Scottsdale mayor leads charge to lower future building heights in Old Town

Scottsdale leaders will take another crack at answering a decades-old question: What should development in Old Town look like?On one side of the debate are those who think allowing taller buildings in Old Town will hurt its “West’s most western city” vibe, and in turn hurt local businesses and tourism. On the other side, some believe that while it’s important to preserve historical elements, the area will thrive with more people living there to frequent local shops year-round instead of relying on seasonal tourists. Jason Rose, a Scottsdale native who owns a public relations firm that often represents developers in Old Town, said the area is prosperous because it has balance and doesn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach.But after years of critics calling out the City Council for tilting pro-development, Scottsdale’s new council majority is following through on campaign promises to revisit the height and density of Old Town development.Mayor David Ortega told The Arizona Republic that updating parking rules for new projects in May was the first of three steps to restrict development and preserve Old Town. 

Ortega set the second step in motion in the spring when he proposed that the council update a land-use document that guides development decisions in Old Town. The plan was last reviewed in 2018. The third step Ortega envisions would be amending zoning ordinances. Ortega will have to maintain a council majority to carry out his three-part plan. Councilmembers Solange Whitehead, Betty Janik, Tom Durham and Kathy Littlefield supported reviewing Old Town’s land-use plan, while Linda Milhaven and Tammy Caputi did not. Milhaven also opposed the parking requirements approved in the spring.The council, returning from summer recess, picked up the discussion on Tuesday with council members making clear their positions about the debate hadn’t changed. 


Tall buildings, short buildings and change


Scottsdale leaders three years ago established guidelines for development in Old Town, including limiting building height to 48 feet in the core and 150 feet on the edges of downtown.Ortega hasn’t been shy in criticizing that plan.The plan says Scottsdale is “boldly looking into its metropolitan future,” but the mayor sees the city as a “suburban community with a low profile.” 


For him, “Metropolitan means high-density, 10-story buildings everywhere, maybe 15 and have a great day. That doesn’t work for me. That’s not Scottsdale and that’s one reason I ran for mayor by the way.”  Ortega aims to reverse what he calls a “free for all” where “developers say ‘Everything, anything goes, we can get 15 stories, maybe 20 stories next time approved.’ Our streets are not wide enough to take, probably, five stories.” 


Ortega said the Arizona Canal, where the Broadstone Waterfront apartment complex stands, should be the line in the sand. South of the canal, he wants less density and height, estimating no more than the 30-foot range. Jason Morris, a zoning attorney with Witney Morris who has worked on Old Town projects such as El Hefe and the Marquee, said developers don’t think they are getting away with anything when they present projects to the council. Rather, they believe they are adding value to the city.He said oftentimes it’s hard for people to accept change. “The Scottsdale I see today isn’t the Scottsdale I grew up in. It’s not the Scottsdale where my family had an antique store on Main Street when I was growing up. It’s a different Scottsdale and in many ways, it’s a better Scottsdale,” Morris said.Change is a natural outgrowth of the city’s expanding population, he said. “You can be restrictive and you can be demanding but you can’t stop growth.”  


Rose sees an emerging consensus in recent years that taller buildings work in certain parts of Old Town, especially near Fashion Square and Museum Square, a 13-story hotel, condo and apartment building he worked to get approved in 2019.Rose said he thinks the mayor is trying to have a “healthy discussion” about where taller buildings would be appropriate but cautioned against a blanket approach.”Voters are like doctors and it’s OK to check in with your doctor every now and then. In fact, you should. But I think where the mayor gets in trouble is by saying we should just have a blanket three or four or five stories,” he said.Rose argues a blanket height restriction could violate property rights and hinder Scottsdale’s attractiveness to developers. Just because the city allows height doesn’t mean the council can’t reject projects they don’t think are appropriate.Paul Basha, a former Scottsdale transportation director who spent more than 20 years with the city, said his impression of what Ortega is promoting, is to revert to the past. He said there is danger in dictating too much. “It’s appropriate to restrict height to a certain level. I understand that completely and there should be restrictions. The difficulty is where those restrictions are drawn. I’d agree we shouldn’t have skyscrapers in Scottsdale like exist in Chicago and New York,” Basha said. “And maybe the proper height is lower than 150 feet. The proper height is certainly higher than 36 feet so there does need to be a discussion.”


Decisions carry impacts 


Ortega worries Old Town’s infrastructure can’t handle the taller, denser development allowed in the current land-use plan. “Crushing tourism, crushing the infrastructure and turning people away because of gridlock, that’s what’s going to happen. It will crush us. And we’ll be looking at each other and say, ‘How can we now have these empty buildings?'” Ortega said. “Because they were built for someone’s speculation and they destroyed the suburban city we used to have.” He said stipulations that developers should pay for infrastructure lead to varied upgrades, but that “it becomes a patchwork of developers.”Morris said that argument has always puzzled him because infrastructure is built as development occurs.”The fact of the matter is people are moving to Scottsdale. The council doesn’t have the luxury of prohibiting that from happening, so you really need to get ahead of infrastructure, not fall behind,” he said.


“The fact of the matter is people are moving to Scottsdale. The council doesn’t have the luxury of prohibiting that from happening, so you really need to get ahead of infrastructure, not fall behind.”



Scottsdale leaders face development pressures because the city is a desirable place to build, but Morris said too many restrictions could have consequences. “What I can say with absolute certainty is that if you limit development options, you limit people’s desire to reinvest in properties,” he said. “People are only going to keep putting money into property if they believe there is a return.” Don Henninger, the executive director of the Scottsdale Coalition of Today and Tomorrow, echoed the idea that developers could look to other cities if Scottsdale became too restrictive. “If you look at what’s happening in Gilbert and Chandler, for example, those cities that are really coming on strong and reinvented themselves over the past couple of years or so,” he said. “Absolutely there are other alternatives for people who don’t want to develop in Scottsdale if it becomes too difficult to do that.”


2 Old Town projects, 2 outcomes


The City Council, following the current Old Town plan, approved the Kimsey, a 75-foot hotel and apartment redevelopment project this spring. Caputi said in approving the proposal, the council discussed appropriate height and density in the area. Nearby business owners supported the project and told the council “that they don’t feel it’s a good idea to limit height and density in the area where it actually makes sense,” she said.The developer agreed to preserve a historic portion of the property, compromised on height, and added more parking spaces than the city required. But not all projects have seen that success. Southbridge II proposed to revitalize the Arizona Canal area by connecting boutique shops on Fifth Avenue to the original Southbridge project and the Scottsdale Waterfront.Developer Carter Unger said he had gathered the support of most area merchants and he gained council approval in late 2019.  But three business owners created a political action committee and began collecting signatures to repeal the project, he added.


Ortega, Janik and Durham, who would later be elected to council, were part of the group opposed to the Southbridge II project. After the group collected enough signatures, rather than sending the issue to the ballot, the council repealed its approval of Southbridge II in April 2020, at the developer’s request.”We had considered going to a public vote, (then the) pandemic started. It was a contentious thing and we thought the right thing for the community … was that we take this off the table,” Unger said. Looking back some 16 months later, Unger told The Arizona Republic the outcome was unfortunate because he was willing to compromise and negotiate with the community. His project included varying heights from 66 feet to 150 feet, approximately 25% open space, and $3 million in parking that went beyond city requirements. Now, the area is left without the economic investment and the uptick in residents that shop owners desperately need, Unger said. 


“The galleries on Main (Street) have been closing for decades, the shops on 5th Avenue and in historic Old Town have high turnover,” he said. “If we want to preserve historic Old Town, where the actual buildings are historic and old, then we’ve got to grow in other areas.” Unger, who owns property on 5th Avenue, said his redevelopment project was meant to improve lives, but the tenants there now are hurting.


“When you’re collecting art instead of rent checks, it’s sad and it sucks to have those conversations,” he said. “I would love for a council member to join me when I have to talk to them about vacating or increasing rent or accepting guitar lessons instead of rent checks.” Basha considers Southbridge II an example of people not realizing the consequences of their demands. The project would have solved traffic congestion at the intersection of Scottsdale Road and 5th Avenue, which routinely see ride-share vehicles stopped there.”Southbridge II would have completely reconstructed that intersection, would have provided ride-share lanes for people,” Basha said. “The city of Scottsdale doesn’t have money to redesign that intersection, private development does.” Unger applauded the mayor and council for approving the Kimsey project. He said that if he presents another development proposal to the city, it would include changes and be in line with the height of the Kimsey. For now though, after spending about $2 million with the failed Southbridge II proposal, he said he doesn’t know what the future holds for his Old Town property.


 Reach the reporter at or at 480-267-4703. Follow her on Twitter @renataclo.


AUTHOR: Renata Clo

SOURCE: Arizona Republic

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