Germek: Community enrichment or just building stuff?

Urban and suburban development is a good sign of a community’s success and future economic prosperity.

New construction jobs have a direct economic impact on our community. New development sets the stage for permanent jobs in industry and retail, increased sales and real estate taxes revenue, new residential properties and increased tourism. But how do we know that the community is being enriched, or we are just building stuff?

AJ Germek

Development can adversely affect the neighborhood or the environment, burden city infrastructure and services, displace long-term residents and negatively affect the overall character of the area to the detriment of our community.

It is the responsibility of city planners to balance our city’s growth opportunities with community values and the people who live there, and not sacrifice those values in the sole pursuit of tax dollars or to gain the support of the developers.

After years of watching city planners’ enthusiastic support development that included tear-downs of neighborhood centers, faceless new buildings, paved-over land, insular enclaves and endless parking lots, both big city and small town communities have begun pushing back, challenging the government and asserting a right to be heard about the future of their neighborhoods.

For us the time is now, starting with elections of City Council members in November. We need to elect those candidates who support these important issues and who will be resist the loud voices of the development-at-any-cost faction.

Take a look at some recent development projects approved by City Council and see how they meet, or don’t meet, expectations.

SkySong

The SkySong project replaced a plan to build an arena for the Phoenix Coyotes due to public opposition. SkySong was initiated in partnership with ASU in 2005 on 40+ acres of low-grade property. It includes over a 1 million square feet of mixed use commercial, apartments, retail, restaurants and a hotel.

The SkySong project was promoted to the local residents of the Scottsdale community as an ideal project to fulfill the new wave of expectations for development. It was to be a “Work, Play, Stay” environment with recreational, cultural and entertainment facilities and high tech jobs for Scottsdale residents. However the project drifted away from a neighborhood-friendly, jobs-producing, high technology development center.

This project has become:

  • Another developer-centric project
  • Generic office space with very few technology ventures
  • Exclusive luxury apartments
  • Not inclusive of local residents and the neighborhood.

The iconic, white circus-like tent is its most notable feature. While certainly unusual, it is also wildly out of character with the existing neighborhood and desert environment. The lessons learned are that public input and continual oversight is needed that goes beyond the project approval phase by City Council.

Desert Ridge Medical Campus

The Desert Ridge Medical Campus project was begun in 2004 as a 6,000 acre develop plan. The first building was a three-story generic office building with covered parking for 150 cars. The site was open desert before the construction and a medical facility seemed like a great addition to our community. Although housing many medical facilities, it also includes:

  • A set of mundane, traditional block office buildings
  • Acres and acres of paved parking
  • An overwhelming impression of a commercial environment.

This is totally inconsistent with a prior vision and community expectation of a medical oasis in the desert.

Crossroads East

Crossroads East was approved in 2017. The plan includes office space, luxury apartments, and retail space.

It is being built on open desert land and promises to retain a small 140,000 square foot tract of open public space within the 6 million square feet of land now owned by the developer.

The project has been touted by certain City Council members as generating $9 billion in revenues and 5,500 jobs. Is this believable? The infrastructure improvements of $33 million are to be paid by the developer but City Council also voted a $21.9 million in reduction sales and property taxes to offset the developer’s expense.

In reality, this project will include:

  • Standard block buildings that will obscure the view of the mountains
  • A 13 story height variance (without specifying any benefit to the community as required for a variance)
  • No guarantees of public inclusion for recreation, entertainment or park-like spaces.

The project got off to an inauspicious start when the City was sued by the Army Corp of Engineers for a violation of the Clean Water Act in its use of asphalt millings on the open land. What other abuses may be in our future?

The Halsten

The Halsten is a luxury apartment development at Crossroads East adjacent to “dealer row” on Scottsdale Road. The development includes six soviet-style block buildings, with balconies, that will block the view of the mountains to the east and south. If the intent was to upgrade the neighborhood, the developers need to take advice from the Lexis dealer whose property seems much more inviting.

We can only hope that when completed it will not look and feel like a government compound.

Conclusion

What we have seen is that the City Council and the developers who support them are highly focused on glittering financial forecasts and astonishing potential tax revenues while allowing desert development to be barren and neglectful of the environment and urban projects that seem indifferent to the fate of the current residents and their neighborhoods.

As residents of Scottsdale, it is our responsibility to demand to be heard and to maintain careful oversight throughout the process. We need to participate in major planning of commercial and multi-use projects and not be over-ruled by a few members of the City Council.

We need to insure that projects include community enrichment features such as adequate public space, neighborhood amenities, inspiring architecture that fits the desert landscape, green building construction, conservation of water usage, generous use of desert vegetation and green spaces, pedestrian access and bike trails, minimal use of gates, fences and other barriers to public access, and minimal use of exposed, heat-retaining pavement.

We need to maintain a healthy skepticism towards financial forecasts for development projects that seem too good to be true and to monitor the cost of infrastructure and city services.

We need to guard the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, a legacy of undeveloped desert land that the citizens of Scottsdale paid for, but coveted by developers and put at risk by the deceptive messaging of their allies.

The November elections provide a powerful means for the citizens of Scottsdale to make their voices heard and to elect City Council members that understand community enrichment and will be responsive to the community. As citizens, we have been complacent in letting the government run itself and now find ourselves ignored.

We need to take an active role in preserving the values to which we aspire and to have the community that we imagine for ourselves and our families.

Editor’s Note: AJ Germek is a Scottsdale resident.

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