Tucson:  A Beautiful Desert Oasis

Tucson: A Beautiful Desert Oasis

With good reason, Tucsonians love to sneer at Phoenix: too big, too ugly and with too much out of control growth and the concomitant dreadful traffic problems. (oh yes, and too Conservative too!). However, as the city of Tucson has an estimated 2009 population of 543,910 and the county has just passed the million residents mark (1,020,200), Tucson may be growing a bit too fast and large for many of its residents’ comfort. Tucson does in fact feel different than its much larger big brother Phoenix. Tucsonians have embraced the desert landscape for their homes to a much greater degree than their neighbors to the north. It is rare to find a lawn in the traditional sense in Tucson, most particularly in the ten Higley 1000 neighborhoods I have identified in two recent trips to this lovely oasis in the desert. Granted, xeroscaping is often mandated by the county, suburbs, and homeowners associations, but never-the-less, the visual affect is stunning.

New Census Figures (American Community Survey 2005-9) on Where the Well-to-do Live

The figures show that the Catalina Foothills has the largest number of the affluent (+$200,000 household incomes). Pima County has 10,458 households in that category.

1. Catalina Foothills 3,683
2. Tucson 2,143
3. Oro Valley 1,184
4. Casas Adobes 832
5. Tanque Verde 568
6. Marana 337
7. Green Valley 178
8. Sahuarita 117

The Catalina Foothills Landscape

Catalina Foothills landscape

Modernist Architecture in the Catalina Foothills:

Modernist Architecture in the Catalina Foothills

The ten Higley 1000 neighborhoods found in Tucson are quite small as they represent sub-divisions built by individual developers. There are only 2,484 households in the ten neighborhoods, each one approximately 1/3 as large as the typical Higley 1000 neighborhood found in the rest of the country. Eight of the ten neighborhoods and almost 90% of the households are found in the Catalina Foothills.

There are two historic neighborhoods found in the geographic heart of the central city. This pair of adjacent subdivisions were platted in 1928 when the city was a small Western city of 32,506 residents (1930 Census). The much larger and newer grouping of eight Catalina Foothill neighborhoods are found in a series of mostly gated communities along the highest elevations of the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains to the north of the city, often shortened to “The Foothills” in local parlance.

The foothills north of the Tucson city limits encompass 100.1 square miles of unincorporated suburban sprawl that is differentiated solely by socio-economic status. The Census Bureau has divided this suburban area into three distinct unincorporated suburban entities that are called Census Designated Places (or CDPs): Casas Adobes, Catalina Foothills, and Tanque Verde. Together, the three CDPs have 135,900 people according to the 2005-9 American Community Survey. This large concentration of upper-middle and lower-middle class households is vociferously against annexation by the City of Tucson and equally resistant to incorporation. All services are provided by Pima County.

The Racial Makeup of Tucson and the Ten Higley 1000 Neighborhoods

The metro area has two dominant racial groups: Latino (32.5% of households, 2000 Census) and Non-Hispanic Whites (58.1%) plus small but notable populations of Native Americans (3.4%), African-Americans (3.1%) and Asians (2.4%). The racial makeup of the “best” neighborhoods have little minority representation. 90.3% of the households in the ten Tucson Higley 1000 neighborhoods are non-Hispanic White, which is similar to all Higley 1000 neighborhoods (91.0%).

Latinos represent a mere 5.4% of the households in these wealthiest of Tucson neighborhoods. Although this is significantly higher percentage than Latino representation in the entire Higley 1000 (2.2%), it seems relatively small considering the significant Latino population that is found in the metro area and City of Tucson (36.5% Latino).

As is typical of the pattern found throughout the United States, Asians are represented in Tucson’s wealthiest neighborhoods at above average numbers than the United States as a whole (3.3% vs 2.7%). However, this is significantly less than the percentage of Asian households in all Higley 1000 neighborhoods (4.8%).

There are virtually no Blacks (.5% of all households) or Native-Americans (.4%) in Tucson’s elite neighborhoods.

The Census Bureau’s geographic division of the metro area has made an accurate accounting of Tucson’s wealthy neighborhoods very difficult. The Block Groups are clumsily mapped and do not follow the mandate of the Census Bureau to isolate neighborhoods of similar socio-economic makeup. The end result is that I have had to estimate the mean household income for each of the ten Higley 1000 neighborhoods found in the greater Tucson area. I estimate mean household income by comparing statistics such as real estate prices and median age as well as speaking to local realtors (always an invaluable resource!).

In the case of Tucson I drove by or through all ten neighborhoods on my last two visits to the metro area to give each neighborhood a “windshield survey”. I was able to tabulate accurate racial statistics by adding up the totals for each race and each neighborhood on a block by block basis using 2000 Census Block data. The bottom line is that the mean household income statistics are estimates, the racial statistics are exact.

Map of Colonia Solana and El Encanto Estates: Two Historical Neighborhoods “on the Flats”
View Larger Map of El Encanto Estates and Colonia Solana

Colonia Solana and El Encanto Estates were developed east of the city’s boundaries in 1928 next to the El Conquistador Hotel, a posh tourist destination during the first half of the 20th Century. Unfortunately, the hotel was torn down in 1969 to make way for the El Con Mall. The El Con Mall’s day in the sun was short and today it is mostly abandoned, losing it’s last anchor (Macy’s) in 2007. The best description of these two neighborhoods is found in Virginia and Lee McAlester’s wonderful Book, “A Field Guide to America’s Historic Neighborhoods and Museum Houses: The Western States”, (Knopf 1998). “This contrasting pair of Eclectic-era subdivisions, both opened in 1928, provide a fascinating lesson in the crucial role that landscape and streetscape play in neighborhood ambiance. Both subdivisions offered irregular lots, curvilinear streets, and dense vegetation, and both suffered the slowdown in development that came with the 1930’s depression and Second World War. Individual houses in both run the stylistic gamut from late 1920s period houses to 1950s Ranch-style houses to a scattering of new construction. Most of these, including the Ranch houses, display some Neo-Hispanic detailing. The two developments thus share similar house designs and street layouts, yet are startlingly different because of their landscaping.

Colonia Solana is an exquisite, and perhaps unique neighborhoods in which you feel as if you have driven directly into the surrounding desert and stumbled upon a few scattered houses. There is no street paving, no curbs, and no gutters. A line of rocks is used to delineate the boundary between road and yard. A natural arroyo running through the neighbhorhood has been left undisturbed. There are no “lawns” in the conventional sense. Instead, the neighborhood contains the fascinating native plants of the surrounding Sonoran Desert”.

“Adjacent to the north is El Encanto Estates, less unusual but also charming. Here the curved streets and irregular lots are arranged in a symmetrical bull’s-eye pattern, a type favored by those designing early -Twentieth Century geometric neighborhoods. Although much native vegetation is used, the neighborhood is dominated by majestic imported palm trees, which accent the formal curve of the streets.”

Both of these ungated neighborhoods are small. I counted 144 houses in El Encanto Estates and 121 in Colonia Solana. Located in the middle of the city, neither has the spectacular views that are available in the foothills to the north. In spite of being located next to a dead mall and some dicey neighborhoods, it appears as if these two islands of wealth have managed to maintain their unique desirability. The houses for sale in both neighborhooods as of June 2008 were generally in the $700,000 to $1,500,000 range.

The Catalina Foothills: Gated Wealth

There are eight Higley 1000 neighborhoods nestled up against the Catalina Mountains. The foothills provide breathtaking vistas of the city to the south and the mountains to the north. All of the wealthiest neighborhoods are found in the central section of the foothills that the Census calls the Catalina Foothills. Casas Adobes to the west is considered Tucson’s first suburb and is predominately lower-middle class. Tanque Verde, a mixture of lower and upper middle class households to the east, is less developed, more open, and in general has lower real estate values than the central foothill area The first elite subdivisions in the Catalina Foothills were layed out by an ambitious Tucson developer by the name of John Murphey in the early 1930s. He called his development Catalina Foothills Estates and the 10 additions he constructed eventually encompassed 1,600 homes that are still represented by a homeowner association to this day. The subdivisions were planned with large lots (three acres or more are common) to maximize privacy. Two of Murphey’s subdivisions are found in the Higley 1000: Numbers 9 & 10. Catalina Foothills Estates #9 has been lumped in with several adjacent newer subdivisions in the Higley 1000, notably the The Foothills I and The Foothills II developments.

Catalina Foothills Estates #10 is a hidden gated community located south of the Westin La Paloma Resort between Hacienda del Sol Road and Pontatoc Road. The original 10 subdivisions are sometimes referred to as “Old” Catalina.

Map of the Catalina Foothills’ Higley 1000 Neighborhoods
View Larger Map of the Higley 1000 Neighborhoods in Catalina Foothills

Touring the wealthiest neighborhoods of the Foothills is difficult because most are gated. Fortunately with the sparse desert landscape and the aid of Microsoft Virtual Earth and Google Earth, it is easy to view the million dollar homes with the million dollar views. The architecture of all of these neighborhoods is essentially the same: sprawling single story modern houses that often have neo-Hispanic architectural motifs. Architectural Review Boards of Homeowner Associations reign supreme in these neighborhoods and the architecture is relentlessly similar.

The amount one pays for a home in these neighborhoods is directly related to one factor above all else: The View. El Encanto Estates and Colonia Solonia on the flats of the central city are 2,500 feet above sea level. The houses at the loftiest elevations of the various foothill neighborhoods are found in the 3,000 to 3,400 foot range. The highest peak to the north in the Catalina Mountains is Mt. Lemmon, at 9,157 feet above sea level.

One of the interesting aspects of some of the foothill neighborhoods is the mixing of house types. Unlike most Higley 1000 neighborhoods, one finds patio homes, townhouses, and condominiums interspersed among the single family homes. The Skyline Country Club has a wide assortment of condominiums and patio homes. I have artfully drawn this neighborhood to exclude these lower income units. I have done the same with the lovely neighborhood of Rancho Sin Vacas by drawing the boundaries to include the estate homes but exclude the assisted living facility and multi-unit housing.

I have included Tucson’s newest luxury gated development, Pima Canyon Estates with the adjacent Rancho Sin Vacas. At the time of the 2000 Census, this neighborhood was just being built and there were few households to be counted. However, with 298 lots that start at $700,000, this neighborhood will definitely become part of the 2010 Census update of the Higley 1000.

The two gated communities with some of the most impressive homes, Cobblestone and The Canyons are relatively small and difficult to photograph. I was able to snap this shot of one of the peripheral houses in The Canyons from outside the walls.

Peripheral House in The Canyons, Catalina Foothills

The Canyons, Catalina Foothills

One of the few neighborhoods in the foothills that is not gated is Alta Vista Estates. During my recent visit to Tucson I took several good pictures of the homes in this neighborhood. The pictures below should give one and idea of the foothills landscape and the type of architecture found throughout all ten neighborhoods.

A Typical Home in Alta Vista Estates

Alta Vista Estates

Alta Vista Estates, #2

Alta Vista 2

Skyline Bel Aire Estates – My Sensational Tucson Headquarters

I have the fortune of having two wonderful friends that live in the Skyline Bel Aire Estates subdivision in the Catalina Foothills. It has been my base of operation as I have explored the beautiful neighborhoods of the Foothills. Skyline Bel Aire Estates is one of the older neighborhoods in the upper Foothills, having originally been built in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. With a mean household income of $97,895, it is not close to making the Higley 1000 (the minimum mean income is approximately $185,000). However, this desirable neighborhoods has many beautiful houses and the neighborhood is in the midst of slowly being gentrified due to its wonderful views and excellent location.i

Posted in Metro Briefs, The US Census on Oct 8th, 2010, 8:11 pm by Stephen Higley   

4 Responses to “Tucson: A Beautiful Desert Oasis”

  1. Ayodelle Gates
    April 20th, 2010 | 9:18 am

    Where do working class such as nurses, teachers, police live in Tuscon?

  2. Stephen Higley
    January 25th, 2011 | 11:26 am

    They live in the central city which has many lovely neighborhoods. They can also be found in large numbers in Marana, Flowing Wells, and Casas Adobes.

  3. expat53
    September 16th, 2011 | 6:30 pm

    On the northwest side, midtown, or Marana.

  4. June 20th, 2012 | 8:02 pm

    Great info here. This is one of the most sensible subdivisions where you can find estate properties and proximity to the center of the city.

    Jerimiah Taylor
    Alta Vista Estates Real Estate

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