Working For Citizens

September 23, 2018
Dear Friends…
Some of you may have heard me ask applicants before Council, “What does it do for the Citizens of Scottsdale?” I didn’t just dream up this question as a campaign slogan. It’s what every Councilmember is supposed to ask every applicant.
Frequently I will pull from our “Consent Agenda” an applicant’s request for a Class 6 Liquor License. I’ll use the opportunity to ask the applicant how he thinks “the best interest of the community will be substantially served by the issuance of the liquor license.” The words are not mine; they are taken verbatim from question #2 on the City of Scottsdale Liquor License Application.
Sure I’m tall, but look at all the
open space around me!

The question also comes up in a development context that has more far-reaching implications for citizens. It happens when property developers request an allowance for greater than standard height and density.

Years ago, the city modified our City Code to describe how a developer could earn the right to increase the maximums for building height, gross floor area ratio and density – so-called “bonuses.” The entitlements for Planned Block Developments are memorialized in Section 6.1310 of our City Code of Ordinances, descriptively titled “BONUS PROVISIONS” as they apply to Planned Block Developments.
The Code includes mathematical formulas to calculate bonuses, depending on the variance requested. The formulas are a little complicated, but for height, the payment amounts to about $11,500 per foot. (Curiously, the interpretation of the ordinance is that a developer pays only once, no matter how many buildings may be planned for a multi-acre development.)
Importantly, though, the award of greater height or density was not intended to be automatic with just the payment of a calculated bonus amount. Further Code language reminds developers that “Any application of bonus development standards, or application for amendment to existing bonus development standards, shall be subject to City Council approval….” So, if approval is not automatic with payment of a bonus, how should the Council determine whether to give their approval?

Fortunately, the ordinance goes on to explain this: “The City Council may approve bonus development standards… upon demonstration of noteworthy investments in sustainable, high-quality urban design and other features that

  • provide public benefits,
  • improve the quality of life in the community, and
  • assist in achieving the goals and policies of the General Plan, Downtown Plan and City objectives.”
Even if Councilmembers were architectural engineers, it’s often impossible to judge what is or is not a “…noteworthy investment in sustainable, high quality urban design…” This is particularly the case when the development plans have not even been finalized. The application may be little more than the proverbial “sketches on a napkin.”
Still, it is possible to inquire about the “expected public benefits” or how the developer believes his project “will improve the quality of life in the community.” Will the project offer citizens more open space, parks or recreational areas? Will the buildings be setback from the curb a greater than normal distance? If the applicant stands to profit handsomely from the increased height or density, how will citizens be compensated for their loss of vistas, the increase in traffic congestion or other consequences?
That’s what my questions are intended to do every time I ask, “What does it do for the Citizens of Scottsdale?” In asking the question and weighing the answers, I’m looking for what my client – you and your fellow Scottsdale citizens – are getting out of the deal, whether it’s a request for a simple liquor license or a request for building variances on a complex development covering several acres.
I think that’s what I was elected to do. When I don’t hear what I believe the Citizens would consider a satisfactory answer, I vote NO. That’s also what I was elected to do for you.