Caputi: Can the General Plan help Scottsdale’s social divide?

Posted 3/10/21

The top priority of your City Council is preparing a 2035 General Plan, to be put before the voters this November.

Scottsdale hasn’t had an updated plan since 2001. It’s a complex …

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Caputi: Can the General Plan help Scottsdale’s social divide?


The top priority of your City Council is preparing a 2035 General Plan, to be put before the voters this November.

Scottsdale hasn’t had an updated plan since 2001. It’s a complex effort, building on the work that’s been done by thousands of citizens over the last 20 years. Council plans for a completed draft by June, and our goal is to have unanimous agreement among ourselves before it goes out to the community.

My colleagues and I share the commitment that the general plan should reflect all the voices in our community.

I’ve repeatedly made one important point during our discussions: The general plan is general, not specific.

The general plan is neither a zoning document nor a regulatory document; it’s a vision, not a picture. It’s aspirational, and it needs to be broad enough to weather changing economic, demographic and social events over 10 or more years.

It is not meant to be overly detailed, controlling or inflexible.

An overly specific general plan keeps future councils from making decisions with good judgment based on current conditions. Our official, legally-binding character area plans and zoning ordinances are there to implement specifics on a day-to-day basis. These keep councilors and the law in sync.

There is a hierarchy of planning documents, with the general plan at the top; a roadmap for the future of our city. An overly specific general plan that conflicts with existing zoning ordinances is unacceptable, and opens us up to costly lawsuits. It’s an assault on private property rights and the free market.

Government should not dictate market conditions and direction.

Our general plan begins with our vision statement, which sets the tone for the rest of the plan. The draft vision uses terms like “diverse neighborhoods,” “connected, healthy, and sustainable communities,” “innovation and prosperity,” “inclusivity,” “multi-generational,” “economically prosperous,” “welcoming,” “community values,” and “residential neighborhoods co-exist with commercial districts.”

Ironically, some of the proposed language and intention within the chapters of the draft General Plan contradicts the vision statement. Many of the policy changes being suggested will lead to a city that is inequitable, exclusive, one-generational, and hostile to commercial activity and economic prosperity.

Scottsdale is a Golden Rule City; our acts and our plans must reflect our vision and our values.

Some want to use the general plan as a tool to limit future development and establish exclusionary zoning. This will further divide our city into the haves and have-nots. Across the country there is a growing trend to eliminate exclusionary single-family zoning which prevents housing from being attainable for people at lower income levels, but in Scottsdale we are going in the other direction, making our city available only to the wealthy.

According to our recent city survey, the majority of Scottsdale residents fear the loss of housing capacity that is leading to them being priced out of the city they love.

We have no housing supply for our teachers, first responders and health care workers, young families and seniors. Our children cannot afford to live in their hometown when they become young adults starting out on their own.

Our City Council should deliver what the majority of residents say they want, in the city’s own survey. Ask any local Realtor: the housing market is tight, and there is huge demand for multifamily housing. It’s not trailer parks and tenements; we can have beautiful, safe, quality projects that enhance their neighborhoods with smaller-sized units and condos.

There’s been a trend for more density in our downtown core over the last few decades. Not just with the last council, but with every council. Some density is appropriate and makes sense in our downtown, as every council has agreed with since the 1980s.

We have limited density in neighborhoods with large lots. If we remove density from the city core, it puts pressure for smaller lots or taller buildings in other areas — demand won’t go away, it will only elevate if we decrease the available supply. The only thing builders can do to offset having less supply in the downtown is lower the quality — or go denser elsewhere in the city.

There’s a financial breakpoint, it’s simple economics — a profit must be made or investment does not happen.

There have been proposals recently to put us back to pre-1984 zoning in our downtown. Why would we go backwards? We need to be moving forward! Our city is growing — more people are moving to metro Phoenix every day.

Exclusionary large lot zoning creates a barrier to affordable housing. It eliminates normal market forces and creates a lack of supply which drives up pricing so less people can afford to live here.

It creates a situation in which only the “right” kinds of people can live here, or are welcome here.

Our downtown is suffering and needs a refresh. Revenue has to come from somewhere. It’s basic math. Scottsdale has high amenities, strong property values and very low property taxes because of sales tax revenue. We need to balance our neighborhoods and open spaces with nurturing our economic drivers, so we can afford the things we love about our city.

Are we willing to raise sales taxes to keep our buildings small and decrease economic vitality? Can we find developers who will be able to make a project “pencil out” as land values/prices increase but height and density are decreased?

Most of the city’s revenue is generated in the south, which is subsidizing the north, further increasing the social divide. Only the wealthy can live in the neighborhoods with the best schools and amenities.

Yes, I live in north Scottsdale. Yes, in my backyard. I want to be neighbors with teachers, police officers, younger and older people. We are falsely elevating property values. Having fewer residents drastically reduces our tax base in the coming years. This is not sustainable or fair. It’s the wrong direction to create policy that further divides us, and erodes our tax revenue as well.

The General Plan is general. During my three years on the city’s Development Review Board, I learned that not all projects should be approved, but they all can be improved. Each project will be evaluated through the staff, our professional process, commissions, zoning ordinance, neighborhood plans, and outreach meetings. This is where some of our best dialogue with residents occurs.

The market should guide us, not agendas. Let’s make sure we realize our vision in deeds, not just words.

Editor’s Note: Tammy Caputi is a Scottsdale City Councilwoman.