A Tale of Two Boomburbs

Written by Jess Harter Category: Valley News Issue: September 2014
Group Free

downtown Gilbert

With record expansion, Chandler and Gilbert have emerged from Mesa’s shadow in the Southeast Valley. But how much growth is left?

“Country Burb” Gilbert
The East Valley "town" of 229,000 boasts lower crime rates and higher household income than Chandler.

“City Burb” Chandler
Led by the tech industry, Chandler manufacturers ship $3.9 billion in goods annually, compared to $416 million in Gilbert.

Looking to split their time between Seattle and the Valley of the Sun, Michael and Sherry Dryja nearly bought a new high-rise condo in Downtown Phoenix. They liked the urban scene and amenities. Ultimately, they settled on a place in the Southeast Valley town of Gilbert.

“For us, I think it was two-fold,” Michael Dryja, a patent attorney, says. “First, safety, which can’t be understated. I have no fears walking anywhere in the area at late hours of the night. Second, for all the cookie cutter homes out there, the central planning in Gilbert was done very well. We can walk along the canal. Walk to McQueen Park. Walk to downtown Gilbert.”

Three decades ago, “walking to downtown Gilbert” would hardly have struck someone as a fun, urbane thing to do. In 1980, the town was a mere hiccup beyond the farm fields south of Mesa, with a population of just 5,700. Its next-door neighbor, Chandler, was no metropolis, either – its population of 29,000 barely registered on the Valley’s cultural radar. Two remote cow-towns. East Valley afterthoughts. Dragons on a Middle Ages map.

downtown Chandler

All that soon changed, however. Riding a decades-long growth spurt that made it – for a time – the nation’s fourth fastest-growing city, Chandler swelled to an estimated 249,146 people by 2013, an increase of 839 percent. Meanwhile, Gilbert exploded more than 4,000 percent to 229,972 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Both became model “boomburbs” – fast-growing municipalities that reach the size of traditional big cities but retain a suburban character. Based on current growth rates, Gilbert will surpass Glendale in population by next year, making Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert the second-, third- and fourth-largest municipalities in the entire Valley. All three are among the biggest 100 cities in the U.S.

Suddenly, the Valley landscape is looking very different. Cashing in on the historical currency of Arizona – huge tracts of undeveloped land – to lure high-tech businesses, medical facilities and well-regarded restaurants, urban Chandler and bucolic Gilbert have shifted the balance of power in the Valley, outprospering larger, older Mesa. Now they wonder: Can the growth continue?

We could borrow from Dickens and call the rise of Chandler and Gilbert “A Tale of Two Cities,” except we’d be incorrect. In July 1920, Gilbert incorporated as a town, just as Chandler had two months earlier. Chandler upgraded to city status in 1954, but since there are no differences between powers and taxing authorities of cities and towns in Arizona, Gilbert has chosen to remain a town, albeit the largest in the United States.

So if not “A Tale of Two Cities,” perhaps “A Tale of Two Suburbs”? This too is problematic. Suburbs of what? Phoenix? One could make a case Chandler and Gilbert are just as much suburbs of Mesa, whose population of 457,587 is greater than that of Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans and eight other cities that have NFL franchises and, of course, numerous suburbs of their own.

Chandler - Chandler's $47 million Neo-Modern City Hall complex opened in 2011

Which is why urban studies experts came up with the idea of boomburbs – or, as noted Virginia Tech professor and author Robert E. Lang calls them, “America’s accidental cities.” Researchers have identified 54 of them in the U.S, all but one west of the Mississippi River. Mesa is the country’s largest boomburb in terms of population. Few, though, have boomed as much and as fast as Chandler and Gilbert.

At first glance, Chandler and Gilbert are remarkably similar. Besides having roughly the same population, they’re more or less equals in many categories, ranging from geographic size (64.41 square miles vs. 67.96, respectively) to median age (34.4 vs. 33.1). Nearly 40 percent of their residents have bachelor’s degrees, compared to 26 percent statewide. Median household incomes ($70,122 for Chandler and $79,916 for Gilbert) bracket that of Scottsdale ($72,163) and far exceed Mesa ($49,233) and Tempe ($47,882).

Chandler and Gilbert have handled their growth well. Among numerous civic honors, Chandler was named a Best Run City in 2012 and 2013 by 24/7 WallStreet. Gilbert was named the 8th Most Thriving City in the U.S. by The Daily Beast last year. Both are on CNN and Money magazine’s list of the Top 100 Best Places to Live.

Look closer, though, and you’ll find notable differences. One of the most obvious: their annual operating budgets. Gilbert’s is $466 million for 2013-14. Chandler’s is almost double at $804 million. The disparity, according to Chandler officials, stems from the city’s longtime focus on creating technology-related jobs. “We consider ourselves the Silicon Desert,” says vice mayor Rick Heumann. “It’s really a vision from 30 years ago to develop a high-tech city that is family-friendly.”

Chandler Regional Medical Center is the Southeast Valley's first Level 1 trauma center

Innovation always has been part of Chandler’s DNA. City founder Dr. A.J. Chandler was the Arizona Territory’s first veterinary surgeon. He also was an early expert on the then-new science of irrigation engineering. It seemed almost inevitable Chandler would target high-tech all the way back in the 1980s, well before other cities jumped on the bandwagon.

The heart of the city’s strategy has been the Price Corridor, land along Price Road set aside for high-tech industries. For decades, the city resisted the siren call of residential developers and instead invested in a robust infrastructure, including nitrogen gas lines and redundant power and telecom services. Today the Price Corridor is home to Intel, Boeing Iridium, Freescale Semiconductor, Isola Group, Orbital Sciences and many others. And it’s just beginning to take off.

Gilbert - The town's iconic pre-World War II water tower

“It really was a brilliant idea,” Heumann says. “A gas-delivery company told me if not for those nitrogen lines, they’d be running delivery trucks to those businesses 24/7, 365 days a year.” In the future, Heumann expects the Price Corridor to rival Downtown Phoenix and north Scottsdale Airpark as the Valley’s largest job creators. “The only difference will be our Nordstrom won’t sell a lot of suits,” Heumann quips. “Our Intel guys are pretty casual.”

Gilbert, on the other hand, didn’t get a jump-start on high-tech and now is playing catch-up, trying to draw high-paying industries while retaining its small-town agrarian values. There have been a few successes – Internet domain registrar Go Daddy has opened a large call center – but the town’s brightest prospects may not come from computer chips and electronics, but medical research.

Three of the town’s four economic development corridors are anchored by new hospitals. The most prominent is the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center just off U.S. 60. Houston-based MD Anderson is considered one of the best cancer hospitals in the country, and Gilbert became home to its largest extension in 2011. “Their immediate focus after opening was patient care,” Kelly Patton, business attraction manager for Gilbert’s Office of Economic Development, says of the three hospitals. “The next wave is going to be medical research."

Gilbert - Joe's Real BBQ chieftain Joe Johnston has built a culinary utopia in Gilbert

Though it has just one hospital, Chandler Regional, Chandler is poised to become an emergency-care epicenter. Earlier this year, Chandler Regional opened the first Level 1 trauma center in the Southeast Valley. As a result, seriously injured people in the area, including Casa Grande and Pinal County, no longer will have to be transported to Phoenix or Scottsdale for treatment.

Those visiting downtown Chandler for the first time often are surprised to find one of the largest concentrations of independently owned restaurants in Arizona. In a quarter-mile stretch off Arizona Avenue, no fewer than 18 eateries, including SanTan Brewing Company, DC Steakhouse and The Perch (with a rooftop patio), vie for diners’ appetites.

morning sips at Liberty Market

“Lunches from work are generally around the (Chandler Fashion Center) mall,” says John Rudolph, an Ahwatukee resident and engineering manager at Intel. “After-work stops are often The Hungry Monk, Sage (Bar & Vietnamese Cuisine), BJ’s. Generally dinner is the time (to go) downtown. SanTan is nice, but generally very crowded. Choices are a big deal, as well as value.”

Chandler is in the process of quadrupling the length of the downtown district, extending it south to Pecos Road with additional condos, offices and retail. “What we’d really love to see is light rail come down Arizona Avenue and more density in that corridor,” Heumann says. Helping to start the southward expansion is the new Chandler City Hall, a five-story complex of gleaming glass that testifies to the size of the city’s ambitions.

Chandler -The glass-and-steel City Hall

In contrast, five miles to the northeast, Gilbert’s Town Hall is a modern but more modest two-story, brick-and-glass arc surrounded by several acres of well-manicured grass, seemingly symbolizing the town’s continued ties to its past when it was known as the “Hay Shipping Capital of the World.”

The town’s downtown historical district is three miles north on Gilbert Road, where eight popular restaurants are clustered in a quarter-mile stretch. This fall, they will be joined by others – including Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles from Phoenix and Zinburger from Phoenix-based Fox Restaurant Concepts – when the first phase of the two-story Heritage Marketplace mixed-use development opens.

The anchor of the downtown stretch, though, is Joe’s Real BBQ, opened by Gilbert entrepreneur Joe Johnston in 1998. On the dining area wall, a huge mural depicts an agricultural scene honoring the town’s heritage. Across the street, Liberty Market, another Johnston restaurant concept, preserves the history of the town’s first grocery store.

Chandler - space technology developer Orbital Sciences Corporation

Johnston also has developed a nostalgia-invoking residential community called Agritopia at his family farm just a few miles east of downtown. Streets are purposely narrow, front lawns are shallow, and houses have front porches. Agritopia’s centerpiece will be Johnston’s most ambitious project to date: a 23-acre development of restaurants, retail food shops and residential lofts called Epicenter targeted to open in fall 2016.

“You have to remember, Gilbert grew very quickly,” Johnston says. “A lot of people moved here 10 or 15 years ago for the agriculture and now they miss it. Also, as people’s lives become more high-tech and, for lack of a better word, electronic, the more they’ve become interested in the physical world – making foods like cheese – and the craftsmanship of earlier times.”

Gilbert -Joe Johnston's throwback Liberty Market

Kelly Patton of Gilbert’s Office of Economic Development says she fully supports projects like Johnston’s and realizes the importance of Gilbert’s rural roots. “Our residents have been very vocal about being a town (as opposed to a city) and what that creates in terms of neighborhood and community,” she says.

In terms of economic development, though, Patton admits it can be a mixed blessing. “A firm looking to relocate hears ‘town’ and sometimes we get crossed off their list,” she says. “But it also can be a plus. One of the checkboxes companies look for is quality of life. They want their workforce to be happy.”

Across the West, many boomburbs are approaching buildout and find themselves at a crossroads: Do they simply stop booming, or do they create a new growth model that more intensely uses existing land? Chandler and Gilbert, which Heumann and Patton both describe as partners rather than rivals, have some time. Long-term growth projections are notoriously unreliable, but both boomburbs are expected to take until 2030 to start leveling off with more than 300,000 residents.

Gilbert - the farm-to-tap delights of Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.

What space is left in the two municipalities will not necessarily be earmarked for growth. Chandler’s farming past may be more distant than Gilbert’s, but its residents have similar quality-of-life desires. To help address these, the city’s general plan calls for every square mile to have at least one park, which explains why Chandler has a whopping 982 acres of developed parks, compared to Gilbert’s 584. “Building parks is expensive, but we’re committed,” Heumann says. “Also, our roads are older than Gilbert’s. Many cities let their infrastructure go when the recession hit. We feel it’s important to continue to repair potholes, add bike lanes and things like that.”

Chandler also has the additional expense of the city-owned Chandler Municipal Airport. Although no airlines operate out of it (due to the relative shortness of the runways), it’s one of the 50 busiest general-aviation airports in the country and brings in more than $50 million annually. It’s another area the city has targeted for economic development.

newly-opened Joyride Taco House

So while Chandler’s annual budget may be nearly double that of Gilbert’s, their payoff has been exponentially higher. According to the most recent Census figures available, Chandler wholesale businesses had annual sales of $4.6 billion, compared to $649 million in Gilbert. Manufacturers shipped $3.9 billion in goods from Chandler, compared to $416 million from Gilbert.

Thus, Gilbert plays the role of prosperous bedroom community to Chandler’s economic engine.

For now, the two boomburbs are enjoying their new roles as major economic players – and heirs apparent to Mesa as the collective cultural capital of the East Valley – even if most of the country may not be aware of them yet. In fact, it suits them just fine. “I just got back from Atlanta,” Heumann says. “People asked me where I’m from and I said, ‘Chandler.’ They didn’t know where that is. But I kind of like being the unknown city. We don’t want to attract people, we want to attract the right people. We don’t want to be stuck-up or anything, but we only have so much land to use.”

Isagenix (health products)

satellite phone maker Iridium

Chandler vs. Gilbert
Comparing the Valley’s twin boomburbs.Sources: U.S. Census data; Maricopa Association of Governments; American Community Survey

- Chandler: Dr. Alexander John “A.J.” Chandler
- Gilbert: William “Bobby” Gilbert

- Chandler: May 1920
- Gilbert: July 1920

Land Area (Square Miles)
- Chandler: 64.41
- Gilbert: 67.96

New Economy players Infusionsoft (digital marketing)

2013 Population
- Chandler: 249,146
- Gilbert: 229,972
White Pct. of Population
- Chandler: 73.3%
- Gilbert: 81.8%
Hispanic Pct. of Population
- Chandler: 21.9%
- Gilbert: 14.9%
Asian Pct. of Population
- Chandler: 8.2%
- Gilbert: 5.8%
Black Pct. of Population
- Chandler: 4.8%
- Gilbert: 3.4%

Median age
- Chandler: 34.4
- Gilbert: 33.1

Median Home Value
- Chandler: $201,400
- Gilbert: $209,300

Median Household Income
- Chandler: $70,122
- Gilbert: $79,916

Home Ownership Rate
- Chandler: 64.7%
- Gilbert: 72%

Population Age 25 or Older with Bachelors Degree or Higher
- Chandler: 39.7%
- Gilbert: 38.6%

Violent Crimes per 1,000 Citizens
- Chandler: 1.9
- Gilbert: 1.0

Average Response Time to Emergency Calls
- Chandler: 6:10
- Gilbert: 4:08

Mean Travel Time to Work
- Chandler: 23.8 minutes
- Gilbert: 26.7 minutes

Official Facebook Page
- Chandler: 8,800 likes
- Gilbert: 1,481 likes