There was no ASU campus downtown when Eve Reyes-Aguirre bought her home in Phoenix’s Garfield neighborhood 26 years ago.
She and her husband settled down to raise their four children within a couple of miles of where the new campus would emerge. Over the next 20 years they would witness a drastic transformation in the demographics, character and affordability of downtown Phoenix.
“I’m lucky enough to still live here,” Reyes-Aguirre said. “But a lot of my neighbors aren’t.”
Reyes-Aguirre is an Indigenous rights activist who works with Tonatierra, a Cultural Embassy of Indigenous Peoples located a short walk from where the Downtown Phoenix campus now stands.
Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, she watched as many of her neighbors were forced to relocate due to rising property taxes, predatory real estate investors and fear of deportation. As they left, new neighbors were moving in, including ASU.
Michael Crow arrived in the Valley in 2002 as president of ASU. By 2003, he was making plans to build a campus in the city center. By 2006, the Downtown Phoenix campus was operational.
Tanya Chakravarty, executive director of the Downtown Phoenix Farmers Market, has lived in Phoenix for over 35 years. She said the perception and accessibility of downtown has changed drastically over the last 12 years.
In May, the Farmers Market had to relocate to the Phoenix Bioscience Core after its previous location of 17 years on Central Avenue and Pierce Street was sold to a developer with plans to build a 350-unit luxury apartment complex.
Chakravarty said finding a new location was made possible with support from ASU and the city of Phoenix. She also called the move a direct consequence of gentrification.
Researchers like Meagan Ehlenz, an associate professor of geographical sciences and planning at ASU, cast a critical eye on how universities relate to the communities they’re situated in. New urban campuses often encourage investment in historically neglected neighborhoods, but they also bring an influx of white-collar workers and higher rents.
“A lot of them do result in pretty dramatic changes,” Ehlenz said. “... It’s not just that the neighborhood improved, it’s that it changed. You had turnover in who was there.”
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates the neighborhoods nearest the Downtown Phoenix campus had substantial workforce growth between 2000 and 2020, but that growth was disproportionately in white-collar jobs.
The neighborhoods’ populations have seen a marked increase in residents who work management, business, science and arts occupations, accompanied by slow growth or decline in occupations like construction, maintenance, transportation and service jobs.
By some, these changes are hailed as economic progress. For others, they have devastated the affordability of their own neighborhoods. Rent and home values have increased disproportionately in the neighborhoods closest to the Downtown Phoenix campus over the past 20 years compared to the rest of the city.
In Tempe, gentrification proximate to ASU is old news. The State Press itself has issued the warning for years. Under Crow, ASU has rapidly extended its presence to downtown Phoenix as well.
READ MORE: As ASU expands into Mesa, some residents worry about what could be lost
“Certainly, ASU is not the only market force in downtown Phoenix,” Ehlenz said. “But it’s the big one.”
Reyes-Aguirre is optimistic about the future of the University’s relationship with the downtown Phoenix community. But she says it hinges on building a more holistic and inclusive understanding of who deserves a say in ASU’s development.
“Our families are a part of the ASU community as well,” she said.
ASU’s expansion has always been a collaboration between municipal government and real estate developers, according to Anthony Pratcher, an honors faculty fellow at Barrett, The Honors College.
Pratcher grew up in Glendale. Today, he studies how urban policies influence community formation in Phoenix and other Southwest metropolitan areas.
According to Pratcher, for generations, white settlers in the Valley have employed a practice of “civic colonialism,” using policy tools such as segregation, municipal annexation, and eminent domain to dispossess pre-existing communities of their land and fuel rapid development. Eminent domain is a legal term for the government’s power to unilaterally acquire property from private entities for public use, given the original owners are paid just compensation.
“The targets of that practice have generally been people who are marginalized within the Tempe community, either due to race or gender discrimination,” Pratcher said.
When the Arizona Territorial Normal School, which would eventually become ASU, was established in 1885, a family relinquished its entire property for its construction after pressure from Tempe city officials and the state Legislature.
In the 1950s, ASU and the city of Tempe displaced the residents of the historic San Pablo neighborhood using eminent domain. Where a longtime Mexican American community once lived now stands a series of dorms, commercial buildings and the Sun Devil Stadium, nestled against Tempe Town Lake.
From the 1950s onward, Tempe would undergo a series of semi-planned redevelopments — the process of gentrification repeated over and over again.
READ MORE: Tempe: A history of gentrification
Tupac Enrique Acosta, an Indigenous human rights activist, co-founded Tonatierra, where Reyes-Aguirre now also works. He was invited to the Valley in 1980 to participate in a movement against forced displacement of residents of the historic Golden Gate Barrio. The Mexican American neighborhood was razed in the 1980s to make way for the Sky Harbor airport.
Like Pratcher, Acosta sees contemporary gentrification as a continuation of settler colonialism.
“This is a recurring pattern, from LA to San Antonio to El Paso to Phoenix,” Acosta said. “This isn’t just incidental, it’s systematic … So where is that destruction today? Who is doing it? Is ASU doing it?”
The New American project
Crow first met with Phil Gordon in 2003, and Gordon took office as Phoenix mayor in January 2004. The pair agreed that downtown Phoenix would benefit from a university campus in its urban core.
In 2005, ASU entered an intergovernmental agreement with the city of Phoenix, in which the city agreed to acquire and develop the land for the campus. A committee of several hundred citizens, chaired by former mayor Paul Johnson, was tasked with developing a bond proposal.
The proposal passed in 2006, allocating an unprecedented $184 million to ASU — just over 20% of the $878.5 million bond.
Rick Naimark supervised the development of the Downtown Phoenix campus while serving as a deputy city manager. In 2015, he became an associate vice president of the University, where he said he continues to work on downtown development.
Naimark said the city and ASU originally collaborated with the goal of building a “knowledge economy” that would “move the city forward.” In the process, they would also turn downtown into a densely populated urban environment, “instead of a bunch of vacant lots or dilapidated one-story buildings,” he said.
A 2011 booklet titled “Downtown Phoenix Campus: The First 5 Years” described downtown Phoenix as “a wasteland,” and “somewhat hollow and desolate.” ASU was prophesied to “inject a much needed, livelier ambiance in the city’s moribund core.”
Davarian L. Baldwin, an urbanist and historian at Trinity College, got his first taste of the Downtown Phoenix campus in 2012. At the time, he was researching urban universities in cities like New York and Chicago. Crow’s downtown project quickly became an unexpected yet essential case study — his book “In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower” dedicates a chapter to ASU.
Baldwin sees the University’s narrative as manipulative and inaccurate. Despite vacant lots, there were people living downtown and in the surrounding neighborhoods before ASU planted its flag.
“When universities and their developer partners say there’s ‘nothing there,’ what they mean is the land has not been adequately monetized per square foot,” Baldwin said. “That it’s not being built up, it’s not being commercialized.”
Naimark asserts that “people were coming downtown, but they weren’t staying and weren’t living” before ASU’s campus helped to “revitalize” the area. He also acknowledges that some Phoenicians were already there, such as the residents of the Roosevelt Row arts district.
Early in development, ASU hosted meetings with community leaders and stakeholders. Acosta said Crow once invited him to participate in an advisory committee on the development of the downtown campus.
“I was basically there as a figurehead,” Acosta said. “I didn’t have much input or presence. I got an invitation, I attended, I was there.”
The planners and advocates of the Downtown Phoenix campus continued to make promises about community-minded development. The 2011 “First 5 Years” booklet emphasized, in Crow’s words, the campus’ “social embeddedness.”
“What we needed to do is build a notion that the University is not a single place that you go, with walls around the building and ivy growing on the walls …” Crow said in a 2018 interview with Arizona PBS. “We wanted to be where people worked, where people lived.”
In the past 20 years, increases in rents and home values in the ZIP codes nearest the Downtown Phoenix campus have outpaced the city of Phoenix as a whole, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
In ZIP code 85006 — which includes Garfield, the neighborhood where Reyes-Aguirre lives — the median value of owner-occupied homes increased about 190% from 2000 to 2020, from just under $80,000 to over $200,000.
ZIP code 85004, which contains the Downtown Phoenix campus, saw about a 195% increase in median gross rent between 2000 and 2020, from a median of $427 to $1,260 per month. By contrast, the city of Phoenix as a whole only saw about a 75% increase over the same timeframe, from $622 to $1,100 per month.
Naimark said none of ASU’s construction eliminated affordable housing, and he credits the University with increasing the market value of surrounding properties.
“We’re definitely guilty of making downtown a more desirable place to live, or being a contributor to that,” Naimark said. “Desirability does tend to drive up prices.”
This “desirability” effect is common with campus development, but may be preventable, according to Ehlenz. She recommends Universities proactively invest in housing and community infrastructure before development to avoid an affordability crisis like Phoenix has today.
“If you don’t protect that affordability from the beginning, it’s super hard to unwind the clock,” Ehlenz said.
Reyes-Aguirre said Tonatierra has been repeatedly “threatened by eminent domain” in the past 25 years and now receives offers to purchase the property “almost on the daily.”
In her view, the intensified real estate market has become completely inaccessible to working families. Today, her own daughter cannot afford to live in the same neighborhood she grew up in.
“All of us who lived here as young parents now have children who are parents trying to raise their children, and we recognize that they can’t do that in the same place because of gentrification, inflation, all of those things,” Reyes-Aguirre said.
The immediate impact of the campus affected more than just the housing market.
In 2012, the Downtown Phoenix campus began restricting access to the campus’ buildings to only ASU students, faculty, and staff. State Press coverage at the time featured the former dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and one university administrator who said the policy was implemented in response to parents’ and students’ negative perceptions of unhoused people.
According to Baldwin, these effects are the consequence of designing a campus with suburban students in mind, rather than Phoenix locals. He has documented similar tendencies at other campuses around the country.
Although recorded incidents of crime downtown were expected to be roughly equivalent to Tempe’s at the time of the campus’ opening, students and parents began to call for greater police presence in the campus’ early years, claiming it lacked a “feeling of safety.”
Chakravarty said ASU’s presence in downtown Phoenix is colored by “a sense of transiency,” with downtown undergraduates often only living in the area for four years.
“While ASU has leveraged their size, girth, muscle and their student body to help gentrify the space, it’s not as stewards of the space,” she said.
Students have quickly become a key demographic for housing developers downtown. They’ve also become a source of income for local businesses.
Andrew Meister co-founded Bud’s Glass Joint, a downtown Phoenix vape and smoke shop, in 2012. He said the campus was a major factor in deciding to open a business, and that student consumers have had a positive impact on the local economy across the board. Businesses downtown are still largely independent, he said.
Baldwin isn’t so sure — he thinks students downtown have become a “captive market” of the University and its corporate partners. Citing the insular design of student housing, compulsory meal plans and Maroon and Gold dining dollars, he argues the University encourages students to only spend within the ASU ecosystem. In his analysis, this system is antithetical to Crow’s ideal of “social embeddedness.”
Chakravarty said she has tried to make Maroon and Gold dollars available for use at the Farmers Market to no avail. Meanwhile, students are locked into University meal plans which largely restrict their options to Aramark-operated dining halls, chain restaurants and convenience stores.
The downtown Phoenix area was once classified as a “food desert.” That changed in 2019, when a Fry’s grocery opened on First and Jefferson. ASU officials have since credited the campus with attracting the investment necessary to build the supermarket.
The Farmers Market has provided fresh, locally-sourced food to the area since 2005. In 2022, after the market was given 90 days to move, Chakravarty said Naimark himself helped find the new location. But she also noted that demand for luxury housing brought on by gentrification was the reason they had to move in the first place.
The sustainability question
In 2018, the Arizona Republic declared ASU the “secret ingredient” to revitalization of downtown Phoenix. The campus has been hailed as a success by ASU administrators and local government officials alike.
A written statement sent to State Press Magazine by ASU media relations said “the overwhelming majority of Phoenix residents would strongly agree that Downtown Phoenix and the surrounding neighborhoods have improved in marked and multifaceted ways since the establishment of the Downtown Phoenix Campus — and in great part as a result of the campus.”
A 2021 report from ASU’s University Design Institute said downtown Phoenix attracted more than $6.5 billion in public and private investment to the area between 2004 and 2021. The report also correlates the opening of over 100 new restaurants and bars between 2008 and 2020 to the campus’ success.
"The biggest challenge is always getting the local community to believe in the fact that this is an emergent, new version of a fantastic American city,” Crow said in a 2018 Arizona PBS interview.
Crow sees growth as an investment in sustainability. By expanding its capacity and geographic scope, ASU is able to serve a larger, more diverse population of students, he has argued.
Acosta and Baldwin each said Crow’s stated commitment to diversity and inclusion is something to be celebrated, but both remain skeptical of his model of sustainability. Instead, they ground theirs in the immediate and empirical. When long-time residents have already been displaced, the question becomes: sustainability for whom?
Reyes-Aguirre has seen a positive change in the University’s engagement with Indigenous people in the last 20 years. She attributes it mostly to a broad cultural shift rather than an institutional one and said building awareness of the harms of gentrification remains an uphill battle.
Naimark said he attends neighborhood meetings on a monthly basis, building relationships with the surrounding community. But, because ASU is “not a private sector housing developer,” the University cannot effectively address gentrification, he said.
“ASU is not primarily responsible for delivering housing to the broader community,” Naimark said. “Our job with housing is to deliver housing to our students.”
Ehlenz agrees that ASU has limited control over the housing market, but higher education institutions have evolved, she said, and they need to accept greater responsibility.
“They’re not picking up to move somewhere else. They’re grounded there,” Ehlenz said. “So now is the time for them to pull together several actors and we need to collectively find a way to inject affordability … It’s not a preservation question anymore.”
Reyes-Aguirre thinks it’s a question of priorities. Where her organization would prioritize intergenerational needs, the University often emphasizes rapid expansion.
Still, she imagines an alternative: What if all the power and resources ASU and Crow hold were in the hands of the local community instead?
“If a community was in charge of an institution like that, and their main focus was on the betterment of society as a whole, I feel like we would move in a different direction, toward more positive change,” she said.
This story is part of "The Crow Issue," a State Press Magazine project looking back at the past 20 years of Michael Crow's tenure as University president, which was published on Sept. 7, 2022. See the entire publication here.
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Jamie Montoya is a full-time podcast producer for The State Press. She is a sophomore at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and is passionate about capturing a diverse, honest and meaningful depiction of people and their experiences through multimedia journalism.