Mountain Park Ranch: 30 years and a whole lot more - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Opinion

Mountain Park Ranch: 30 years and a whole lot more

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Posted: Sunday, March 9, 2014 11:45 am | Updated: 3:59 pm, Fri Sep 12, 2014.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on the history of Mountain Park Ranch. Part two will appear in Sunday’s AFN.

"A dream project” … “Great piece of land with a great team of designers” … “Total commitment to total quality” … “Fated to be a great community.”

These are but a few of the superlatives heaped on Mountain Park Ranch, the 2,647-acre master-planned community in the heart of the Village of Ahwatukee Foothills. Sunday, March 9, marks the 30th anniversary of the development’s official groundbreaking, and a look back provides an illuminating look of how we got from there to here.

The story begins in 1929, when New York captain of industry William Belden purchased 300 acres of pristine desert a mile south of the area’s first and finest winter residence, Casa de Suenos — later to be renamed the Ahwatukee Ranch. Belden intended to build his own grand winter estate on a hill overlooking today’s Mountain Park Apartments on Ray Road, with the 12,000 square-foot house projected to cost a tidy $50,000.

Two miles to the west, Dr. Alexander Chandler (founder of the city that bears his name) also had big plans for land he owned near today’s intersection of Chandler Boulevard and 32nd Street. Chandler hired nationally-known architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a sprawling 300-room resort on 600 acres. Wright’s party set up Camp Ocatillo in January 1929 and spent the next four months drawing up plans for Chandler’s San Marcos in the Desert resort. They broke camp in May planning a fall return but, alas, that October’s stock market crash intruded. Chandler’s investors withdrew their backing and the resort was never built.

Belden’s 300-acre property was known as Pima Ranch due to its proximity to a dirt path called Pima Road. The ranch name stuck but the street name didn’t. Too many Pima Roads in the Valley saw the path being renamed Ray Road in the early 1930s, in honor of a pioneering East Valley farm family. When the wealthy New Yorker died unexpectedly in the summer of 1930 plans for the big house were abandoned. Instead, his widow and son wintered in the small outbuildings that had been constructed at the bottom of the hill for the next 40 years, with the acreage growing to over 2,000 but the land remaining largely undisturbed.

Utah alfalfa farmer LeRoy Smith acquired Pima Ranch from the Belden estate in the early 1970s. Ahwatukee was in its infancy, with the area considered remote and far-removed from the big-city sophistication of Phoenix and Tempe. Its success was by no means assured, and its growth into today’s 35.8-square-mile Village of Ahwatukee Foothills unimaginable.

To help increase his property’s marketability, Smith hired A. Wayne Smith (no relation), who first put pencil to desert in designing Ahwatukee in 1971. Six years later, Ahwatukee’s original master-planner created what would become the first master-plan of the eventual Mountain Park Ranch. That led to a 1980 agreement by Charles Keating’s American Continental Corporation to purchase the 2,647-acre parcel via a series of options over the next several years.

Access to city of Phoenix water and sewer services was essential for development of Pima Ranch. With Ahwatukee’s annexation destined to drag on until 1987, the city was unconvinced of the area’s merits. But A. Wayne’s Smith’s master-plan swung the vote 7-0 in Continental’s favor. When the 4.3-square-mile Pima Ranch was annexed in August 1980, before a blade of dirt had been turned, it ushered in the largest master-planned community up to that time within the city of Phoenix.

Freeway access between Elliot and Williams Field roads (subsequently renamed Chandler Boulevard) didn’t exist, and an unpaved Ray Road ended just west of 48 Street. As such, the entrance to the project was at Williams Field Road and a newly-carved-out Mountain Parkway. A road navigating substantial foothills, as does Mountain Parkway as it connects Chandler Boulevard and Ray Road today, was a radical design concept for its time.

Proximity to South Mountain and its own topography posed both the property’s biggest selling point as well as its biggest challenge, that of managing enormous potential flood waters that crossed it. Drainage engineering became one of Continental’s major pre-development undertakings. And since overhead power lines came with the territory along the 41st Street alignment, drainage followed the power lines as much as it could.

The sizable carrying costs of initial off-site improvements led Continental to joint-venture with Genstar Development, a Canadian land developer with projects throughout the U.S. Genstar ultimately bought out Continental, but the latter’s homebuilding arm, Continental Homes, went on to be a key builder in several Mountain Park Ranch subdivisions. Charles Keating, a Midwesterner whose projects typically reflected his affinity for water, fell in love with the square-mile Collier-Evans Ranch south of the project. American Continental’s 1984 purchase of that ranch resulted in its development of Lakewood.

Mike Longstreath, Continental’s initial Pima Ranch project manager, points out that the entirely different topography of the two properties meant that while the flat-as-a-pancake Collier-Evans Ranch could accommodate large lakes, the foothills-laden Pima Ranch had room for only smaller ponds. Thus, the two properties begot Lakewood and Mountain Park Ranch, respectively — and the rest is Ahwatukee Foothills history.

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

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