial companies breaking ground on their first urban projects in Phoenix. Both companies are known for their master-planned projects, though multifamily trends and the growth of Phoenix’s Millennial population, due to higher ed facility expansions, have caught their eye.
“The expansion of ASU and GCU moving into the downtown area did have an influence on our decision to proceed with developing an apartment community in downtown Phoenix,” says P.B. Bell President Chapin Bell, “We believe that there will be a need for additional housing for both the staff and students that choose to live near the downtown campuses. Also, we expect that the addition of these campuses will generate a new excitement and energy attracting new businesses and downtown dwellers outside of the student population as well.”
P.B. Bell was awarded the adaptive reuse project of the 100-year-old Barrister Place (colloquially referred to as the “Psycho” building, because it appeared in the 1960 film) for a multifamily development.
Downtown Phoenix has been working for more than a decade toward making plans for adaptive reuse and infill projects easier and incentivized.
Kimber Lanning, who founded Local First, was one of the first innovators of a “new societal space” in Phoenix. She actively worked to launch the pilot program nearly a decade ago to streamline the process for adaptive reuse projects in order to retain young, vibrant minds.
“When I started Local First, it was on intuition,” she says. “The kids coming to my store (record store, Stinkweeds) were leaving. I started to think about what do those cities have that connects them to those cities and not Phoenix. They were acting in a local manner. We were too spread out. I set out to create districts. We need to encourage small business development. The brightest people want to be where there are cool restaurants, for instance.”
P.B. Bell Companies has also broken ground this year on Velaire at Aspera, a community near Midwestern University’s campus in Glendale.
“The nearby university is expanding, which will create a need for new, quality housing,” Bell says.
Strength in numbers
Universities aren’t just attracting new development. They’re actively participating.
“SkySong and the Chandler Innovation Center are strong examples of the kinds of projects that go beyond what you would expect a university to be doing, but provide linkage both to the university and to facilities attractive to new businesses,” says ASU’s Johnson. “We have regular conversations with municipalities around the Valley and around the state about projects that help build the larger infrastructure for economic development. We take those very seriously, but we don’t discuss them until they reach a greater level of fruition.”
Grand Canyon University (GCU), a for-profit, private Christian university, has more than doubled its footprint in the last seven years and plans to move more than 2,000 employees into West Phoenix with an office complex that will break ground next year. The university has 3,500 employees, is expecting 25,000 on-campus students and have half a million annual visitors to its arena. The school also invested $10M into Maryvale Golf Course to bring additional economic activity to the west side of Phoenix and is renovating 700 homes in the neighboring community with Habitat for Humanity over the next few years.
“We’re in the midst of a $1M partnership with the Phoenix Police Department to increase the police presence and combat crime in the areas surrounding our campus, which has had a huge impact on the community,” says GCU President and CEO Brian Mueller.
On top of those and other investments, GCU’s economic impact is about $1B annually, according to Elliott D. Pollack & Co.
“The biggest difference (between GCU and universities such as ASU) is that we are doing it as an enterprise, which means we are using investment dollars to build out a university that can make an impact in numerous ways in the community, all while also paying taxes back to the city, county, state and federal government,” Mueller says. “We’re having the same impact as other universities by producing more and more high-quality graduates and raising the intellectual knowledge of the community, but we’re doing it as a tax-paying enterprise, which adds a second benefit to the area.”
The university also claims to have more than 2,000 students enrolled in the fall semester from California.
“Arizona used to lose thousands of college students, mostly to California, who were seeking a private Christian education,” Mueller says. “Now, those students are staying home. What’s more, the trend has completely reversed, as we’re attracting thousands of students from California and other states to our campus because of the low tuition costs and affordable room and board rates. Those tuition dollars are now coming into the state and are being reinvested right here on our campus, which is a huge plus for Arizona. We hope that a percentage of those students will remain in Arizona after they graduate and build their careers here.”
Ryan Companies, which is working on the 2MSF State Farm build-to-suit at Marina Heights in Tempe and the ASU Research Park, specializes in office development. Nearly all of its office product is affected in some way by university expansions in Phoenix Metro, says Molly Ryan Carson, vice president of development for Ryan Companies.
“The search for educated employees is universal,” she says. “Universities are certainly an important factor in many real estate decisions.”
Universities are surrounded by amenities, such as restaurants and recreational spaces, that appeal to prospective office tenants.
“Having a solid university like ASU in close proximity is viewed as a definite benefit by the tenants we are seeing in the market,” says Carson. “The opportunity to be near tens of thousands of potential employees is very appealing. Additionally, a university often is located in an area rich with amenities, again, a critical requirement for tenants.”
GCU has its eyes on the same type of growth.
“An estimated 1.2 million STEM jobs will be available in Arizona by 2018, yet our universities are producing just half the number of graduates needed to fill this demand,” says Mueller. “We’ve launched programs in computer science, information technology and engineering to help close that gap and are working with industry leaders in Arizona to ensure that we’re producing graduates with the types of skills they are seeking. When we grow out to 25,000 students in the next 4-5 years, it is our intention that 70 percent of those students will be studying in high-demand STEM areas that lead to good-paying jobs. That will have a major impact on the local economy and help attract businesses to Arizona that rely on having that workforce in place.”