WHO WILL BLINK? NEIGHBORHOODS OR DEVELOPERS?

The competition over who shall rule east Phoenix--its developers or its neighborhoods--is shifting into overdrive as the City Council prepares to vote this month on a hard-fought plan guiding future growth around the area's commercial core at 24th Street and Camelback Road.

As the council's March 20 vote approaches, the contest between developers and residents, until now a complex and subtle chess game, is turning into a "Guts Bowl," as one player puts it. As it does, the man of the hour--and the man in the middle--is Mayor Paul Johnson.

"This is Paul's first big test of leadership," says lawyer Dave Tierney, who represents his own east Phoenix neighborhood and also is a supporter of Johnson's. Johnson doesn't see it quite the same way. "I think if you want to talk about major tests of my leadership, several have come along that are bigger than this," Johnson says. "I got a new city manager hired on a unanimous vote, two new councilmembers also by unanimous vote, and the rescaling of the city's bond program, also by unanimous vote. All those were more major than the Camelback East vote."

(Frank Fairbanks, a longtime assistant city manager well known and liked around City Hall, was chosen city manager. The two new councilmembers, Craig Tribken and Alan Kennedy, were appointed to complete the two-year terms of former Mayor Terry Goddard, who resigned to run for governor, and Johnson himself, who replaced Goddard as mayor. Changes in the bond program, hotly contested by beneficiaries of the program, were made necessary by the city's recession-squeezed revenue base.)

Johnson says, however, that he is working within and outside the city council to build a consensus for the Camelback East plan, which has been years in the making.

The biggest issue is the plan's strength--whether its guidelines will have regulatory clout or will be subject to easy change by developers. The guidelines, governing everything down to sidewalk design, are intended to spread the gracious welcome of the area's premier resort, the Arizona Biltmore, throughout the neighboring commercial and business core.

While this may, at first glance, seem significantly less compelling to people outside east Phoenix than, say, who wins the Grand Prix, the impact will be extensive, promises Phoenix City Councilmember Linda Nadolski, whose district includes Camelback East.

"The decisions made here on such issues as regulatory clout will guide planning for every other village in the city," Nadolski says. Camelback East is the first of the city's so-called "urban villages" to reach the final stage of adopting a future growth plan.

The urban-village concept is the only growth template Phoenix leaders have ever considered beyond the question "Does this building meet minimum zoning code requirements?" If individual village plans, developed through painstaking negotiations among all interested parties, are to mean anything, they must be enforceable, Nadolski and other advocates say.

The debate over Camelback East is further intensified by the presence of the town's most powerful zoning attorneys, hired to represent commercial landholders and developers in the area. "Every zoning attorney in town has been making it through lean times on this plan," Nadolski observes wryly.

For months, these master strategists have been circling the scene, working to protect their clients' ability to develop land and skirmishing with neighborhood leaders over the village plan's particulars. The zoning attorneys are not entirely satisfied with the results of their labors.

"We need a reasonable procedure to amend the plan," says attorney Stephen Earl, who represents the owners of Town & Country Mall, the Colonnade and the Biltmore Fashion Park. "The plan as currently written makes privately proposed amendments all but impossible."

The developers are ready to accept the plan's regulatory force, but only if they have enough latitude to seek amendments to the plan itself as economic conditions change, Earl explains. "The plan is basically acceptable, we are ready to go forward with regulatory features, but only if there's a reasonable amendment procedure," he emphasizes. As an example, Earl says the aging Colonnade mall at 18th Street and Camelback is ready to begin renovation in accordance with the village plan, which calls for an urban mall incorporating retail, office and community services at that site. Nearby residents take a dim view, however, of the developers' plan to put up a ten-story office building. "We want the ability to obtain [additional] height for the office tower in return for providing additional benefits such as pedestrian and community-center stuff," Earl says.

The residents are worried about developers' efforts to soften amendment procedures to make such changes as building height easily obtainable. "The neighborhoods backed off time and time again on specific issues in return for the developers' commitment to backing a plan that was enforceable," Tierney complains. "Now the developers want to be able to amend the plan at will and are saying they won't back it if they don't get that concession."

Earl contends that the developers simply want to be able to petition the council to make changes when they can demonstrate that economic conditions--such as the current shaky ones--merit changes. Nadolski, on the other hand, says the developers' idea of an amendment procedure would do no more than add an additional step to the current, weak zoning process.

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