Bond vote is key to future of downtown Phoenix counting on ASU campus
Ginger D. Richardson and Eugene Scott The Arizona Republic Feb. 19, 2006 12:00 AM
The ambitious plan to move a large segment of Arizona State University to downtown Phoenix faces its most critical test next month when voters decide whether to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on developing the new campus.
But while the election takes place in Phoenix, its impact could be felt Valley-wide.
State officials project that there will soon be more students wanting to attend the downtown campus than slots available, and voter approval of the project will give ASU a much-needed opportunity to expand.
Not to mention that the new urban university, which could eventually have as many as 15,000 students, is expected to create spin-off development that brings scores of new jobs and businesses to the region.
In short, there is no way to overstate the importance of next month's $878.5 million bond election, particularly for leaders such as Mayor Phil Gordon, who has staked his mayoral legacy on the downtown campus and what it means for the city's core.
"Education is the single most critical element to the future success of any city, state or country," Gordon said. "Having downtown Phoenix become the center of knowledge (for) new inventions and new discoveries will guarantee our success for decades to come."
Voters go to the polls March 14 to give a thumbs-up or -down to funding seven propositions.
If the bonds pass, some of the money will pay for new police and fire stations, improved parks, expanded libraries and upgraded streets and sewers.
But 25 percent of the money, or about $220 million, will go directly to ASU and related developments.
The bond money is earmarked for the university's second phase, which opens in fall 2008. It has no impact on the first phase, which brings students downtown in August and is projected to cost $100 million.
The first phase will include the relocation of the College of Nursing, the College of Public Programs and the University College. ASU officials said classes will be held in three downtown locations: the Park Place Building, at Fillmore and Third streets; the 411 Building at Central Avenue and Polk Street; and the ASU Downtown Center, formerly the Mercado, at Fifth and Van Buren streets.
In total. the fledgling campus will be home to about 2,500 students and 500 faculty and staff members.
Any further development of the downtown university is dependent on voters' approval of the bond program.
That's because the city has no viable alternative for paying for the school's second phase.
The campus' second phase would augment the programs downtown with an expanded College of Nursing, a full-fledged student union, and a public park/civic space next to the campus. In addition, the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and Channel 8 (KAET) would be moved from the Tempe campus.
Officials expect about 8,000 students to be attending classes downtown by the 2010 academic year. "My job is to worry about that stuff, so I do maintain a healthy level of concern," said Jay Thorne, a spokesman for Building Our Future, a political committee formed to support the seven bond propositions. "But I feel good. We feel very good."
Phoenix to buy land
Phoenix and ASU agreed in 2004 that the city would purchase the land for the downtown campus by issuing debt and paying only the interest for the next several years. Under the plan, which will bankroll Phase 1's $100 million cost, the interest payments would be split evenly by ASU and the city for three years, while Phoenix looked for permanent financing.
That permanent financing is the bond proposal.
Bonds are essentially loans that work much like a home mortgage. The city sells them to investors at a certain interest rate, and uses the money to make major improvements in the city. They pay them back by using a portion of residents' property taxes.
Much of the money for the ASU campus is loaded into Proposition 3 of the city's bond program. That proposition, titled "Building Small High Schools, Higher Education and Health Science Facilities," sets $184 million aside for the campus development. But the bond also sets aside smaller amounts in two other propositions for other amenities related to the campus, including a large park or civic space.
The bulk of the funding however, would pay for land acquisition and at least two new buildings. Among the items being considered:
New academic space for the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and Channel 8 (KAET). The city has brokered a deal with private developers that will transform what is now a downtown parking lot into a high-rise office and residential complex that includes 200,000 square feet of academic space for the university. ASU officials say they will use bond money to pay for that space and turn it into the journalism school. The property is bordered by Van Buren Street on the south, Central Avenue on the west, Polk Street on the north and First Street on the east.
An expanded College of Nursing. ASU's nursing students will move downtown in the fall to the Park Place Building at Fillmore and Third streets. But officials hope to eventually double the number of students enrolled in the school, to roughly 3,000 from 1,600, creating the need for more academic and simulated laboratory space. Increasing the number of graduates is critical because of the shortage of nurses in the state, said John Rivers, chairman and chief executive officer CEO of the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association.
A student union. Initially, university officials plan to have most student services, such as financial aid, academic advising and a small coffee shop either in the 411 Building or the historic downtown post office at Central Avenue and Fillmore Street. But eventually, they hope to turn the post office into a full-service student union. That will likely mean constructing an ancillary building immediately next to the site, where officials can put in a full-scale cafeteria and other amenities. Postal services will continue to be offered at the site.
The university will also likely need at least one other new building, probably for the University College. But right now, they are hoping that a private developer will build the space as part of a large-scale residential/academic complex. Students attending the new campus during the first phase will likely be housed in the Ramada Inn-Downtown, across the street from the new College of Nursing and only a couple of blocks from the 411 Building, where most other classes are to be held.
Officials have stopped short of making any major decisions related to the campus' future development because they don't know if they will have a funding source. If the bond passes in March, expect planning to begin almost immediately.
Wider education horizons
Phoenix's proposed investment in education is not limited to ASU, although building the downtown campus remains its No. 1 goal.
The bond proposal also asks voters to set aside $2.7 million for interior and exterior renovations to the old Phoenix Union High School auditorium building, which will be used by the University of Arizona as part of its downtown Phoenix medical school. It is scheduled to open in 2007.
UA also stands to receive $1.5 million for a proposed College of Pharmacy. A specific location it has not been determined, although officials are considering putting it near the Translational Genomics Research Institute on the eastern edge of downtown.
There is also $7 million in funding for the Small High School Partnership program, which would allow school districts to create specialized high schools in cooperation with cities, universities and other public or private businesses. The schools would develop curriculum focused on certain fields such as nursing, teaching and engineering. All serve one purpose: attracting more people and more jobs to the city's core, which in turn would revitalize the city's downtown.
Phoenix has poured a lot of money into the effort, in anticipation of a big payoff in 2008.
That's the year the $600 million renovation and expansion of Phoenix Civic Plaza and the city's $350 million Sheraton hotel are supposed to be done. It's also the anticipated date of completion for at least two privately developed high-rise condominium towers and the $1.3 billion light-rail starter line.
Phoenix believes that ASU is the final missing piece to its desired downtown.
But some ask why the city is asking its residents to pay for it.
Phoenix homeowner S.A. Everly, for example, said he is against the city's bond program for a variety of reasons. He said he shouldn't have to pay for the ASU campus because it's a public university that gets funding from the state.
"Why should the property owners of Phoenix have to give them money?" Everly asked.
The city and university, however, believe people like Everly are in the minority. Gordon and other officials maintain that most of Phoenix's residents like the idea of the university and are eager to invest in education.
They say the political committee urging voters to pass the bond program has done preliminary polling that backs that up. But the group is not publicly sharing its polling numbers.
If voters do approve the bond program next month, officials will move to their next critical task: selling it to the students who will call it home.
Mernoy Harrison, vice president and provost of the downtown Phoenix campus, is confident it can be done.
"The programs that we have to offer will generate a lot of interest," he said. "But it's up to us to stir that excitement."
Wellington "Duke" Reiter, dean of ASU's College of Design, and a core member of the university's planning team for the downtown school, said administrators plan to sell the new campus on its convenience and it's access to light rail, hospitals, social and mental health agencies and media organizations.
He envisions the school attracting a different breed of student, maybe a little older, a bit more mature, the kind of students who are more interested in career advancement and being a part of something, not just football games and frat parties.
Thus far, the university's plans are being met with guarded enthusiasm.
Jordan Johnson, a sophomore at Chandler's Mountain Pointe High School, is even more optimistic. Johnson, news editor for her school newspaper, is eager to take classes downtown.
"I think it's for the best . . . moving it to the city," Johnson said. "It will probably be more interesting because there's more going on downtown and it will be easier to come in contact with major news."
Reporter Monica Alonzo- Dunsmoor contributed to this article.
One rail at a time Valley light-rail CEO backed by 35-year transit career
Sean Holstege The Arizona Republic Feb. 19, 2006 12:00 AM
Two weeks into his job as light-rail chief, Rick Simonetta stared across the mayor's conference table and told Phil Gordon the last thing he wanted to hear.
Simonetta said he needed an extra $200 million to finish the Valley's light-rail system and more time to break ground. Gordon, who had just entered office himself in early 2004, was taken aback and worried about the impact. He was trying to drum up support for Proposition 400 to pay for extensions of light rail.
"After he peeled himself from the ceiling, we rolled up our sleeves and talked about how to make this work," Simonetta recalled.
It wasn't the ideal start for the new chief executive officer of Valley Metro Rail and one of his four new bosses. But it wasn't the first time in his 35-year transit career that Simonetta had waded into controversy. In a city where the love of cars runs deep and skeptics watch for Valley Metro's slightest stumble, it may not be the last time.
Simonetta is used to tackling tough assignments. Friends and colleagues who have known him since his first transit job in 1971 as a planning understudy in Pittsburgh say his meeting with Gordon was typical. He is direct, all business, with a charge-up-the-hill intensity. He picked up his style in the Swissvale neighborhood of steel workers in his native Pittsburgh. He tempered it in sometimes-bitter conflicts at transit agencies from Pittsburgh to Denver to Atlanta, picking up industry renown along the way.
For Simonetta, the Valley's light-rail post represents one of the few marks he has yet to make in his career: build a rail system from scratch.
To the job he brings a breadth of knowledge rare in an industry dominated by specialist general managers. Some keep the trains or buses running well but can't manage people. Others are excellent leaders who can't balance budgets. Still others are visionary planners who stumble on details. Or, they know transit but lack the political skills to win over a community.
Through choice, circumstance and battles, Simonetta has notched up skills that convinced Valley leaders he can bring and sell light rail in the land of the car.
There's no question transit is in his blood. He talked about its role in urban development 25 years before it was popular and pushed the industry to adopt standards. He still gets excited when he stands in a rail yard.
His enthusiasm survives a career marked by triumph, turmoil and intense public scrutiny.
Ann Arbor: turnaround
By the time he was 28, Simonetta had already been a general manager of a transit system, in Harrisburg, Penn. Then, in Denver, he kept a fleet of 625 buses humming in a growing system.
But in 1979, Simonetta was itching to be a general manager again, and his boss wasn't about to leave. A headhunter called and told him that to make a name in transit, he needed a "turnaround." He had to fix a failing system. Simonetta parachuted into the cauldron that was Ann Arbor, Mich.
The interview panel cataloged problems as long as a string of traffic lights on a Phoenix boulevard, from out-of-control deficits to stagnant ridership.
"They went on and on. They said it would be one miserable job," said Simonetta, now 59.
The chief complaint was that the bus drivers' union had strangled the system. The union controlled supervisors, and with only two fixed routes with schedules, drivers had "free rein," as Simonetta saw it. "We'd find drivers in the cornfields smoking dope and having sex."
Simonetta's effort to end the abuse led to one of Ann Arbor's longest bus strikes, a 40-day showdown in which militant drivers burned their uniforms.
They also burned Simonetta in effigy and he was "crushed," he said, because he started thinking, "What would Uncle Joe say about it?" His uncle, Joe Payne, had been a union shop steward in a steel mill where many in the family had worked, including Rick.
Simonetta had smoothly negotiated labor contracts in Denver. But in Ann Arbor, he learned to stick to his guns, to stare down confrontation for the benefit of the system. In the process, he grew a thick hide.
Simonetta turned to his uncle for advice, going deer hunting and soul-searching with him in the Allegheny Mountains. It recalled his boyhood, when talk of past strikes and union beefs shared a place at the family dinner table with his mother's marinara.
Payne advised him to respect the bus drivers because they were trying to feed their families. But Simonetta concluded they were killing the bus system. He resolved to break the strike.
"I wrestled with it and was torn by it, but I knew it was the right thing to do," Simonetta said.
He made peace with himself when some bus drivers showed up at his home at 3 a.m. one night and dumped mounds of trash on his lawn, while his wife, Bonnie, and two daughters, then 7 and 9, looked on. After that, the union lost support in liberal Ann Arbor, the radicals eventually quit and the strike petered out.
In the next six years, Simonetta settled labor talks early, gave drivers above-average wages and got the system back into the black.
"I didn't want to leave Ann Arbor with a reputation as the one who broke the union," he said.
But that reputation followed him.
In Columbus, Ohio, the Transport Workers Union was waiting for him. The union president told him on the day they met to count on a strike in two years.
Drivers at the Central Ohio Transit Authority, or COTA, had a history of strikes, and now drivers had a symbol to attack. Later they warned publicly that Simonetta would need to park a firetruck in front of his house because it was going to burn to the ground.
By then, Simonetta had built community support for COTA. He knew the challenge in Columbus was to win back the trust of the public. Taxpayers questioned sagging service and a healthy surplus, and concluded a transit tax didn't need renewing.
The job meant winning over the Titans, the business leaders who governed local civic life.
He learned that the success of transit depends as much on community perception as on how well the buses run or employees get along. It could make the difference in whether he won more funding or trimmed service. He not only had to be a pro, but also had to look and sound like one.
Simonetta joined the Rotary Club and other civic groups for the first time. His love for golf came in handy. He joined a country club and got to know CEOs and newspaper publishers. His penchant for monogrammed shirts, sharp suits and cuff links played well.
"Early in our careers, we were always putting on our cheapest suits. Not Rick. He would always dress up sharp," said William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, an industry-lobbying group.
When the inevitable strike came in 1986 it dragged on for two months.
"Buddy-buddy with the employees, that he was not. He was a businessman. He was very tough about the things he knew was right. He wouldn't give in," said Glenna Watson, who worked at COTA for 21 years and succeeded Simonetta.
Simonetta knew that recession-wracked COTA couldn't afford automatic cost-of-living increases. He wanted to abolish them and hire part-time drivers, both do-or-die principles for bus drivers.
Simonetta arranged carpools to get many of the stranded 90,000 passengers to work. Traffic kept moving. The papers reported that COTA was saving money during the strike.
Sensing an upper hand, his board decided to break the strike.
"Man, talk about a bad scene," said Simonetta, recalling the hired security force and replacement bus drivers that assembled at the maintenance yard. "The garage doors open and out walk these storm troopers with helmets, sticks and riot shields in a wedge in front of the buses. It was something you didn't want to do, but it ended the strike."
Simonetta had recommended against it, fearing violence.
He went on to run COTA until 1994.The nine-year stint would be the longest in his career. Labor strife eased, and the public backed the system, passed a new transit tax and accepted fare increases. The money improved service and paid for new facilities.
His daughters Kristie and Karie graduated from high school and enrolled in Ohio colleges, as the Buckeye State began to feel like home.
But, Watson said, "It wasn't enough for him."
Atlanta: national stage
Headhunters came knocking again, and Simonetta vied to run Atlanta's bus and heavy-rail system, which was bracing for the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Although he had no heavy-rail experience, he beat out 110 other applicants and in 1994 took over Atlanta's MARTA, then the seventh-largest U.S. transit network.
He told reporters he wasn't going to "shake things up," and later that the MARTA job was "a match made in heaven."
The Olympics were widely expected to be a fiasco. Doom-and-gloom stories, many from suburbanites leery of transit, predicted gridlock and athletes missing events.
Simonetta and his staff fanned out to teach people how to ride the system, from paying fares to reading the map. Within days reluctant commuters were teaching tourists. Simonetta says now he "absolutely" plans to do the same thing when Valley Metro Rail launches service in 2008.
He also assembled a massive fleet of loaned buses from around the country, built a rail extension in 18 months instead of 36 and rolled out innovations such as automatic station announcements and natural-gas buses.
Atlanta taught Simonetta how to play on the national stage but under a microscope. Here, winning over the public was key. He learned to be an ambassador, selling transit to the skeptics and getting money from Washington.
The preparations reminded Simonetta of his young adulthood, when he dropped out of college as a sophomore to enlist in the Army Corps of Engineers. He ended up building bunkers during combat in the no-man's land between North Korea and South Korea in 1968.
"There was more esprit de corps than when I was in the military. It was a great time," Simonetta said.
For two months, MARTA ran trains 24 hours a day.
Afterward, APTA, the industry association, named him the top transit manager in the country. He later became its chairman. APTA also honored him for promoting minority managers.
But Simonetta also learned that loyalties change quickly, and his drive to promote transit could blind him to political perils.
Racial tensions would sour his Atlanta term, and he resigned in disillusionment in 1999.
Earlier that year Simonetta had fired six of his nine top deputies after development around one station was stalling. A fractured transit board took sides as some employees labeled Simonetta a "plantation owner." Simonetta's predecessor, Ken Gregor, said the firings destroyed morale and MARTA's institutional knowledge.
The 20-year-old system also was starting to age.
An Atlanta attorney who won a $1.1 million reverse-discrimination lawsuit against MARTA in federal court said racial politics led to Simonetta's eventual departure.
"MARTA is a zoo. It's run by a board of directors who don't know anything. Simonetta was under relentless attack," said Harlan Miller, who convinced a jury that Simonetta conspired to fire White managers to provide political cover for firing Black ones.
But even Miller said, "I always found him to be a decent guy."Simonetta makes no apologies but does regret the outcome.
"My biggest disappointment was after the Olympics. The legacy was lost. The suburbanites went back to their racial politics, and the board got back into meddling," he recalled.
The last straw for him came when the board told him to stop being MARTA's ambassador, a political role he had grown into.
Phoenix: new frontier
In 2000, Simonetta left public life for the first time in his career, but private life didn't suit him.
A start-up company he ran filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and he worked at a top consulting firm. But he had never built a new rail system from the ground up, and with one daughter in the area, the Valley looked a natural fit when headhunters came calling again in 2003.
When he applied for the job, he wore a hairpiece and kept to himself suspicions that the schedule and budget were optimistic. After he arrived in 2004, he shed both illusions. He shaved his head and told locals he had been bald since his 20s and their light-rail plans had to be tweaked.
He took over a small staff of local planners and went into high gear. He changed the schedule to build the line all at once rather than in phases and brought in experienced transit people from around the country to make it happen. He transformed Valley Metro into a full-blown professional transit agency.
"He's a problem-solver, a man of action," said lifelong friend and APTA Vice President Tony Kouneski. "He knows how to size up problems and take them on."
Simonetta enters the twilight of his career by coming full circle. The Pittsburgh kid who grew up on streetcar line and rode trolleys to school, dates and pool halls is poised to bring trolleys to the desert.
If it all goes according to plan, he'll ride in the lead car of the first train.