Settled, Or At Least It Should Be

Once upon a time, we are not sure when, the Scottsdale City Council approved a 150’ office tower next to what is now Neiman Marcus at Scottsdale Fashion Square.

Intentionally or unintentionally it was the die casting downtown Scottsdale’s future.

Years later the owners of what became known as the Scottsdale Waterfront convinced the then Scottsdale City Council, which included Mary Manross and Bob Littlefield, to grant not one 150’ tower for condominiums but two.  And they did it in style, applying an “emergency clause” taking away the citizen’s right to put the matter to a public vote.  That tactic was later rescinded by the Arizona State Legislature because of such abuses in Scottsdale and other cities.

But it is hard to argue with how the Scottsdale Waterfront turned out.  Littlefield, Manross and the others were right, hindsight shows.  Today that part of the Arizona Canal houses the groundbreaking Canal Convergence and a variety of other special events.  The argument then was greater height would lead to more open space.  Whether Littlefield, Manross and others lament their vote is not known.  But they were prescient.

Subsequent to these approvals city councils have authorized a nearly 150’ building at 68th and Camelback for Optima Camelview and, more recently, several 150’ buildings at Scottsdale Fashion Square as part of its future expansion. And few talk of Honor Health’s 150’ entitlements at the southern edge of Old Town or the Scottsdale Shadows towers on the Indian Bend Wash and Camelback just beyond the downtown core.

As people such as Scottsdale City Councilman Guy Phillips and community activist Sandy Schenkat have noted the debate over 150’ buildings in downtown is over.  They are here, there are more coming, and importantly, that can be a constructive reality.


Because the allure of what was and is now broadly called “Old Town” has always been its diversity, not its density.

An incredible variety of local restaurants can be found in all its neighborhoods. Tall hotels such as the Valley Ho and W populate its fringes.  The Old West can be found at the Rusty Spur, Coach House and redeveloping Porter’s.  More craft breweries and wineries are emerging.  A once forgotten section east of Scottsdale and Camelback Roads is now the Entertainment District helping to create a triumvirate of tourism along with golf and outdoor activities. A thriving shopping mall is doing everything possible to defy the future with fascinating new stores and eateries. Main Street showcases our art galleries.  Their diminishing number is why we both sympathize with parking gripes expressed by merchants there but remain enthusiastic supporters of the proposed Museum Square for reasons we have frequently articulated.

Step back and look at Old Town Scottsdale and you will see a variety that is the envy of nearly every city in America.  And the marketplace is responding.  Numerous new high-end hotels are on the way.  New and proposed investment in the area is staggering.  The danger to the area’s future is not its height and density, it is homogenization. If height was the enemy someone needs to explain why the nation’s top luxury big box located next to it at Fashion Square? Or why the Waterfront has been a success?  Or how the apartments at 68th and Camelback sold for a record price?

If small-scale shops were the answer Marshall Way between Indian School and Stetson would be thriving.  Instead, galleries there have died a slow death, something we all must fight against when it comes to Main Street.

We arrive back at our original point.  To any longer fight 150’ buildings in Old Town is to mimic those who wanted bikinis banned on beaches.  They are here and more are on the way.

That’s not to say there shouldn’t have been aggressive debate over certain 150’ buildings near a certain Galleria that had a certain architecture.  But that debate should and would have taken place if the building was 150’ or 60 feet.

Every city matures and evolves.  Scottsdale is no exception.  But 150’ now seems to be “settled law.”  Should it be everywhere in Old Town? Of course not.  The real fight in downtown’s future should not be over this height, but anyone who ever tries to exceed it. And unlike the Maginot Line it should never be crossed. It’s time to start focusing on the quality of projects that have public and economic benefits not the mere heights and densities of them.

The Old Town Scottsdale of Happy Days yore was not better than the heartbeat of the city today.  Not by a long shot.  We realize some liked sidewalks rolling up at night or every neighborhood looking like Bonanza, but we prefer the evolution to today and what’s coming next.  It’s a panoply of choice that will continue to set the city’s core apart and allow it to reach new, appropriate and settled heights.