2020 Election

Durham: My campaign for Scottsdale City Council

Posted 12/10/19

I am running for City Council to ensure that the future of Scottsdale is decided by its citizens, and not by a City Council majority which appears to be increasingly intent on ignoring the voices of …

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2020 Election

Durham: My campaign for Scottsdale City Council


I am running for City Council to ensure that the future of Scottsdale is decided by its citizens, and not by a City Council majority which appears to be increasingly intent on ignoring the voices of its citizens. 

The prime example of this trend was, of course, the council majority’s attempt to force the Desert Discovery Center upon Scottsdale citizens. 

The council majority tried to use Preserve lands and funds --- paid for by the citizens --- to fund a project the citizens clearly didn’t want and which violated the City Charter’s requirement that Preserve land not be “altered from its natural state.”

Worse yet, the DDC and its allies tried desperately to avoid giving citizens a vote, because they knew perfectly well what the answer would be. The DDC allies even took the extreme step of bringing in money from out-of-state real estate developers to defy the citizens’ will.

In order to stop the council majority, Scottsdale citizens were required to take the extraordinary remedy of amending the City Charter. The resulting election proved how out of touch the council majority had been.

I was honored to serve as the treasurer of the Protect Our Preserve Political Action Committee (POP PAC), the group that led the fight against the DDC. 

Every time I drive by the Gateway, I am grateful for the efforts of the hundreds of volunteers who stood up to protect the Preserve. I am also honored that the leaders behind Protect Our Preserve and POP PAC unanimously support my candidacy for the City Council.

The second example of the council majority’s refusal to acknowledge citizen opinion was its approval of the grotesque Marquee development. The Marquee building resembles nothing so much as a cruise ship docked on Scottsdale Road, which is why it earned the nickname, the “Carnival Marquee.” 

The Marquee is an enormous glass building which is completely out of context with surrounding development but would fit nicely on Sixth Avenue in New York. Indeed, the city’s own staff warned the council that the Marquee “may not be ‘context-appropriate’ with the existing adjacent buildings as it pertains to transition in building mass” and was out of “compliance with the Old Town Urban Design and Architectural Guidelines.”

In other words, the city’s own staff was concerned that the Marquee would stick out like a sore thumb. But the Council majority approved it anyway.

At the Marquee hearing, the members of the council majority emphasized the need for jobs, as if excellent, contextual architecture which enhances Scottsdale is incompatible with jobs. There is no reason we cannot have both. 

Indeed, we must insist upon architecture which enhances Scottsdale’s image and reputation. Similarly, those who claim Scottsdale must “change” are missing the boat. We can and must make necessary changes while enhancing Scottsdale’s enviable reputation.

The latest controversial project before the City Council was SouthBridge II. To its credit, the developer of SouthBridge II engaged in a transparent process and welcomed citizen input. 

The result is a development which would make any city proud. But that’s the problem. SouthBridge II would fit equally well in Schenectady as in Scottsdale.

We in Scottsdale like to think we are not any town, but instead are the “West’s Most Western Town.”

SouthBridge II may be a major blow to that image. Its height will obscure views of Camelback Mountain from much of Old Town. Its mass and density would appear to violate the rule which requires that “[a]ll new development and redevelopment that occurs in this district should reflect the building mass, scale, and the Frontier Town, Western design theme.”

Many of those speaking in favor of SouthBridge II recognized that it presents significant risks. As some citizens observed, the developer has an excellent track record. But it has never developed a 150-foot hotel, and despite the developer’s best intentions, it is difficult to understand how a building of such mass will preserve Old Town’s Western design theme.

Will tourists still wander through the Old Town when traffic is doubled? Will the quirky shops that draw in tourists be replaced by generic shops which can be found anywhere? Will visitors to the project rely on Uber to the extent anticipated, or will they drive, worsening traffic and parking problems?

A less compliant council majority could have --- and should have --- worked with the developer to ensure solutions to these issues.

Of course, the main issue in the recent developments is the council’s move to allow 150-foot buildings in 2018. But that provision is not operating as planned.

Some have argued that, as a matter of due process, the council must provide a 150-foot allowance to anyone who asks. But that view is clearly wrong. As councilmember Kathy Littlefield stated at the SouthBridge II hearing, that change allows developers to ask for 150 feet.

When the council passed the 150-foot allowance, it understood that developers would “make proposals that the Council may or may not choose to accept, and which may or may not be awarded any bonus height.” (emphasis added).

As Councilmember Milhaven stated “[I]t’s not giving any existing property owners any additional rights to do anything.” The council anticipated that developers would negotiate for additional height by providing open space, exceptional architecture, and other such features. But the Marquee hearing made it clear the council majority will hand out 150-foot height bonuses like candy on Halloween --- anyone who wants one will get one.

A recent article in Forbes magazine was entitled, “A Trifecta of Art, Architecture and Natural Landscape Is the Real Draw of Scottsdale, Arizona.” Each of these elements is endangered by the council majority. 

The attack on the Preserve presented by the DDC is known to all (but the instigators are hoping you will forget by 2020). Landscape and mountain views are being obscured by the proliferation of high-rise buildings, including the new Nationwide development on the Loop 101. 

Open spaces are being threatened by downzoning. Scottsdale’s art scene is still thriving, but will tourists still be drawn to this unique asset when they are surrounded by 150-foot glass buildings which resemble Anytown, USA? As for architecture? Well, no one is going to confuse the Marquee with Taliesin.  

Next year’s council elections should serve as a referendum on the future of Scottsdale. If I were to be honored by your selection to the City Council, I would join with Solange Whitehead and Kathy Littlefield in acting as the voice of the citizens in moving forward with new development in a prudent and deliberate manner which honors Scottsdale’s history and reputation. 

I would require that any new development meets the highest standards and is in context with Scottsdale’s unique architecture and setting. Height bonuses and other zoning variances would be awarded only in compelling circumstances. But if you agree that Old Town should be filled with 120-foot and 150-foot buildings, then vote against me and support candidates who agree with that vision. 

In this regard, candidates in next year’s election should make it clear where they stand. And candidates who tried to force the DDC upon the citizens must be called to account for their past disregard of the citizenry.

Candidates must be challenged to do more than issue platitudes such as “experience” and “leadership” but must make it clear where they stand so that the citizens will have a clear choice.  

If elected to the council, I would work to maintain the qualities which drew me and thousands of others to Scottsdale. This election is about the future of Scottsdale, not its past.

I would like to ensure that its future is as bright as its past.

Editor’s Note: Tom Durham is a resident of Scottsdale and candidate for Scottsdale City Council.