Solar 1 Subdivision by John F. Long

Aug 14, 2020

John Fitzgerald Long (1920-2008) was a legendary businessman and real estate developer in Phoenix. While he did not invent the concept of a master-planned suburban neighborhood, he was the first to implement the idea in Arizona.

John F. Long became a household name in the 1950s with the creation of Maryvale, a massive planned community in Phoenix comprising more than 30,000 single-family homes integrated with schools, shopping centers, and community buildings all woven together. After building Maryvale, John did another, lesser-known project in the mid-1980s called Solar 1, whose story I have not seen told anywhere else. I will cover that after a little backstory on John F. Long and his rise to become the most prolific homebuilder in Arizona's history.

John F. Long Builds a House
In 1947, the 27-year old Long had returned from his service in the US military during World War II. He took an $8,000 GI loan to build a home for himself and his wife, Mary. After six months, the home was completed at a cost of $4,200.

Before they could move in, Long received an offer of $8,500 for the newly-completed home and, savvy businessman that he was, sold the home for a handsome profit. He repeated the process, building 15 more homes before finally settling into a place of his own. Between 1951 and 1954 he built nearly 1,600 homes in West Phoenix.

 
On March 5, 1948 John F. and Mary P. Long sold their first house, located at 7017 N. 23rd Avenue in Phoenix to Mr. and Mrs. Walter.
Photo by: Commercial Executive Magazine, Issue 7, 2012


Long had recognized the incredible opportunity that was present in the form of the post-war economic boom following World War II. Affordable single-family housing was in high demand in 1954. Long figured out how to mass-produce single family homes that could be built quickly and at scale. By using modular mass production techniques such as component assembly of roof trusses, wall sections, and custom-designed cabinetry, assembled at the site, he could cut construction time. His innovations in housing were similar to what Henry Ford did for the automobile - he made it affordable to the masses.


John F. Long with GE Spokesman Ronald Reagan at the GE Award Home in Maryvale, 1958.
John F. Long shows GE spokesman Ronald Reagan features of Maryvale's GE Award Home, 1958.
Photo by: Power Lines by Andrew Needham
Maryvale - Arizona's First Master-Planned Community
In 1954, John F. Long Homes began building a massive new community in Phoenix which he called Maryvale after his wife, Mary. What made this neighborhood different was that it had a master plan, which included space for schools, churches, hospitals, shopping centers and parks.

Maryvale was the first master planned community in Arizona, and would become the blueprint that many other homebuilders would use for the next 70 years. Del Webb used a very similar concept in developing the very first master-planned retirement community, Sun City, in 1959 through the 1980s.

Maryvale Model Homes: Greatest Home Show on Earth



Maryvale was a smash hit that made John F. Long a rockstar real estate developer. Buyers could purchase a three-bedroom, two-bath house with a swimming pool for less than $10,000 (approximately $95,000 in 2020). By 1956, two years into the project, his company was selling 125 new homes per week. Between 1954 and 1979, more than 31,000 homes were built in Maryvale, with half of those built by John F. Long. In 1990, the company closed its homebuilding operation to focus on retail and commercial projects in the West Valley.

Long wasn't just a homebuilder - he wanted to build communities. He donated countless acres of land to the community and to county, state, and federal governments. The success of Maryvale brought him a number of accolades including Citizen of the Year in 1957, induction to the National Housing Hall of Fame in Washington D.C. in 1984, the Arizona Businessman’s Hall of Fame in the 1990s, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from WestMARC in the year 2000.

A 1950s era billboard for John F. Long homes, advertising a luxury compact home for $9,400.



Solar 1 - The World's First Solar Subdivision
But, the whole reason for this post is not to tell the story of Maryvale. I want to tell the story of what John F. Long did after his magnum opus. This is the story of the little-known project called Solar 1.

The origins of Solar 1 go back to 1979, when John F. Long companies built a "solar demonstration home" with an array of photovoltaic (PV) panels on the roof. In a 1985 interview with Canyon Echo, the newsletter for the Arizona Chapter of the Sierra Club, Long had this to say about that first demonstration home: 

"We first used photovoltaics (PV) as part of the roof of that house, but eventually moved the panels because part of the roof created shadows. There were also some problems with maintaining and cleaning off the panels and visually, there was an aesthetic problem."

There was a plan to build a solar-powered neighborhood of 100 homes in the Moon Valley area of North Phoenix, but according to the article, the U.S. Department of Energy pulled out of the project, following President Reagan's budget cuts in 1981.

Solar 1 Neighborhood at 71st Dr. and Osborn Rd. in Phoenix
Photo: North Phoenix Blog
An Experiment in Energy Efficient Homebuilding
Still, the project to build a solar neighborhood was not dead. It re-surfaced in 1985 as a scaled-down project called Solar 1, with 24 lots located at 71st Drive and Osborn Road in Phoenix. This time, the project was totally financed without government participation.

A 1985 advertisement for Solar 1 by John F. Long Homes

The first homes were completed in 1985, with final lots being sold around 1989. The homes in Solar 1 range in size from 1,600 to 2,200 square feet. The whole neighborhood is powered by 2,600 flat plate photovoltaic panels from Arco Solar, arranged in two long rows of racks along one side of the neighborhood. The racks are connected to an inverter which changes direct current to alternating. The system has a peak generation power of 192 kilowatts.

The neighborhood is also connected to the local electric grid as a backup. The subdivision has no battery storage, but with careful energy usage, homeowners will have very small electric bills, and in some cases may even produce excess energy, which is sold back to the utility provider.

Map of Solar 1 neighborhood in Phoenix
Re-Thinking the Single Family Home
Solar 1 was the world's first solar subdivision. It is unique for being one of the only photovoltaic central power plants in Arizona that is not operated by a utility company. But to me, the real genius of Solar 1 is that the solar panels are just one part of the project. The homes themselves are also extremely energy efficient, using a rammed-earth construction method and exterior walls which are 21 inches thick.

From the 1985 Canyon Echo newsletter:

"In order to make PV cost-effective, we had to rethink the total building, not just the photovoltaics themselves. After evaluating the whole project, we decided to go with rammed earth walls for thermal storage. What we're doing is putting each home's insulation on the outside of the home to keep the heat out and the rammed earth walls cool.

Starting from the outside, we have stucco-covered urethane foam, then a one-inch dead air space. Next comes the rammed earth wall which is covered on the inside by sheetrock.




Overall, the wall is 21 inches thick; the rammed earth part is 16 inches thick. Again, by putting the insulation on the exterior, heat doesn't get in. On our demonstration rammed earth model home, we have thermocouplers built into the wall (Editor's note: for temperature monitoring). The center thermocoupler didn't vary but one degree over the last few days. Those rammed earth walls can hold three days worth of cooling.

The walls and home interior are cooled in the morning with the evaporative cooler (or maybe refrigeration, depending on the owner). The wall releases coolness at a slow, even rate from top to bottom, without drafts. It's like living in a basement but above ground level."


 
 
The 24 homes in the Solar 1 subdivision look like any other homes in the area, but are constructed using rammed earth exterior walls which are 21 inches thick, and combined with a photovoltaic central power plant for highly energy efficient living.  

I think that the idea of combining energy-efficient rammed earth construction homes with a solar central power plant was brilliant. The idea with this community was not to make them homes look like some wacky "house of the future" but to show that energy efficient homes could be done and they could look normal. Indeed, the neighborhood blends in well with the surrounding area, and no one would suspect that these 24 homeowners have a utility bill that is a fraction of what their neighbors pay.

It is too bad that the idea of building highly energy efficient homes that look totally normal did not progress beyond this one subdivision in West Phoenix. I think that Solar 1 was a great idea that was ahead of its time.

This John F. Long sidewalk stamp from 1983 is at G. Frank Davidson Elementary School, across the street from the Solar 1 subdivision.  

For more about Solar 1, check out this video I found on YouTube. It was recorded in 1988, and features an interview with Larry and Jackie, a retired couple who purchased the very first home in the development. I found it amusing how they emphasize that they are not environmentalists - but that they purchased the home purely for the cost savings on electricity. 

Looking Back: 12 Years of North Phoenix Blog

May 1, 2020

I started North Phoenix Blog 12 years ago, in May of 2008.

The Internet in 2008/2009

At the time, the Internet was becoming "Web 2.0". New services like WordPress (first released in 2003), YouTube (launched in 2005), and Twitter (launched in 2006) were changing the way that people used the web in their daily lives. Websites were no longer one-way mediums that talked at the reader like a newspaper did. They were becoming interactive, with comments and discussions and user-generated content.

To give some context, 2008 was the height of the MySpace era, as people got on board with the idea of joining a "social network" site. The iPhone 3G had just come out in Summer 2008. Sites like Blogger, LiveJournal, and WordPress were at the forefront of this new citizen journalism movement, where people who would otherwise go unheard via traditional media outlets found a voice and an audience online. 

Online publications such as The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Drudge Report were gaining readers as major newspapers were going out of business left and right during the Great Recession. Technology was making it possible to communicate and build an audience in a way that hadn't been seen since the invention of the printing press centuries earlier. It was an exciting time to be online.

The Hyperlocal News Movement
Phoenix is a huge city, with more than 1.6 million residents sprawled out over an area of 518 square miles. Within the city are distinct neighborhoods - the downtown core, Arcadia, Encanto, Maryvale, and numerous other historic and unique neighborhoods, each with their own history, their own character, their own story.

My goal in starting North Phoenix Blog was to be a hyperlocal source for news and information in a specific area of town: North Phoenix, what you might call the Deer Valley or Norterra area. I wanted the site to be the voice of the community and let residents know about things like new restaurants and businesses opening and closing, and maybe share a bit about the history of the area. I felt that the North Phoenix region was overlooked by larger publications like The Arizona Republic and the Phoenix New Times.

The only time North Phoenix ever got any press was from a professional Real Estate Agent who started a blog as a thinly-veiled marketing strategy.
I felt that as a person living in the area, I could do better. So I created a free site with Blogger and got to writing.

A Flawed Plan
Well, it soon became clear that there were two problems with my strategy. First, it was 2009 and the economy was in the worst recession since the 1930s. The formerly fast-growing Deer Valley area had ground to a halt. No new homes or businesses would be constructed for years to come, and established businesses were going bust left and right. For an aspiring blogger, I couldn't have picked a worse time to write about local news, when there was little very news happening.

The second problem is that I work a full time job, and did not have the resources to go and do actual journalism. Stuff like conducting interviews, filing public records requests, telling both sides of a complex issue wasn't feasible to do on evenings and weekends. I was just one guy with a computer and an idea.


The lack of content to write about and the lack of time to put into stories (and maintaining a regular posting schedule) meant that my site struggled to find an audience. I wasn't good at writing time-sensitive pieces about events and activities, and after they have passed, no one cares to read about them. I decided to try a new approach, focusing on content that was not time-specific.

Local News Becomes Local History
One thing I did enjoy writing about was history. North Phoenix was built up substantially in the 1970s and 1980s, and is too new of an area to really have much history. The landscape is primarily made up of subdivisions of low-density, single family homes built on large tracts of land by developers, dotted with commercial shopping centers at major corners. Not exactly a thrilling history.

As it turns out, the focus of a blog about one specific area of the city was TOO narrow. So I started branching out with other posts about the Phoenix area and Arizona, such as:
These posts did a lot better, and actually got some good page views and even some real comments. I was finding an audience with these nostalgia/history posts, which wasn't where I expected to be when I started the site.

The Competition
Another problem that I didn't see coming was the competition. As I mentioned, the idea of "hyper-local news" was a pretty new concept in 2009. Today in 2020, there are lots of ways people can find out what's happening in their community.

Reddit has a local news and discussion forum (subreddit) called /r/Phoenix with 75,000 members.

NextDoor.com has become the premier social network for people to discuss issues online with residents of their specific, local neighborhood.

Facebook Groups allow people to join, share, and discuss topics of a shared interest, such as local history. There are a few great Facebook Groups dedicated to Phoenix history, including one with nearly 6,000 members.

NoPhoNews, a local news website launched in 2017, is the online version of a niche print publication founded in 2005. They have basically done what I set out to do, covering local news and issues in the North Phoenix area.



The Future
After 12 years and 200+ posts, I don't know where to go next with North Phoenix Blog. There are still plenty of ideas I would like to write about, but there are also other projects I would like to work on as well.

I will continue to write for the site on an occasional basis, as I have done for the past couple of years. There is no regular posting schedule, but I will publish articles as I find ideas that strike me as worth writing about. 

Looking back over the past 12 years, it has been a great ride writing about the city I love and hearing the responses from readers who have a real appreciation for local history has been very rewarding. Thank you so much for reading, and I look forward to bringing you more articles going forward.

Legend City Log Ride Custom Car

Feb 14, 2019

"Legend City was originally conveived in the late 1950s by Louis E. Crandall as Arizona's answer to Disneyland. For kids living in the Phoenix area in the 1960s and 70s, it was an entertainment mecca, a unique and fun place for a magical afternoon or an evening out. Opened in 1963 and closed forever in 1983, Legend City will long be remembered for its Old West atmosphere, cool rides, charming attractions and presentation of such splendid local talent as Vonda Kay Van Dyke, Dolan Ellis, Mike Condello, Hub Kapp, and of course, Wallace and Ladmo. A vanished treasure in Phoenix entertainment history."

Legend City was the closest thing Arizona ever had to a Disneyland type amusement park. The park opened in 1963 and closed in 1983. It had a number of attractions, amusements, and rides - one of which was the Log Jammer flume ride.

Though the park has long been closed, one enterprising man was able to save part of its history in a most unusual way. He acquired one of the original log ride cars from Legend City (car No. 8) and has transformed it into a running, driving hot rod, or as he calls it, a "Rat Log."

An original ride car from the Log Jammer ride at Phoenix's defunct Legend City amusement park has been transformed into a running, driving automobile.


Riding on a modified Chevrolet chassis with a 350 cubic inch V8 engine, the vehicle has been fitted with two seats, one in front of the other, similar to the F-4 Phantom fighter jet. It has headlights, turn signals, running boards, and a custom "wooden log" steering wheel.

The vehicle is adorned with memorabilia from Legend City on the tail, including laminated entry tickets from the 1970s. It was quite a cool creation, and I'm thrilled that the history of Legend City is being preserved in such an eye-catching way. I'll bet the owner gets questions about this car everywhere it goes!

Running boards help with easy entry to the vehicle, which does not have traditional doors.
Though never intended to be a road vehicle, this former amusement ride has been adapted to a car quite well.
Memorabilia from Legend City, Phoenix's former amusement park.

Decorative Sewer Manhole Covers in Phoenix

Feb 1, 2019

The greater Phoenix area is made up of more than 20 incorporated cities, towns, and census designated places. Collectively, the "metro Phoenix" area is home to 4.7 million people.

As these cities and towns grow closer together into one giant mass of sprawl, how do they retain their individual identities? One small way that cities set themselves apart is with decorative sewer manhole covers. Here are five good ones that I've come across in the Phoenix area. I will update this post with more unique sewer and manhole covers as I find them.

City of Phoenix sanitary sewer cover featuring the Phoenix bird symbol, which was designed in 1987 in a widely publicized design contest. The winning entry was a design by the firm of Smit Ghormley Sanft and became the official city symbol in 1990.


City of Peoria, AZ storm sewer cover featuring a setting sun, mountains, a Saguaro cactus, and an agricultural field in the foreground. The year 1954 is when Peoria was incorporated as a city.


City of Glendale, AZ sanitary sewer cover featuring the three pillar design that appears throughout the city. The pillars represent three key elements of community—the citizens, the business sector, and the government that serves them. They were adopted as the city's official logo in 1990.
City of Chandler, AZ sanitary sewer cover featuring the city's official logo, which was adopted in 1994. It has a stylized "C" with the San Tan Mountains, the growing city, and agricultural fields in the foreground.
City of Scottsdale, AZ storm sewer cover features a cowboy riding a bucking bronco. The design was adopted as the official city seal around 1951. It was designed by local artist Gene Pennington and was based on an actual Scottsdale cattleman and resident Gerbacio "Harvey" Noriega.

What is a County Island in Phoenix?

Dec 26, 2018

Phoenix may be in the middle of the desert, but you may be surprised to learn that we DO have islands here! Not the kind with sand and a palm tree - I'm talking about county islands. In this post I am going to talk about county islands for those who are not familiar with them.

What is a county island?
If you have recently moved to Arizona from the East Coast or the Mid-Western United States or are thinking about moving here, the concept of a county island may be completely foreign of to you. Let's start with a definition: A county island is an area of unincorporated land which is completely surrounded by an incorporated city or town. That's right, even if you buy a home within the City of Phoenix and have a Phoenix address, you may be on county land and not technically part of Phoenix!

How do you find county islands?
In the example below, all I did was perform a search for "Phoenix, Arizona" on Google Maps. Google outlines the city boundaries, but you can see that there are some irregular shapes which are not part of Phoenix, even though they may be surrounded on all sides by Phoenix - hence the name, islands.

Example of County Islands in North Phoenix
Many other Phoenix-area cities including Glendale, Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert, Queen Creek, and others have county islands as well. In the example below, you can see that the city of Chandler, AZ is full of them, particularly in the southern portion of the city. The actual boundaries of the city of Chandler are quite unusual!

 
Google Maps showing county islands within the city of Chandler, AZ


What are the pros and cons of living in a county island?
There are some pros and cons of living in a county island, which I will explore below.

I must preface this with the disclaimer that I am not a licensed realtor or a lawyer, and it is YOUR responsibility to look up local laws and ordinances in your area, as they will certainly vary from one jurisdiction to another.

Advantages of a living in a County Island
  • Residents of county islands generally do not have to pay residential property tax on their home, because property tax is levied by cities.
  • Federal, State and County laws still apply, but city laws may not apply. Therefore residents may be able to store and work on vehicles, own chickens, goats, horses, or other livestock not permitted by residential city codes or ordinances.
  • County Island residents are not governed by Home Owners Associations (HOAs). This is why you will often find horse properties, commercial vehicle storage, and other activities taking place within county islands which are typically not permitted within most cities and towns.
  • An example would be a person who stores a large motorhome, boat, or other recreational vehicle on their property. Within city limits, the homeowner is likely to get complaints from neighbors about the large vehicle parked on their property - which could result in a city code violation. A person living on county land will typically not have such restrictions, which are often part of a city's code or charter.
  • Another example would be the owner of a company. Perhaps it is a construction company, plumbing, electrical, roofing, HVAC, or other home services company - or perhaps a commercial towing operator, etc. Within many cities, homeowners cannot store a fleet of commercial vehicles at their house. Within a county island however, this is often permitted.

Disadvantages of living in a County Island
  • Homes are typically not connected to city services such as water and sewer services. Residents may rely on a shared well and or septic system for their home. In some cases they may be served by a private water company.
  • Homes in county islands also do not receive solid waste collection services from the surrounding city. Residents must contract with a private company for residential trash collection and do not receive bulk trash pickup without an additional charge.
  • County Islands may or may not have paved streets, sidewalks and streetlights. If they do, they are not maintained or serviced by the city.
  • Calls for police assistance will be responded to by the County Sheriff, which may result in a longer response time than the local municipal police force.
  • Fire and Emergency/Medical services are not usually provided to residents in a County Island. In some cases there may be a special Fire District to provide services, or residents may subscribe to services from the surrounding city for an annual fee.
  • Residents of a county island are not eligible to vote in city elections, such as for the mayor. (They can still vote in county, state, and Federal elections).
Will a county island always be a safe haven?
Living in a county island may be appealing to some people who favor reduced government involvement in their lives. However, the status of a county island is not guaranteed. In some jurisdictions, a county island may be annexed by the surrounding city if 51% of the residents vote in favor of the annexation. While it is unlikely to happen, it has happened before and could happen again. However, this is unlikely since many of the residents of a county island are likely to live there by choice and may share a similar mindset and reasons for living in such an area.

Are county islands a good place to live?
Well, that depends on your perspective. Living in a county island may align with your personal beliefs about reduced government intervention in the lives of private citizens, or if you are a business owner, there may be some real financial incentives to living in an unincorporated area.

However, many county islands are lacking in basic city amenities such as water and trash service, sidewalks, streetlights, or even paved roads. Residents may not like having to pay private companies for trash collection or paying an annual fee to be receive coverage by emergency fire/medical services.

Now that you know about some of the advantages and disadvantages of county islands, you can decide for yourself if living in one is right for you. It is something to be cautious of if you are moving or relocating to the Phoenix area and are not familiar with the concept of County Islands. 
 

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