Why Are There No Basements in Phoenix?

I have an aunt and uncle back home who spend every summer "down cellar," which in Ohio means that in June, when the temperatures soar into the 80s, they pretty much abandon their three-story house and retreat into their basement until late August, when their "hot" weather ceases.

I envy them. Not because I have a secret desire to live like a vole but because, by this time each year, I am (like so many of us), looking everywhere for a cool place to park myself that won't result in an outrageous electricity bill a few weeks later. And let's face it: Pretty much no one in Phoenix has a basement.

I do, but mine's the type that's referred to as "unfinished," which means that it has 61/2-foot ceilings and is open to the crawlspace under my house, which was built in the 1920s by a transplanted Midwesterner for whom a basement was de rigueur. Even if it were more livable, my basement is so crammed with Rubbermaid tubs full of treasures (I am not a hoarder!) that there's barely room to stand.

Still, having a basement in Phoenix is like owning an ark or having an 11th toe. People always seem astonished. "You have a basement?" is the typical response; and the follow-up comments usually include "What do you do with it?" (I stash tchotchkes there — did I mention that I'm not a hoarder?) and "I wish I had one!" (Me, too — at least, one I could entertain in.)

Which got me to thinking: Why aren't there more basements in our town? I remember hearing that it's because the ground here is too dense here to dig up properly — something about caliche, a sedimentary rock of calcium carbonate that fuses together gravel and sand and pretty much everything it touches — but why is that even an issue? Isn't there, I don't know, some kind of giant machine that's been invented that can blast through stubborn rock and give us a nice cool place to stick a billiard table and a wet bar?

I called Scott McDonald, owner of The Wall Company, a local business that — no kidding — digs basements for new and already existing homes and house plans. I wasn't all that surprised when McDonald explained that our paucity of basements has less to do with hard ground than it does with time and money. What else?

"It's quicker for builders to put up a home without a basement," he explained. "A basement adds about a month to the construction process. And a basement actually costs more to build out here than a second story."

So how come Midwesterners and those living in the East get both? "In colder states, the foundation of a home has to be dug down below the frost line," McDonald told me. "So digging down a couple more feet just isn't that big a deal. But in the desert, we're only required to go about 18 inches down to set the foundation, so digging for a basement is costly and more time-consuming."

Which, I suppose, explains why there's so little underground parking in our city. Think about it: Where better than the desert to tunnel under the endless miles of macadam to install a dark, cool spot to leave one's car? If it were up to me, I'd be living down there.

"Not if you had to pay to dig it all up," according to Brian Gansert, president of operations for the San Diego-based Ace Parking Management, which earlier this month signed a contract to oversee each of the five new and renovated parking structures — one of them underground — attached to downtown's recently revived Phoenix Convention Center.

"Subterranean parking is more costly to build than above-ground structures," Gansert told me. "There's excavation, and then you've got to have a ventilation system installed — lots of money."

If it costs more, we'll never see it — no matter how cool it is. Left to make do without underground parking, I've taken to consulting a website called Parking Carma (www.parkingcarma.com) before I head out. I love the site's snooty attitude ("Finding parking in Phoenix can be impossible!" its splash page bellows) and the icons that tell me whether the lot is wide open, shaded, or — in those rarest of instances — what my family back home would call "down cellar."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela