Drylands Center emerges as new focus of Scottsdale Desert EDGE critique

The scene at Scottsdale City Hall in September 2016 as opponents of the proposed Desert Discovery Center came out in force to voice their frustration with the project. (File photo)

While the signature-gathering effort to force a public vote on the prospect of the Desert EDGE carries on, a new proponent has emerged for the desert-appreciation venue.

An early February announcement from detractors of the proposed project claim the partnership between Arizona State University, the city of Scottsdale and Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale is widely lopsided.

The claim: Arizona State University — and it’s newly-formed Global Drylands Center — will be getting a free ride meanwhile taxpayer dollars will shoulder a large majority of the estimated $60 million cost to build the Desert EDGE.

Later in February, Arizona State University President Dr. Michael Crow issued a letter of support decrying the accusations and apparent misrepresentations being made by some Scottsdale community members.

Proponents of the Desert EDGE say Dr. Crow’s letter serves, to a certain extent, as vindication from the constant bombardment of alleged misinformation and negativity surrounding the campaign set out to force a public vote on the Desert EDGE project.

Detractors of the Desert EDGE contend the letter confirms Arizona State University will not be paying for any of the proposed construction of the venue and allege without the Desert EDGE project there will be no Global Drylands Center.

Meanwhile, a member of Scottsdale City Council who has remained steadfast in her assertion a public vote is required for the desert-appreciation venue says Dr. Crow’s letter of support has very little affect on her position.

Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale unveiled its plan for a proposed desert-appreciation venue July 31, 2017. Located on less than six acres just south of the established Gateway trailhead, the center includes a series of structures coined “pavilions” and might cost somewhere between $61.2 and $68.2 million to build.

The Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale has also announced a formal partnership with the Global Drylands Center at Arizona State University, but while ASU has committed to providing staff and setting up its Drylands Center in Scottsdale — which would include scientific apparatus, proponents say — no funding will be provided by the university.

Supporters of the Desert EDGE estimated that about 306,000 human beings will visit the desert-appreciation acreage every year and that annual operating expense will be about $6.3 million. About $1.7 million will have to be gathered from donations or city funds on an annual basis, the business plan shows.

Last November, Scottsdale City Council instructed city staff to “provide time for the citizen initiative petition process to be completed before moving forward” with any and all formal actions regarding the construction of what was first coined “the Desert Discovery Center,” but now envisaged as “the Desert EDGE.”

The Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve encompasses 30,000 acres of land within the rough boundaries of the Pima Road alignment to the west, McDowell Mountain Regional Park to the east, Stagecoach Road to the north and Via Linda Road alignment to the south.

Proponents of the Desert EDGE say the Preserve itself is not enough for visitors to appreciate the McDowell Sonoran Preserve while critics say the proposed facility is nothing more than a pet project for a handful of the community’s elite.

A view of Scottsdale residents during a public workshop to learn more about how plans were progressing for the desert-appreciation venue. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

A letter of support

Dr. Crow penned a Feb. 8 letter to Scottsdale City Council in support of the Desert EDGE, and had it published in A Peek at the Peak, an online magazine supported by the Greater Pinnacle Peak Association and Friends of the Scenic Drive, an area landmark established by local residents in 1963.

Arizona State University President Michael Crow. (Photo credit: ASU)

In his letter to Scottsdale City Council, Dr. Crow contends some have mischaracterized the university’s involvement in the creation of the Desert EDGE.

“I’m doing so as the city of Scottsdale and its citizens decide whether and how to move forward with a facility dedicated to desert education,” he said. “In the process, there are some who have been mischaracterizing ASU’s involvement in the project in order to advance their own views.”

Dr. Crow contends the idea of a Desert EDGE facility within Preserve bounds has always been in the cards.

“In this context, there has been long-standing discussion within the city of Scottsdale about the design, development and implementation of an educational component as part of the Preserve,” he said.

“This discussion about such a center extends back to at least 1993, and during the course of this discussion, a nonprofit community-based group called Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale, Inc., was formed ‘for the purpose of planning and possibly operating the Desert Discovery Center.’”

Dr. Crow appears committed to the assertion that the request for qualifications issued by the city of Scottsdale was not tailor-made for ASU in hopes of developing a Global Drylands Center.

“In 2015, the city of Scottsdale issued a request for qualifications for the design, programming and operations for a facility to be called Desert Discovery Center — now called Desert EDGE — and selected DDCS as the consultant to prepare a plan for the center,” he said.  “DDCS, which has a distinguished board of directors from the Scottsdale community, asked ASU if we could serve as the academic partner for the project if and when such a center is approved, funded and advanced by the city of Scottsdale.”

Dr. Crow points out ASU agreed to those terms and provided a senior advisor and sustainability scientist in response to the DDCS invitation.

“Our ASU academic units, facilitated by Wellington “Duke” Reiter, senior advisor to the president and a senior sustainability scientist, responded to that invitation, as we do to all requests from the communities we serve to make ASU faculty, students, knowledge and expertise available to help get things done,” Dr. Crow pointed out.

Dr. Crow contends ASU’s involvement is steadfastly focused on its role as a community partner.

“While mischaracterizations of ASU’s interest in the project have been disconcerting, ASU has remained focused only on its role as the academic partner for the center,” he said.

But at the end of the day, how and if the project is built and funded is outside the purview of the academic entity, Dr. Crow outlines.

“Advocating for the facility, the mechanisms by which the project could be realized or the design and siting of the project is outside the purview of ASU,” he said.  “Accordingly, ASU has purposefully avoided commenting on or responding to the often shrill and ridiculous claims and allegations made against the university. But I thought it would be helpful in this communication to be clear on one matter in particular: ASU is not asking the city of Scottsdale or the Scottsdale community to design or build facilities exclusively on our behalf.”

Dr. Crow says the university is merely responding to an RFQ and nothing more.

“We are responding (to) a request for high-quality programming and research within the proposed Desert Edge project to which we are prepared to dedicate resources at the appropriate time,” he said.

Here is the site plan for the proposed Desert EDGE development within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. (Submitted graphic)

A long and convoluted journey

Scottsdale City Council first approved the idea to construct an interpretive desert-appreciation venue at the Gateway to the Upper Sonoran Desert in January 2016. The measure was approved with three caveats and included a budget transfer of $1.69 million to create the initial proposal.

That measure passed 6 to 1 with only Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield voting against the measure. Ms. Littlefield felt any changes to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve zoning restrictions ought to be voted on by the general public.

John Sather of Swaback Partners outlines his approach to the creation of structures within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. (File photo)

That resolution, among other things, enabled a dedicated municipal funding source for the creation and operation of a desert-appreciation venue.

In addition, the resolution required the proposed operator of the facility — Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale — to raise 10 percent of the capital cost of the venue.

On June 7, Scottsdale City Council approved a $521,090 contract with Scottsdale-based architectural firm, Swaback Partners. The contract allows Swaback to provide programming and schematic design services for the planned facility.

Swaback Partners is the same architectural firm Scottsdale City Council awarded a design services contract for $432,000 in January 2010 for the first iteration of what the desert-appreciation venue would be.

Beyond the hiring of the architectural firm, the DDCS has tapped New York City-based Thinc Design to create exhibitions at a rate of $278,840, plus $30,000 in expenses, according to Sam Campana, DDCS executive director.

In the constant pursuit

Ms. Campana says without the prospect of the Desert EDGE the Globaly Drylands Center may not have been created.

“I don’t think Global Drylands would exist today without the conversations of the Desert EDGE,” she said in a March 6 phone interview pointing out accusations and innuendo damage the reputation of not only the project but the community of Scottsdale as well.

A view of Sam Campana addressing Scottsdale City Council during an update last calendar year. (File photo)

“We don’t respond to these outrageous claims. We are staying on the high road and the council is going to make their decision. We may not be winning the big battle of the community, but those who are dedicated to this community are going to read Mr. Crow’s letter and understand what is going on.”

Ms. Campana points out the DDCS has always thought of ASU as a partner who would bring resources only they could provide.

“We were looking for resources and were not looking for this to be a one-way thing. We wanted a partner to bring resources with them. We just felt like this was the partnership we all really wanted. I think everyone believes this is a thrilling project — the city has said this out loud — but politics is politics and this has been a tough one.”

Christine Kovach, who serves as chairwoman of the Desert Discovery Scottsdale Board of Directors, agrees ASU’s involvement has been grossly misrepresented.

“The Drylands Center currently exists and it was created prior. Dr. Crow certainly has a strong sense of place and ASU came to this project at our request,” she said in a March 6 phone interview. “This wasn’t something ASU came looking for and we don’t feel at all that we are building them a building for free.”

A view of a recent NoDDC signature gathering event, which are conducted on a regular basis, held at Windgate Ranch in north Scottsdale. (Submitted photo)

With all due respect

Jason Alexander, co-founder of the NoDDC citizen group and secretary of the Protect Our Preserve political action committee, says he has immense respect for Dr. Crow and ASU.

“I have a ton of respect for Michael Crow and how he has led ASU during a time of extensive budget cuts, which have spanned for nearly 10 years,” he said in March 7 phone interview. “He really is an entrepreneur and I think ASU needs that.”

But despite Mr. Alexander’s pleasant disposition regarding Dr. Crow, he remains committed to his assertion ASU does not have any skin in the game.

“DDCS is offering ASU a $7.2 million building with no obligations,” he said. “And, the ability to still earn money from grants and they can use those grants however they like. As is the case: the deal is too good to be true. They are under no obligation to share those whatsoever. They might create a memorandum of understanding with Scottsdale, but we have seen nothing for that.”

Mr. Alexander readily admits NoDDC tactics are pointed and critical.

“The DDC is a massive gift from the taxpayers of Scottsdale to ASU,” he says in a Feb. 28 email blast. “In the current plan before council, ASU will get a facility worth $7,200,000, according to city of Scottsdale Public Works Director Dan Worth. ASU will also get use of this facility completely free of lease or operating expenses.”

Mr. Alexander contends there is no contractual agreement between the city of Scottsdale, DDCS and Arizona State University.

“I think all along most of the people in our community has — above all else — appreciated the value ASU can bring to this,” he said. “But ASU does not have to be on premium real estate in a premium building — they could be down the road where (Scottsdale Community College) does things.”

Mr. Alexander says he wonders if the good work of the Global Drylands Center needs to be on Preserve land.

“Whey do they need to be on the most expensive plot of land in the region?” he asked.
“Laboratories don’t need to look like this. It is definitely hard to criticize him, but at the same time ASU has been aware the whole time of how the sausage has been made.”

Mr. Alexander says it is fair to assume ASU didn’t understand the breadth of citizen objection to the Desert EDGE.

“A day with us getting signatures, I believe Dr. Crow would have a completely different perspective on this project,” he said.

Kathy Littlefield

Scottsdale Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield says she understands acutely the concerns of local residents.

“It was basically what I thought it was — that we are going to pay for the building and all of the accoutrements,” she said in a March 7 phone interview of her impression of the letter in question.

“And, he was going to move in and do his thing — and he was happy to do so. But the work ASU wants to do is not the heart of the problem. The problem is not ASU, except they are taking advantage of Scottsdale.”

But Councilwoman Littlefield finds no issue with how ASU has pursued a partnership at the Desert EDGE.

“If you supply all of the overhead and infrastructure then we are happy to be there — if I was representing ASU, that would be a stand I would try too,” she explained.

Councilwoman Littlefield, who is both a graduate of ASU and a fan of Dr. Crow’s intelligence, says her stance remains unwaivered.

“I am an ASU graduate, I like ASU, I think they are a great school, but I have to look out for our residents right now,” she pointed out. “It just doesn’t compute with me without voter approval.”

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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