The future of development in Scottsdale is a key issue heading into the Nov. 3 mayoral election and candidates Lisa Borowsky and David Ortega have argued the city needs to do a better job incorporating resident feedback into the development process.
While both candidates agree that resident feedback needs to be taken more seriously, they have laid out differing plans for accomplishing that goal.
Borowsky said she will work to implement neighborhood planning committees modeled after the Village Planning Committee concept in Phoenix, which has created 15 distinct “urban villages” a committee made up of local residents appointed by the mayor and city council.
Those committees provide feedback to the Planning Commission on rezoning cases, general plan amendments and text amendments affecting their part of the city.
“Scottsdale is certainly big enough to have more direct resident contact in the decision-making process and the neighborhood planning committee or commission gives residents of those distinct and unique areas the ability to consider, better evaluate, and promote the direction they want to see their area go,” Borowsky said.
Ortega said the city needs to abide by community input guidelines in its existing General Plan, the overarching document that guides the long-term growth.
“If you look at the narrative in our general plan, that’s the entire basis of channels of communication – whether its transportation issues, human services issues, and certainly development issues, (they) always have to be integrated with the stakeholders,” Ortega said.
Scottsdale’s current General Plan 2001 emphasizes the need for community input in development and planning matters, calling it “an important component of successful planning and community building and decision making.”
But in the wake of controversial approvals for the Marquee office building and Southbridge Two downtown, some residents have argued that City Council and other public boards and commissions have not listened to resident input.
In 2019, the Planning Commission voted to ask Council to review the public outreach process.
Ortega argued the city needs to go back to the spirit in the General Plan because citizens can provide valuable feedback when they believe projects are out of touch with the city’s character.
“So that’s where common sense takes over, and people look at a project and they have a right to speak up,” Ortega said. “We encourage that as a city and that’s how that acrimony, or really constructive criticism, can shape the project and make it better.”
Complicating the matter is the fact that the General Plan has not been approved by voters in two decades.
Both Ortega and Borowsky said residents need to be involved in crafting the new General Plan.
Currently, a task force of residents who serve on 13 city boards and commissions are crafting a draft plan set to go to voters in 2021.
Both Ortega and Borowsky said their plans would alleviate communication issues surrounding large developments and complaints from residents who have said they do not know about a project until it reaches the Planning Commission or City Council.
Speaking on her neighborhood commission concept, Borowsky said, “There’s no question in my mind that that would be a secondary benefit – it could be a principle benefit – of much earlier involvement and notification.”
She said developers would benefit from the plan, too, by avoiding costly delays or, in the case of Southbridge Two, a citizen referendum that effectively cancels a project after the developer has spent a significant amount of time and money.
“I just think that makes it a smoother process for all involved, and I think we avoid the debacles, blow ups and divisiveness and the community as we saw here at Southbridge Two,” Borowsky said.
Both Ortega and Borowsky have floated others structural changes in the way the city reviews new developments as well.
Ortega said the city needs to create a role for an “infrastructure czar” responsible for ensuring projects do not put too much strain on the city’s existing infrastructure.
He acknowledged that some development deals have improvement requirements in place that often do not go far enough to address the strain the projects on existing infrastructure.
In the case of Southbridge Two, Ortega long argued the project would overly tax the downtown’s roadways with too much traffic and overload the area’s sewer system.
But Ortega said the blame for that issue goes beyond one project.
He said the blame actually lies with the City Council’s decision in 2018 to approve a new Old Town Character Area Plan that essentially called for “the creation of a new town with 30,000 people” in downtown Scottsdale.
That plan, approved unanimously by Council, included allowances for increased density and heights in select downtown areas if developers achieved criteria outlined by the city to receive those bonuses.
Ortega said those changes set the stage for development that would put “a gross, astronomical demand on infrastructure in the area.”
Borowsky said the city should change the way it selects Planning Commission members, advocating that each member of the Council directly appoint a member. Currently, a Council majority must approve each one.
Under that model, she said, the Council majority has too much say over who serves on the commission, which makes recommendations on zoning cases to council.
Even with their critiques of the city’s development process, both candidates acknowledged certain areas of the city are in need of revitalization and voiced support for development and redevelopment that takes resident concerns into account.
Borowsky said the goal should be to find middle ground between developer requests and what opposition leaders are looking for without giving too much power to either side.
“The test should be: Does it enhance Scottsdale? Does it enhance our community? Does it enhance our area?” she said.
Ortega said the city should stick to its strict design guidelines that allowed it to maintain its identity as it grew from nearly 80,000 people in the 1980s to around 260,000 people residents today.
He said that identity is rooted in low profile, low density design that respects open spaces and mountain views.
“There’s a success story in terms of design character and growth, and you still have the core of Scottsdale, which is valuable, and it’s just like the center of a growth ring,” Ortega said. “That’s where the character originated from.”