Back To The Future & Living Lessons In Scottsdale

Well that didn’t last long. The collective community spirit exhibited in the overwhelming passage of the bond package on November 5th has since devolved over divisiveness with a project called Southbridge II.

Late last week, opponents of the development submitted 17,000 referendum signatures to put the matter to a city-wide vote later in 2020. That’s no small achievement even if some of the signatures turn out to be fraudulent, false or the entire effort is legally susceptible.

Time will tell.

But what time also provides is a look back at a lesson learned 20 years ago. Then, a project called the Canals of Scottsdale, was defeated by Scottsdale voters by a 54%-46% margin. It was also backed by an Unger and wasn’t entirely dissimilar from Southbridge II, except it had San Antonio Riverwalk waterways flowing throughout the project. The Canals public vote wasn’t the result of a referendum but a quirk in state law requiring one for the financing mechanism contemplated. Like Southbridge II it was a divisive debate involving some of the same people from the fight 20 years ago. The Canals’ demise ultimately had to do with a very broad contemplation of eminent domain of certain small business property properties in the Old Town area including some of those in the Southbridge 2 plan.

After The Canals of Scottsdale was defeated city leaders didn’t give up on the idea of a “Waterfront.” It became a scaled down version of The Canals, ultimately becoming what is now the Scottsdale Waterfront along the Arizona Canal today. Home to high-rises, stores, restaurants, Canal Convergence, bridges and special events, the Scottsdale Waterfront was passed unanimously by the City Council, which included Bob Littlefield and David Ortega, two of the leaders against Southbridge II. Most readers would agree the Scottsdale Waterfront has been an excellent addition to the community, standing the test of time. It spawned Southbridge I and a lot of additional, organic energy in the vicinity, some of it involving height, some of it not.

The recent approval of Museum Square near Main Street reminded some of the Waterfront’s. It worked through difficult issues near smaller businesses to also achieve unanimity from the City Council, despite Waterfront-like heights.

So why did Museum Square pass by acclimation in Old Town but Southbridge II has not?

Location has a lot to do with it. If Museum Square was being proposed to gobble up gallery row on Main Street rather than replace an abandoned transit station on city-owned land perhaps it would have met with the same level of opposition.

Let’s remember Scottsdale Fashion Square’s not too long-ago entitlements as well. It got a slew of 150-foot buildings approved with little outcry other than those in nearby condos at Optima Camelview.

So, location has a lot to do with it, suggesting that the public, city leaders and even Messrs. Littlefield and Ortega understand height and density in some areas, but are reluctant to grant it elsewhere.

While we don’t care for the property owner that has funded the opposition to Southbridge II and have written pointedly about him before, it is not unreasonable for any property owner next to a large, multi-year construction project to be concerned about the impact on existing holdings and the ability to rent space in them. We often hear the plight of small businesses living next to light rail, for example. If he doesn’t buy into increased property values and a longer-term vision it may be short-sighted and bullheaded, but he has a right to feel that way.

From time to time, Southbridge II has seemed to get lost in the power of personality rather than forge a compelling narrative about its cool and necessary elements. Yes, backers have understandably articulated that all of the Old Town shops can be removed in favor of “lesser” projects even if Southbridge 2 is halted, but the greater good message was lost among the images of monoliths on Scottsdale Road. And, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if someone is a dick. Politics is often an exercise in compromise and communication. The game of baseball might be illustrative. It involves singles, doubles and triples, not just home runs and grand slams.

So, where does development in downtown go from here? We think not to de facto moratoriums but to a bit more discernment. For every Bishop Lane apartment project there is a Gentry on the Green. There are projects in the pipeline that are dogs. But others are or could be very good. History also reminds us that in the same year Canals of Scottsdale was narrowly defeated a proposed hockey arena and retail development on the old Los Arcos Mall site at Scottsdale and McDowell passed not once but twice by very wide margins. Recent polling also suggests that people overwhelmingly think Scottsdale is headed in the right direction and even when controversial items like a Desert Discovery Center or Southbridge II come along it doesn’t mean people think the entire city is going to hell in a hand basket, just that a particular idea may be wayward. It’s like when your kid acts up. You’re upset for a bit but still love the child. That’s a key reason besides a robust campaign the bonds passed by such large margins. Scottsdale schizophrenia may be alive and well but so is its happy and healthy body.

The formulas for impressive, dynamic downtowns are not an exacting science. Ask just about every urban planner and property owner in every city core in America. In Scottsdale look at someone like Galleria Corporate Center owner Shawn Yari who owns much of the land in the Entertainment District. He has had a number of public outreaches about “maturing” that part of Scottsdale, which is hardly Charmville, USA. Height will likely be requested there for a slice of his holdings, but not for the majority. It’s a purported effort to create a new, better neighborhood that is more about art and tourism and less about bars.

Will it gain support? Time will tell. If it does it will be another reminder that Scottsdale residents don’t mind height. It’s just where. And how. And what is that greater good? As Councilwoman Solange Whitehead has appropriately stated, a rezoning in Scottsdale is not a right. It is a privilege. No matter how Southbridge II goes, and no matter its merits (and there are many) height(ened) expectations are a good thing. If that’s the ultimate legacy of the Southbridge II referendum, succeed or fail, we can all call that a victory.