The Arizona Coyotes’ proposal to build a sports entertainment district by Tempe Town Lake and under a flight path to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport continues to raise concerns from the Federal Aviation Administration and the city of Phoenix, which manages the airport.
The issue was brought up by the airport administration in September when the Coyotes submitted their bid to Tempe leaders to build a $1.7 billion entertainment district that would include a hockey arena, hotels, apartments, restaurants and shops on 46 acres of city-owned land on the south bank of the dry Salt River, near Rio Salado Parkway and Priest Drive.
The concerns arise over the proximity of the site to the runways that account for 68% of the flight activity at Sky Harbor and 95% of the departures. They also include noise in a potential residential area; the 80-foot height of some of the proposed buildings; potential construction equipment, specifically cranes, impacting air traffic; and lasers, fireworks and other lighting devices that could negatively impact aircraft performance and visibility.
In November, the team made a presentation about the project to the Phoenix Aviation Advisory Board and told The Arizona Republic the proposal follows applicable aviation rules and wouldn’t impact airport operations. But a letter dated April 1, written by FAA Regional Administrator Raquel Girvin to the city of Tempe, says the concerns still remain.
Citing the presentation, Girvin said, “The development proposes to add over 1,600 residential units. This plan would expose thousands of new residents to significant noise.”
The proposed development would be located within two miles of the airport and where noise levels are heavily affected by air traffic, Girvin wrote, adding that FAA policy states that residential development near such an area is incompatible land use.
Coyotes CEO Xavier Gutierrez addressed the issue in a letter sent to Girvin Friday morning, the day after The Republic requested a response from the team about the concerns, saying the team is “committed to follow all FAA guidelines and seek no exemptions from them in regard to this development.”
Gutierrez also said residential construction with sound insulation can be developed in areas near airports if it has local zoning approval, a discretion he says Tempe has exercised 16 times when approving more than 3,900 residential units.
The Coyotes also addressed the other concerns in their letter. Gutierrez said the team has hired an FAA consultant to analyze its plans and that once Tempe leaders provide input on the development, the team will submit final plans that will allow the FAA to start its review process.
The Arizona Coyotes’ proposed entertainment district, which includes a hockey arena, would be on the path aircraft take to reach two airport runways, represented in purple. The red pin shows the project site at the northwest corner of Rio Salado Parkway and Priest Drive near downtown Tempe.
A 20-year-old issue: Tempe and Sky Harbor skies
Similar concerns over developments near the airport in Tempe have been raised for more than 20 years, including in 2001 when the Arizona Cardinals proposed a football stadium in Tempe on a site just north of where the Coyotes are proposing the new arena.
The FAA ruled at the time that a stadium on the site would create a hazard for aircraft flying over the area. The proposal was later dropped in favor of a Glendale site, and State Farm Stadium became the Cardinals’ home.
The same arguments were raised again over the years as development proposals were discussed by Tempe leaders. The Republic published an editorial five years later, in 2006, saying, “Phoenix and Tempe have had a longstanding, er, rub when it comes to Sky Harbor International Airport, and that tension has resurfaced in recent days over a plan to build several high-rise condos in downtown Tempe.”
Former Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman wrote an opinion piece published by the Phoenix Business Journal in February titled “Phoenix hypocrisy looks to prevent Tempe success.”
Hallman argued that downtown Phoenix, which is approximately the same distance away from the airport as downtown Tempe, is home to large development projects, such as the Chase Field and the Summit at Copper Square condominium complex, which is adjacent to the ballpark.
“I ask my Tempe City Council to avoid being sucked in by the Phoenix effort to choke Tempe’s economic engine,” he wrote.
Sky Harbor spokesperson Heather Shelbrack said the difference is that Chase Field and other developments west of the airport are not under any flight paths and not within the area where noise is an issue.
She also said that Phoenix is not the lone voice for these concerns and that the FAA and Airlines for America, the industry association that represents airlines that serve Sky Harbor, share the same position.
Others believe it’s important to preserve the airport’s potential for growth and the ability to lengthen the runways along the Salt River corridor.
An op-ed published by The Republic and signed by Gregory E. Torrez, a past chairman of the Support Sky Harbor Coalition, says Sky Harbor’s potential for growth is limited and as the state economy grows, there will be a need for the airport to grow as well.
“We recognize that many of us would welcome an arena more centrally located in the Valley. It is up to our community leaders in Tempe to balance those interests while protecting our Sky Harbor,” Torrez wrote.
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Tempe City Council asks for clarifications
The Tempe City Council met for the first time to formally discuss the proposal in a closed-door session Thursday, seven months after the team submitted its bid to the city.
State law allows city leaders to meet in closed-door executive sessions for legal advice and as they negotiate the sale or lease of land.
Officials are not allowed by law to disclose what was discussed in these closed-door sessions, but Tempe spokesperson Nikki Ripley released a statement saying the council directed city staff to seek clarification on specific points of the proposal.
Councilmember Jennifer Adams did not go into detail about Thursday’s session, only telling The Republic that it was a long meeting that lasted about 6.5 hours and that good points were brought up.
It’s unclear when the council will meet again to discuss the proposal and whether that would happen during an executive session or not. A vote on the proposal would have to be taken at an open meeting.
Timing is important for the Coyotes, who will play their last game at Gila River Arena in Glendale on April 29. As the team negotiates the deal with the city, the National Hockey League team will play at least the next three seasons at a new multipurpose arena at Arizona State University in Tempe.
The interim arena is about one-third the size of Glendale’s and it isn’t expected to be ready for the NHL team until after the start of the season, meaning the Coyotes would need to play their first games on the road.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 480-267-4703. Follow her on Twitter @renataclo.
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AUTHOR: Renata Cló