Alley & Alexander: Searching for a 5-star Papago Plaza project

The Papago Plaza redevelopment plan has simultaneously become what everyone wants and, ironically, what many don’t want.

Everyone agrees that the corner should be redeveloped, that retail and a grocer are needed, and the developer needs to profit to make their risk worthwhile. But should City Council have approved five stories of apartments and a four-story parking garage, with a decrease in total retail and few setbacks?

A brief history lesson

Development at McDowell and Scottsdale is a gamble for anyone tackling that property. The saga of this intersection is one of lost glory, dodged bullets, and a community left feeling like collateral damage.

Here’s a piece describing Papago Plaza prior to its opening in 1959. The Grand Opening was celebrated by a 3-day Western Festival.

(submitted photo)

In 1997, the proposed redevelopment of Los Arcos mall at McDowell and Scottsdale was described by Bob Kaufman, then Senior VP at the developer, Ellman Cos, as “…the benchmark for south Scottsdale. This will set the tone… All the attention so far has been focused on north Scottsdale. It’s time for south Scottsdale to get its just due.”

Andrea Alley

An ambitious plan was hatched that included a $300 million hotel and retail complex at Los Arcos, complete with a 24-screen movie theater.
Four years later, Ellman morphed that proposal into the Coyotes hockey arena. The City Council wisely felt such a big change for an established neighborhood required a vote of the citizens. The Ellman group then stormed off to Glendale, where the hockey arena has been an albatross for that city ever since.

When news of the move broke in 2001, the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce deemed Scottsdale’s City Council difficult to do business with. The city’s own press secretary said of Scottsdale, “Instead of developer driven, it’s citizen driven.”

Brian Lesk, a business owner, said, “They tend to take community input too far on redevelopment projects — too much of a good thing.”

It’s critical to note, however, that 2001 is the last time the city passed a General Plan outlining its vision for zoning and growth.

Jason Alexander

Los Arcos sat vacant for years before becoming Skysong. How did the residents do with Skysong? We got a good collection of knowledge jobs and some community spaces, but it has taken 10 years to get any new restaurants.

Preceding that were apartments and walls of density and seven lease amendments by City Council for the property owner, without any real walkable spaces or amenities.

Getting the Papago Plaza plan right matters now more than ever. How do we create a five-star project in the process?

The challenges on all sides

We completely agree developers face complex challenges and take big risks. Infill is difficult; it needs to be many things to many people, all while turning a profit and working within the current zoning laws.

The results from the 2018 election clearly show that redevelopment remains the most controversial topic for the city.

Many residents feel the city is being overrun with density, citizen input is suppressed, and development doesn’t pay enough in impact fees. There is validity to all of these complaints, especially without a current General Plan.

Are you wondering yet if we are pro-development or slow-growth? We’re both.

We want excellence, where the developer is rewarded for investing in a great project that the people of Scottsdale are proud to call their own.

A broken process

Both of us spoke at City Council in December about the importance of redevelopment at Papago being a commercial and community draw.

City coffers need retail sales taxes to pay for 250 new residential units — their traffic, their fire and police, their infrastructure needs. And the city needs enduring architectural excellence at this iconic gateway to Scottsdale.

Twenty other speakers joined us in calling for a great project. Council spoke of aiming high. We were moved by the sense of collaboration between the residents, the council and the developer’s team.

A number of possible changes were discussed and stipulations made by the council, including additional community outreach. Everyone wanted to pull in the same direction, and a win-win-win seemed possible for the first time in a long time — perhaps ever.

Fast forward a month, when we attended the first of two community outreach events. It was not the collaborative spirit that everyone hoped for.

None of the vision so excitedly discussed the month prior was included. Our optimism drained each time a wish-list item was met with, “It’s too late to change.”

The development team suggested it would be “presumptuous” to present any of these changes before going into the meeting. Many were left wondering, “Why not be proactive?”

Wins and losses

Since then, the two of us have had good conversations with the developer’s team.

This is a legacy project for the developer and we hope to help him achieve just that by facilitating honest community feedback. Their openness to additional outreach has shown that while we may not get all we want, it matters to them that they get it right within the plan that was approved.

All of south Scottsdale can get excited with what’s planned for the retail and restaurant portion of this project.

On the flip side, they’ve shared clarifying information about the challenge of infill, how hard it was to find a full-sized grocer, reiterating the need for density to support the project.

It used to be that a builder needed a grocer to anchor a retail development. Now, it seems, apartments are needed to anchor a grocer.

This project is premised around two full pages of zoning variances that the developer reminded everyone have already been approved. Ouch.

While we support this project and want to see it succeed, we still question the claim that 60 feet of invasive residential is required to support their plan for retail.

There are a dozen other approved and proposed high-density developments within a mile of this project, totaling nearly 3,000 new units. See our detailed list at the end of this post.

Papago Plaza could have been the hub of community activity dedicated solely to the retail we want and need, ready to serve existing residents and those who will live in future infill properties. Instead, we are losing half of that property to apartments that do nothing to enhance anyone’s property values — and in fact hurt the property values of those closest.

Where will the future retail fit? The 3,000 new residents and their families have to shop somewhere — and Aldi is apparently the best we could get.

If the owners of the properties north of McDowell at Scottsdale propose more multi-family housing, there may just be a revolt.

85257 is the hottest ZIP code for home sales. Are we getting enough value for all these height and setback concessions? Or are we selling Scottsdale cheap? Meanwhile, just two miles away in Paradise Valley, their Planning Commission agonizes over a 2-foot height exemption or 10 feet of setbacks.

(submitted photo)

More comprehensive resident feedback could have been gathered a year ago, anticipated and built into the project at the outset. Despite the happy words from the council meeting, Scottsdale’s City Council once again rubber stamped a project without enough for the residents.

Council has created a situation from which it seems impossible to backtrack, and would be almost punitive to require the developer to do so.

A better way to move forward

The 2018 election results of Kathy Littlefield, Solange Whitehead and YES 420 showed residents want smart development that benefits the community.

Zoning exemptions in Scottsdale must come with tangible, quantifiable benefits to the residents. Permission to go higher and denser should not be a fait accompli, handed out by a development-happy council like candy on Halloween. Access to our communities is a privilege.

The history of redevelopment at Scottsdale and McDowell shows us that there must be a middle ground — a new way of conducting outreach earlier and deeper, building collaborative relationships with developers, and voting carefully for accountable council members every two years. We can all win when everyone at the table is striving for a 5-star project.

The voting authority rests with City Council. Nobody can be mad at the developer for wanting to maximize his profits.

Pay close attention to the voting records and actions of anyone on the ballot if you want a say in shaping our city. Thanks to our council and this broken process, we lost the opportunity to create a thoroughly 5-star project — not 50 percent five stars and 50 percent two stars. Can we aim higher yet?

Can we finally get it right for Scottsdale and McDowell — and look forward to a project that sets a new standard for redevelopment in our city?

Approved and Proposed Projects Nearby Papago Plaza:

  • Las Aguas with 154 apartments opened in 2017 at McDowell and 67th Place.
  • Aire with 80 condos opened in 2017 on NE corner of 68th Street and McDowell replacing a car dealership.
  • Skye Phase I with 55 units located at 70th Street and McDowell.
  • Skye Phase II with 24 units located on the South East corner of 68th Street and McDowell.
  • Skysong with 325 residential units.
  • 572 units at San Travesia Apartments at McDowell and Miller –– which replaced a full-sized grocery store.
  • Shadow Rock with 18 townhouses which replaced a Church located at College/Roosevelt, Tempe.
  • The proposed 267-unit project on the Kia dealership property on Roosevelt and Scottsdale Road.
  • Proposed Condos on Roosevelt and 70th street at the old Wagon Wheel park.
  • The proposed Entrada project on 64th St and McDowell with approval for 750 residential units and 250 hotel rooms.
  • Proposed Trammel Crow residential project on Scottsdale Rd and Palm Ln. with 282 units via eight buildings up to four-story heights.
  • Proposed “The McDowell” mixed-use office and residential project at 6601 E. McDowell Road (current Chapman dealership) / McDowell and the Crosscut canal, with 358 residential units, no retail, and a proposed “community open space”. Approved by Scottsdale City Council Jan. 15, 2019.

Editor’s Note: Andrea Alley and Jason Alexander are Scottsdale residents.

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