Vision of Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center may come into focus in early 2017

Scottsdale residents attended a DDC workshop Wednesday, Nov. 30 to learn more about how plans are progressing for the desert appreciation venue. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Scottsdale residents attended a public workshop Wednesday, Nov. 30 to learn more about how plans are progressing for the desert appreciation venue. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Mystery continues to surround what the Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center will look like, how big it will be and what exhibitions will be housed in the proposed desert appreciation venue.

The discovery center proposal has become a focal point for local politics with citizen factions fully entrenched on both sides of the issue.

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

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.

Hired hands tapped by the nonprofit appointed by Scottsdale City Council to develop and design the discovery center spoke to the local governing board about next steps in the planning process.

The city council presentation on Monday, Nov. 28 and subsequent full-day workshop on the matter held Nov. 30 offered very little specifics on what plans will be made public in early 2017.

But earlier this year, representatives of New York-based Thinc Design told the Independent a “critical mass” has to be established to primarily make the operations of the facility sustainable and to lure serious educational partnerships and corporate sponsorships.

During the Nov. 30 workshop Architect John Sather of Swaback Partners told residents “we must have rooms for ASU,” but pointed out those office-type uses and — potentially parking — could find itself built outside the preserve but still linked to the discovery center.

Representatives from Thinc Design, the exhibit designers, and Swaback Partners, the architects, agree the ASU School of Sustainability at Arizona State University have made some serious partnership offers. Mr. Sather referred to the overtures as “magical, the kind of things they are talking about.”

The pitch

Both Mr. Sather of Swaback Partners and Tom Hennes, principal at Thinc Design, provided a brief presentation to Scottsdale City Council Monday, Nov. 28 on project progress.

“We have completed a phase of broad conceptual development at this point and we are just beginning the phase of design to give firm to those ideas,” Mr. Hennes said.

“Our goal is to create a place of real delight, an opportunity to explore the landscape, and an opportunity for a deep understanding of how this place works.”

Mr. Hennes told members of council — all of whom, with the exception of Vice Mayor Kathy Littlefield, voted for the agreement that is paying both Thinc and Swaback — the goal of the project is to show how to make use of the resources the desert has to offer.

Mr. Hennes says his vision can be found in the pursuit of the answers to the following questions:

  • What is this place?
  • What do we not see?
  • What can we learn from living in the desert?
  • What kind of future can we create?

Mr. Hennes says while the vision is grand, the product will be “right sized.”

“We are creating what we call a small footprint but a big vision,” he said. “But this project has to be much more than the sum of its partnerships — we have to learn how to use these resources (of the desert) responsibly.”

Mr. Hennes called the discovery center project an unprecedented opportunity. Mr. Sather agrees.

“Our role as architects is to begin to put this into the architecture program and ultimately the schematic design,” he told city council. “There is a lot work going on behind the scenes — a very collaborative process and a lot of material that we can’t go trough tonight. We realize we are working on a sensitive design.”

Not much more was divulged at the Nov. 30 workshop beyond the idea that non-essential discovery center facilities could be off-site at a nearby location, including additional parking.

“We don’t want to be building offices. This idea of a support facility is a new and emerging idea,” Mr. Sather said. “We think this is something that has legs. And, this is all under the idea to have a smaller footprint in the preserve.”

This graphic is meant to show a growing idea that could keep some development outside of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. (File photo)

This graphic is meant to show a growing idea that could keep some development outside of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. (File photo)

How we got here

Scottsdale City Council last January approved a measure with three caveats — including the budget transfer of $1.69 million — in an effort to lay the foundation for an opportunity to construct an interpretive desert appreciation venue at the Gateway to the Upper Sonoran Desert.

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

That resolution, among other things, enables a dedicated municipal funding source for the creation and operation of a Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center including:

  • Allowing the mayor to sign a contract for management services with Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale;
  • Allowing a General Fund capital contingency budget appropriation for $1,696,900 to the Desert Discovery Center Business Plan and Feasibility Analysis;
  • Allowing a Municipal Use Master Site Plan amendment to allow a 30-acre complex at existing Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

In addition, the resolution requires the proposed operator of the facility — Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale — to raise 10 percent of the capital cost of the Desert Discovery Center and to develop a plan to adequately cover annual operating costs to be presented to Scottsdale City Council 18 months after the January approval.

Scottsdale City Council approved a $521,090 contract with Swaback Partners June 7 by a 5 to 2 vote to provide programming and schematic design services for the planned facility.

In that vote, Scottsdale Councilman Guy Phillips joined Councilwoman Littlefield in rejecting the design contract that was an understood caveat of the January $1.6 million budget appropriation for the DDCS.

Swaback Partners is the same architectural firm Scottsdale City Council awarded a design services contract to for the first iteration of what the Desert Discovery Center would be in January 2010 for $432,000, records show.

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

Tom Hennes of Thinc Design outlines what exhibits could look like as the image behind him illustrates. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Tom Hennes of Thinc Design outlines what discovery center exhibits could look like as the image behind him illustrates. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

A commercial preservation

From 2:15 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 30 officials from the city of Scottsdale, DDCS, Think Design and Swaback Partners led five groups of about 40 residents through a series of discussions led by various members of the contracted vendors to build the discovery center.

Following about a 20-minute lecture from either a Thinc or Swaback employee,  residents were able to ask questions directly of vendor representatives.

Questions heard included:

  • What is the magnitude of this thing?
  • Where is the preliminary design?
  • What is the scope of operations?
  • How does the DDC differentiate itself from places like the botanical garden?

Answers to the those questions, from Thinc representatives, lack much in specificity but did continue to hinge upon the idea the facility is meant to be educational in scope.

“When we look at this project, we don’t think we are building a building, we are building a tool,” Mr. Sather told the resident crowd during the third phase of the DDC workshop held on Nov. 30.

“That is why we are not showing you designs because we don’t have designs. We are taking our time and going slow. We are here to listen,” he said. “We are well aware that there are people who don’t want anything built within the preserve — our charge is to design something in the Gateway.”

Mr. Sather says the project is being done in a collaborative space at Swaback Partners.
“You may think that this is being done behind closed doors. It’s not. It’s being done in our office … we have a whole room dedicated to this,” he pointed out.

“I am instituting an open-door policy today. If you want to come, please do. We are sensitive to your thoughts and vision.”

One resident called into question the idea the discovery center would charge admission since the preserve and the discovery center are a product of taxpayer dollars.

“The business model at this time speaks to a cost for admission,” he said.

The idea of a commercial operation is all that Vice Mayor Littlefield needs to hear.

“I got the impression they are trying to reduce the footprint within the preserve and move out certain items,” said Vice Mayor Littlefield in a Nov. 29 phone interview. “That is a step in the right direction — I will give them that, but it is still commercial development within Preserve boundaries.”

Vice Mayor Littlefield contends once commercial operations are allowed within the preserve, the preserve is no longer a preserve.

“It is no longer a preserve — it is an open space park,” she pointed out. “That is very different than what we promised the voters when we asked for them to tax themselves to create the preserve. I don’t think that is an honorable thing to do.”

But Vice Mayor Littlefield also says that if the matter were to go to a public vote and voters approve the proejct then she will fall in line to support the project.

“If they come back and vote and say they are fine with that, OK,” she said. “You have to be honest, forthright and upfront with the voters. To me that is just the bottom line and you lose trust and that is already a tough commodity these days.”

John Sather of Swaback Partners delivers his lecture on what the architectural firm is working on for the discovery center. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

John Sather of Swaback Partners, at the head of the room, delivers his lecture on what the architectural firm is working on for the discovery center. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at

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