Here are some things you should know about the smart city Bill Gates is building in Phoenix. It’s not a city, nor is it “smart,” nor does the Microsoft founder appear to be involved in any meaningful way. And when outlets like CNBC say it’s in Phoenix, well … the plot of land in question is some 40 miles west of Phoenix, on the western edge of the metropolis’s westernmost suburb. Still, it appears to be true that Cascade Investment LLC, the firm that manages an uncertain number of billions of Gates’ money, used a subsidiary LLC called Mt. Lemmon Holdings to invest $80 million in a greenfield development project here—if the term can be applied to the very-not-green Arizona desert.
Despite suggestive posts from the Verge, CNN Money, Fortune, Business Insider, Architectural Digest, and dozens of other publications, this is not Gates’ attempt to do in Phoenix what Google is trying to do in Toronto. This is not a story about techies building the city of the future from scratch. It’s actually a little more illuminating than that.
The identity of the investor was ascertained last week by clever reporters at the Arizona Republic, who discovered that property records showed the investment group’s Seattle-area tax mailing address was the same as that of Cascade Investment LLC, the low-profile group that invests Gates’ fortune. After a beat, the national media picked up the story, which seemed to fit with a larger pattern: Tech billionaires who have decided to use their money to do nothing less than reinvent the city.
A local NBC affiliate spliced the news together with old b-roll of Gates discussing unrelated subjects to make it look like this was a pet project. From Peter Thiel’s investments in floating free markets to Y Combinator’s dream of “new, better cities,” America’s rich seem to have caught the utopia fever that recurs in this country every other generation. But, as I wrote of Google’s venture to build a city from scratch on the Toronto waterfront, new plans are often full of old ideas.
Nowhere is the new older than at Belmont, the gargantuan parcel in which Mt. Lemmon Holdings has taken a majority stake. At nearly 25,000 acres, the site is nearly the size of Paris. Land values being somewhat lower here in the middle of nowhere, the developers believe Belmont might ultimately host 80,000 housing units and a city the size of Tempe—the suburban south Phoenix city of 180,000. That density would pencil out to about three houses an acre, more or less the classic equation for a subdivision of detached single-family homes. On paper, it is exactly the type of desert-eating development that’s produced one of the country’s most sprawling metro areas.
There was reason from the get-go to suspect this was not a flagship future-city project for Gates, whose interests beyond Microsoft have focused largely on the public health and poverty initiatives directed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Cascade Investment, by contrast, is a highly secretive trust that invests in run-of-the-mill stocks like railways, waste removal, and agricultural equipment companies. It has real estate holdings too, in the Four Seasons and other hotel companies, often shielded by subsidiary LLCs like the one that just spent $80 million on Arizona desert.
There’s a good reason for that confidentiality: The boss is so famous that any purchase carries the implication that Bill Gates, visionary founder of Microsoft, is personally interested in this Wyoming ranch or that soda manufacturer. But as with those two decades of under-the-radar investments, what Bill Gates likely wants from Cascade is to make money without publicity.
Mt. Lemmon Holdings paid roughly $7,500 an acre, according to Business Real Estate Weekly of Arizona, which would be an insanely low price for residential land in a major American city. But then Belmont is barely even a metropolitan area. It’s just beyond Buckeye, an edge city where subdivisions and irrigated farmland fit together like a chessboard. Buckeye’s growing rapidly: In less than 20 years, its population has ballooned from just over 6,000 to more than 65,000.
Belmont isn’t the only big parcel of desert land being targeted for development out here. Last September, a California company spent $80 million on 10,000 acres in Buckeye, hoping to built 40,000 new homes. Adjacent to Belmont is Douglas Ranch, whose 34,000-acre master plan allows for an astounding 104,000 housing units and 290,000 residents. Those numbers—along with Belmont’s own—seem very, very high for a metro area that has not built more than 30,000 new single-family homes since 2007, when Phoenix was on its way to becoming one of the metros worst-hit by the foreclosure crisis.
What’s happening in Buckeye looks much more like the foolish past of the American city than its future. The state of Arizona is working on a long-deferred dream to build a new highway, Interstate 11, to connect Phoenix to Las Vegas. It would run right through this arid valley, putting those parcels along a big transportation corridor. The project was singled out as a “boondoggle” by public interest groups, who noted that ridership predictions for highways are routinely inflated. But in Buckeye, the prospect of Interstate 11 has set off a land rush, as a local news station reported in July. Investors are betting the highway—although it remains virtually unfunded, and although environmental impact studies are expected to last years—will finally be built.
Meanwhile, Belmont and its neighbors epitomize virtually every disgraced concept in urban planning: low-density development, on untouched natural land, located at great distance from regional job centers. No one affiliated with the project appears ever to have called it a “smart city”; the moniker apparently slipped in the door on the coattails of alleged celebrity investor Bill Gates. The press release included this quote from Larry Yount, the manager of Belmont Partners, who said in a statement: “Belmont illustrates that Arizona remains at the leading edge of trends in American urban planning and development keying off of advances in solar power and electric distribution systems, autonomous auto testing, broadband, and data centers.”
Do solar power and broadband internet a “smart city” make? Is there something “smart” about data centers? Is there anything unusual anymore about autonomous vehicle testing, which is underway in a handful of cities and states already, including throughout the Phoenix area? Popular Mechanics writes that “the community will integrate technology and high speed data into its infrastructure.” Technology in its infrastructure! The future has arrived.
It doesn’t feel fair to criticize the project for this particular failing, since no one in Phoenix promised us a smarter city. Nor did Bill Gates. Criticize it instead for being a garden-variety dumb city, the resurgence of a dormant Phoenix economy founded on population growth, real estate speculation, and cheap land. The project was always about trading off the promised value of a new public works project. It says so right there in the press release. A smart city, whatever that is, was something we invented.