Exit Strategy: Maricopa Freeway changed the face of the landscape - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Opinion

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Exit Strategy: Maricopa Freeway changed the face of the landscape

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Posted: Saturday, July 5, 2014 3:03 pm

Editor’s note: This is the final in a two-part series on the history of the Ahwatukee streets.

Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law in 1862, opening the untamed west to settlement. It took the signature of another U.S. president, Dwight Eisenhower, on the Federal Aid Highway Act 94 years later to establish the national highway system, a section of which would come to so prominently define Ahwatukee Foothill’s eastern border. A national Highway Trust Fund of $25 billion was established in 1956 for construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways. Under the law’s sweetheart provisions, 90 percent of interstate highway construction costs were borne by the federal government, with individual states responsible for a mere 10 percent of the total.

Like most highways, Interstate 10, which stretches from Santa Monica, Calif., to Jacksonville, Fla., was built in sections over many years. The last section to be completed between Phoenix and Tucson (officially known as the Maricopa Freeway) was the connection between Phoenix’s South 40th Street and Baseline Road, fostering a hookup with a previously constructed roadway adjacent to the land that would one day become the Village of Ahwatukee Foothills.

Reflective of the non-destination that was the 1960s Kyrene Farming Community, the section of freeway between Baseline and Williams Field roads was constructed in 1966 but left unconnected, unmarked and unused until the South 40th Street-to-Baseline Road extension was opened two years later. Thus, for a couple of years, the five-mile stretch between Baseline and Williams Field roads remained pristinely unused. A few area farmers cut its protective cables in order to drive their tractors across the ‘Who-built-this-here?’ pavement, and an occasional drag race on the virgin straightaway proved to be irresistible to a few of Tempe’s local yokels. Otherwise, the stretch of pristine pavement remained undisturbed until its dedication by Gov. Jack Williams on Sept. 18, 1968.

The flat-as-a-pancake dirt roads in the freeway’s path were elevated to allow the interstate to pass underneath, using fill excavated from an open field between Ray and Warner roads. A. Wayne Smith — designer of Ahwatukee’s first master plan as well as those of Mountain Park Ranch, Scottsdale’s McCormick Ranch, Chandler’s Ocotillo and many other communities both in and out of Arizona, and who would eventually establish The Farm at South Mountain — approached the Arizona Department of Transportation about buying the hole in the ground in the mid-1970s. Smith envisioned a park-like “Hanging Gardens” in the gaping pit, with terraced roads leading to lushly landscaped office buildings, restaurants and, finally, a lake at the bottom.

In a what-might-have-been scenario to rival that of San Marcos in the Desert — Dr. Alexander Chandler’s 300-room resort-hotel near today’s western Mountain Park Ranch, on which plans were abandoned in 1929 — ADOT rebuffed Smith, electing instead to keep the manmade crater as a 200-year-flood-control retention basin. Thus, the cavernous hole in the ground adjacent to the freeway’s northbound lanes between Ray and Warner roads remains undeveloped to this day, a legacy of freeway construction almost a half-century ago.

Single-lane freeway ramps were constructed at Elliot Road in late 1971, just as county approval of Presley Development of Arizona’s master plan for development of phase one of its “Tempe Property” (as the plan referenced the as-yet-unnamed Ahwatukee) was granted. At the time, Elliot Road was little more than a dirt farm road, paved only on the narrow portion covering the overpass. Nevertheless, it joined Williams Field Road 3 miles south as one of two freeway access points, and it would be another 15 years before the community’s growth merited freeway ramps at Warner and Ray roads.

Once open for business, the Maricopa Freeway changed the face of the landscape. It created a tangible barrier to Tempe’s westward reach and transformed an area with one isolated winter residence (the Ahwatukee Ranch) and a few scattered farms into one that could be easily accessed by the masses. When developer Randall Presley purchased the no man’s land in 1970, the freeway’s proximity to the future Ahwatukee was one of its main selling points.

A much harder sell was a parkway to be built near one of Ahwatukee’s boundaries. On the drawing board for decades, the roadway fueled seemingly endless, hotly contested public debates, pitting city of Phoenix planners against emotionally charged Ahwatukee citizens. While the thoroughfare may have been a good idea when first proposed, the master-planned community’s dynamic growth had transformed formerly barren desert with uninterrupted vistas into bustling neighborhoods precariously close to the proposed route.

Today’s proposed South Mountain Freeway, on Ahwatukee Foothills’ southern boundary? No, the city of Phoenix’s Scenic Drive, near Ahwatukee Foothills’ northern border — first proposed in the National Parks Service’s master plan of 1935. The aptly named parkway, originating at Guadalupe Road and exiting South Mountain Park preserve around 35th Avenue, was to have followed the contour of South Mountain at its base, allowing Sunday-driving motorists a beautiful view of South Mountain Park and beyond as far as the eye could see. Unfortunately, by the time construction was actually contemplated in the mid-1980s, the view “beyond” was largely limited to Ahwatukee rooftops. The planned roadway languished for fifty years, which didn’t stop Phoenix Parks and Recreation representatives from making one final push in the summer of 1986.

With city road graders at the ready, concerned Ahwatukeeans formed Citizens for an Environmentally Sound Park Development (CESPD). The grass-roots organization quickly made its presence felt, raising objections over noise and air pollution, increased fire danger, vandalism and destruction of the natural environment (including at the southwestern portion of the preserve). In response to this last concern, one city councilman floated the idea of routing that portion of the thoroughfare onto the adjacent Gila River Indian Community.

As a result of CESPD’s push, the city commissioned an independent study to research the best use of the park preserve. Increasingly vocal protests centered on the extent to which interim development had altered the landscape since the roadway was first proposed. That, combined with City Hall’s waning appetite for taking on the project, resulted in Mayor Terry Goddard pulling the plug on it in 1988. Today, the decades-long dynamics of the proposed South Mountain Freeway along the village’s southern boundary make for déjà vu all over again.

From the early homesteaders’ peaceful isolation of a century ago to today’s daily crawl during morning and evening rush hour, the streets in and around our village mark the evolution of the area that they serve. For Ahwatukee Foothills residents, those roads lead them home. And to paraphrase poet Robert Frost, “Two roads converged at an intersection and I took the one leading to Ahwatukee Foothills … And that has made all the difference.”

• Marty Gibson is a local history writer and a longtime Ahwatukee resident. Contact him at mgibson24@cox.net.

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