Planning for Mediocrity

by John Washington on August 12, 2012

In a recent article on AZCentral, it was announced that the final phase of the Scottsdale Waterfront development south of Camelback and east of Drinkwater was approved by the Planning Commission and will go on up to the Development Review Board and City Council for final approval in the coming weeks.

I note several interesting comments in the article that illustrate opportunities for improvement in Scottsdale’s city planning processes.

Chairman Has A Conflict Of Interest

Commission Chairman Michael D’Andrea withdrew from the case because he is a member of the development team.

D’Andrea was nominated to the PC by Mayor Jim Lane. In his term as chair, he has ridiculed residents (asking one, “Do you need a cookie?”), lobbied for greater height and density, kowtowed to zoning attorneys, and generally not been very conducive to critical public process.

There are two points of concern here. First, the general appointment process (application, nomination, interview, and appointment by a council majority) blurs the lines of responsibility and accountability between commissioners and their sponsors. Direct appointments would fix this and council members could be more readily held to task for the actions of their appointees.

Second, there are “professional qualifications” for some boards and commissions. I thought the Planning Commission had some professional qualification requirements, but I don’t see them on the application currently listed on the website.

However, while it sounds intuitively like a good idea, it also creates many opportunities for conflicts of interest. Direct conflicts of interest are addressed by the city’s ethics code. However, ‘professional courtesy’ conflicts can be even worse because they are more insidious.

Again, direct appointments would work to nullify this, as it would be in the best interest of the sponsor (mayor or councilmember) to appoint commissioners who would not have even a suspicion of conflict.

Residents Approved?

Commissioner Erik Filsinger made the motion to recommend approval and commended Alliance for working with nearby residents to gain their approval.

I can’t remember which Council member nominated Filsinger (which illustrates my earlier point), but he was recently reappointed by the City Council.

This happened in spite of saying at his interview when questioned about what he learned from the ballot rejection of the General Plan changes, “The voters got it wrong.” Filsinger was the subject of a petition signed by 300 residents to reverse his appointment, but Mayor Lane and the Council majority refused to even consider it.

As I recall, Filsinger has had his share of conflicts for which he has recused himself. I believe one of them was the infamous “western resort” known as Riata Ranch.

Residents Silent?

No residents spoke at Tuesday’s meeting.

I don’t know this for certain, but I’d guess that most of the residents who would have spoke out against this project are either gone for the summer or have given up trying to fight it, or both.

Neighbors from Villa Adrian, Villa d’Este, and the Whitwood neighborhoods (collectively “ADW”) just west across Drinkwater have invested hundreds of many hours trying to get the city to hold the developers to promises made years ago to step down the height going west toward ADW.

In spite of those efforts as well as legal protests from current residents of the existing Waterfront towers, the zoning attorneys, developers, city staff, and city council have created and implemented several clever mechanisms to defeat the protests.

From a bigger picture perspective, Planning Commission has more 7-0 unanimous votes than any other board or commission. As city council candidate Chris Schaffner says, if everyone on the commission always agrees there are too many commissioners. Why should residents attend commission meetings if they know the outcome will not be in their favor whether they are there or not?

High Income Rental Units

John Berry, a zoning attorney and project spokesman, said the project will bring 259 “high-income” rental units to the downtown area.

What is a, “high income rental unit?” This is a housing project and the developer will rent units for whatever the market will bear.

Actually, “the developer,” will probably flip it, maybe even before it is completed. After the market drives the buyer into receivership, whoever buys it out of bankruptcy will be able to rent the units for far less. Which of course drives down demand for other housing options.

Opportunity for Improvement

Let’s restore function and a sense of trust to boards and commissions. And let’s follow the General Plan when it comes to development decisions.

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