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Retirees' Place in the Sun : Arizona City Webb 'Invented' Is 25 Years Old

September 22, 1985|DON G. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — The curious, of course, came out in droves. But the serious ones were there, too. In all, 100,000 of them clogged the far northwestern reaches of Phoenix's Grand Avenue and the unpaved farm roads bisecting it.

They parked, precariously, on the lips of steep irrigation ditches or in the adjoining cotton fields.

That was 25 years ago, last January, and the cause of the interest was a new concept in housing that in a few short years was to become synonymous with the genre, Sun City--carpenter-turned developer Del E. Webb's high-risk gamble that the nation's elderly had a homing and nesting instinct that even they didn't know they had.

Today, demographically, as the balance of economic and political power continues to pass further into the hands of the 50-plus generation (50 million strong now and, by 1990, accounting for a full 21% of the population), more and more developers nationally are hungrily eyeing this market.

And while Webb, who died in 1974, never laid claim to "inventing" the adult retirement community, California developer Elmer John's little Youngtown settlement, just four miles away, predated Sun City by six years--he did conceive of it as an "active" retirement community with recreational and social amenities well in place before the first house was sold.

And a retrospective examination of sold-out Sun City's first quarter-century must inevitably lead today's would-be developers to consider a curious irony in this: Not only did Webb's concept become the standard for all retirement communities that followed, but the extent to which Sun City came to personify that concept has made it far more difficult for any like-minded developer in the 1980s to imitate it.

"Actually," said Paul H. Tatz, president of Del E. Webb Development Co. (DEVCO), a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Del E. Webb Corp., in a recent interview, "the amenities Webb had to show those 100,000 people who came out to see the new Sun City in 1960 represented a sizable economic risk at the time, but they weren't all that overwhelming--we had a small recreation center, a nine-hole golf course, a small hotel, a restaurant and a small commercial core. But that was it.

"It turned out to be enough to sell 263 houses that first weekend--a two-bedroom, two-bath house with a pool on a 7,500-square-foot lot sold for under $10,000--and, by the end of the year we had a population of 2,500."

But, with no criteria at the time for what an "active adult retirement community" was supposed to include in the way of amenities, Sun City's pioneer settlers were relatively unsophisticated.

Would a buyer today settle for such a package, or would he expect what a mature Sun City (population: 46,000) now offers: seven recreational centers, 11 golf courses, 10 neighborhood shopping centers with more than 350 businesses, a center for the performing arts, the 355-bed Walter O. Boswell Memorial Hospital, numerous medical buildings, banks, savings and loan offices, churches and life-care centers to serve its residents?

"It's pretty safe to say," Tatz added, "that there won't be any more projects of this magnitude. You simply can't do it with today's costs, and while we are already planning more Sun Cities in the Sun Belt--near Tucson, in Southern California, New Mexico and Texas--none will be on this scale."

Even by the standards of the mid-1950s, when Sun City was conceived, the enormity of the undertaking was considerable: the acquisition, in one fell swoop, of 8,900 acres--two large farms acquired from the Boswell family in a joint venture. Even the availability of that much land, at any price, within 12 miles of a major metropolitan area is mind-boggling 25 years later.

"In 1985 dollars, and disregarding the land cost," Tatz said, "the up-front costs of putting together a community of, say 3,000 or 4,000 people, are tremendous. A single, 18-hole golf course is going to cost about $5 million, a recreation center for 4,000 to 5,000 people would run about $3- to $5 million, the infrastructure--the roads, streets, utilities, sewage treatment and so forth--will cost about $8 million.

"And then you've got countless other expenses. You've got to have some sort of a minimal commercial development and medical facilities. At least a doctor's office. And these all have to be subsidized.

"I would say that if you were to put together a 10,000-population community today--phasing it in one-fourth increments--you're going to be spending $25 million, just to get ready to sell . . . with your model homes in place, your sales pavilion manned and that sort of thing."

And, in the late 1950s, Tatz said, the paper work involved in launching a new community was minimal.

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