|Scottsdale, Ariz., Dec. 18—Rechanda Howard, a soft-spoken member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, remembers how her grandfather, Joseph Ray, used to talk about the 90 acres of remote arid land that the federal government allotted to his family in 1913. “He said the land would never be worth anything,” said Mrs. Howard, now a grandmother herself.
Set against a backdrop of red clay mountains, the creosote-and-mesquite-covered land that Mrs. Howard and two dozen relatives inherited is a picturesque reminder of this region’s desert past. But acreage that seemed isolated when the reservation was established in 1879 now bumps against the edge of this manicured city of 203,000. And it lies just to the west of the recently completed Pima Freeway, the major north-south artery in the sprawling Phoenix metropolitan area, with its population of 3.3 million.
Long before the freeway, developers had their eye on Indian lands. The biggest projects so far have been a shopping center with big-box retailers and a Wal-Mart. Early next year, however, MainSpring Capital Group, a local developer affiliated with Ross Brown Partners, a real estate services company, plans to begin clearing and grading the site for the first phase of Pima Center, a $600 million commercial development on 209 acres owned by Joseph Ray’s descendants and 34 other Salt River Pima-Maricopa families. Once completed, the project will be on of the largest private business parks on Indian land.
Pima Center, which is slated to be a mix of high-end office buildings, retail stores and warehouse and distribution spaces, is one of several developments that are expected to sprout along the freeway on land leased from the tribe.
Just to the east of the freeway, the Alter Group, based in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, is also poised to begin building a $400 million retail and office park, with two million square feet of space, on 186 acres of land owned by seven other Indian families. And just south of the Pima Center a major national office developer, the Opus Corporation, is planning a 30-acre office park.
Getting to this point can be a painstaking process for developers and the Indian community. Ralph R. Horlacher, a principal in Spire Properties, who assembled the parcels on which the Alter Group plans to build, said negotiations began in 1996, shortly before the Pima Center talks.
Some of the delay was caused by the sheer number of parties involved. Of the reservation’s 55,329 acres, 24,404 were allotted to individuals to encourage them to become farmers, although much of it lay north of the Arizona Canal and was therefore unsuited to agriculture. The Indians are barred from selling the land, which is held in trust for them by the federal government.
Many landowners died without making wills, leaving multiple heirs. The Pima Center land, for example, is held by 180 individuals, a MainSpring principal, Gerald V. Blomquist, said. The Alter site has 170 landholders, Mr. Horlacher said. A formula linked to the number of owners for a given parcel dictates how many landholders have to agree to a lease.
But there were other obstacles. The developers also found themselves doing business with people with an uncommonly long-range view and a passionate concern about the consequences for future generations. Unlike most Indian communities, the Salt River Pima-Maricopas have been self-governing since 1993.
“Many tribes,” said Jacob C. Moore, the community’s special assistant on congressional and legislative affairs, “think seven generations ahead, in terms of the long-term impact on your decision will have.”
For three decades, the community of 7,400 (not all of whom live in the reservation) has been anticipating development along the freeway corridor, Mr. Moore said. With about a dozen tribal businesses ranging from sand-and-gravel production to hazardous waste recycling, the Salt River Indians are more entrepreneurial than many rural tribes that depend on gambling casinos for their nongovernment revenue. But they have sought a balance between the economic opportunities and the tribe’s environmental, spiritual and cultural values even at the expense of long delays, Mr. Moore said.
“The community is not in a rush,” he said. “We missed the last cycle. We missed the one before that, and as far as the community is concerned, that’s O.K.”
The tribe has imposed a height limitation of 40 feet so that mountain views will not be obstructed. They have banned palm trees, which are ubiquitous in Scottsdale but not native to the region, and stipulated that all pedestrian areas must be shaded. White materials and narrow glass windows, seen as out of keeping with the Indian aesthetic, are discouraged. “The community,” said Hans Klose, director for community development, “prefers developers with innovative yet culturally aware visions.”
Knowing that their land is steadily increasing in value has made it easy for the Indians to be patient, Mr. Moore said.
Indeed, while the vacancy rate in the Phoenix area is 20 percent, Scottsdale’s vacancy rate is only 13 percent, despite the addition of 3.3 million square feet of space since 1997, said R. Craig Coppola, a principal of Lee & Associates, a local brokerage company.
In Scottsdale, Mr Coppola said, the asking annual rent for high-quality office space is $28 a square foot.
To cross Pima Road from Scottsdale to the reservation is to travel between two very different worlds. One contains multimillion-dollar homes, lush lawns and cactus gardens, an airport for private plans, dozens of golf courses and luxurious spa resorts. The other is minimally landscaped and dotted with modest one-story houses and trailers.
In 1999, the median family income in Scottsdale was $73,846, and nearly half the working population was made up of managers and professionals. On the reservation, the median family income is $24,975, Mr. Klose said. Of this potential work force of 3,500 people, about 1,250 are employed, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Two decades ago, Joseph Ray’s daughters began getting offers for projects ranging from stadiums to auto malls, said Russell Ray, Mrs. Howard’s first cousin. But the proposal went nowhere. “We did background checks, to see if these were people of their word,” he said. “A number of them were not reputable.”
In 1989, the first phase of the Scottsdale Pavilions, a 1.1-million-square-foot big-box shopping center, opened on Salt River land, at Indian Bend Road, just west of the future freeway. Mr. Horlacher, who assembled those parcels for the Vestar Development Corporation and is now working with the Alter Group, said it took 10 years to get the shopping center built. So that the project—now operated by Mr. Horlacher’s company—could attract national tenants, the law was changed to allow disputes to be settled in federal court, a significant step for future projects.
The success of Scottsdale Pavilions showed the Ray family and their neighbors what could be accomplished. But many in the community were put off by the shopping center’s generic design, prompting them to demand greater control in the future. Veronica L. Homer, superintendent of the Salt River field office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which must review leases on Indian land, said the shopping center caused a shift in the community. “They are now thinking high-end,” she said.
More in line with current aesthetics, tribal leaders say, is the 285,000-square-foot Chapparal Business Center, on Pima and Chapparal Roads. Completed in 2000, the earth-toned complex was built for the Salt River Devco, a tribe-owned business, by Kitchell Development Corporation of Phoenix.
It was not until 1997 that the Ray family began actively courting development. After they began negotiating with the Pima Center developers, they had to get a zoning variance from the community to allow light industrial uses. “We had to assure them there would be no smokestacks,” Mr. Ray said.
Mrs. Howard said the Indian community will receive a projected $5 million a year from the possessory taxes—the tribal equivalent of property taxes—that the buildings will generate. Her generation will profit from the lease but it will be her children and grandchildren who benefit the most and will need to rise to the responsibility that goes along with newfound affluence, she said.
“We are telling them that they need to become business-minded,” she said. “We are telling them, ‘You need to go to school and go to work.’”