What a Butte!

Developers and anti-growth activists want a piece of Tempe's mythical mountain

Tempe Butte is an island of rock in the midst of a city, a volcanic and sedimentary bump that rises barely 300 feet above downtown Tempe. Yet to an increasingly vocal crowd of locals, the Butte -- also known as "A" Mountain and Hayden Butte -- looms as the latest battleground over urban growth and the use of public spaces in one of the Valley's fastest-growing downtown areas.At issue is whether a longtime Tempe developer will be allowed to wrap an 11-acre patch of stores, theaters, offices and a small hotel around the northwest flank of the Butte, part of which has been a city park for more than a decade.

The development, known as Hayden Ferry South, would bite into the lower quarter of the mountain, just uphill from the old Hayden flour mill, the city's most cherished historic site. The Tempe City Council approved the plan in late 1997 with virtually no public opposition.

But the project's smooth ride ended last summer when the developer, MCW Holdings of Tempe, circulated the idea of tripling the project's size -- from 312,000 square feet to more than one million square feet.

Tempe Butte and the remains of the Hayden flour mill are among the city's most cherished historic sites
Paolo Vescia
Tempe Butte and the remains of the Hayden flour mill are among the city's most cherished historic sites
Water tanks mar the southern flank of the Butte
Paolo Vescia
Water tanks mar the southern flank of the Butte
Ted Claassen says his company's development on the Butte could improve public access to some of the mountain's trails
Leah Fasten
Ted Claassen says his company's development on the Butte could improve public access to some of the mountain's trails
A nest of antennas greets climbers who reach the summit of Tempe Butte
Paolo Vescia
A nest of antennas greets climbers who reach the summit of Tempe Butte

The dramatic increase -- largely due to the addition of a high-rise condominium -- galvanized historic preservationists, anti-growth activists and all-around Butte lovers into a noisy coalition that has been demanding ever since that the city save the Butte.

The expanded Hayden Ferry South proposal was withdrawn before it received a formal hearing. But not before a public outcry prompted MCW to go back to the original, though refined, smaller scheme, and left city officials hustling to spin the issue of downtown development.

"We've sort of drawn a line at the Butte," says Gail Martelli, a longtime Tempe resident who is helping organize "Save the Butte," a campaign that aims to persuade the city council to reconsider allowing development on the historic site. "It's the last piece of Sonoran desert left here in downtown. But the bigger thing isn't so much the Butte as it is whose vision this is for the city."

Martelli and other opponents of MCW's Butte plan see the proposal as part of a misguided rush by Tempe officials to urbanize the city's diminishing supply of available land.

Many contend that the real culprit is the city's Rio Salado project, an ambitious two-mile-long redevelopment effort along the Salt River through Tempe. Last year, the city's portion of the river was reborn as Tempe Town Lake. Hayden Ferry South is in the Rio Salado project zone.

The original concept for Rio Salado was to reclaim the river and banks for public park land and a small mix of private development. But over the past decade, the cost of building the lake jumped from an estimated $16 million to more than $180 million. Along the way, the Rio Salado vision shifted to big-time economic development. Large stretches of real estate near the river that were originally envisioned as public spaces have been redesignated as private developments.

"The premise," says Tempe councilman Hugh Hallman, who has criticized the way city officials and commissions responsible for overseeing Rio Salado have handled public parks, "was that the private development of these vast areas would generate enough tax revenue to pay for the lake's construction, operation and maintenance."

Thus far that hasn't happened.

Critics say the city's desperation to get development and some cash flow out of the lake has blinded it to the long-term value of the area's historical open spaces, both along the river banks and up on the Butte.

Martelli, Hallman and others cite as an example of shortsightedness the city's recent courting of a proposal by developer Zev Buffman to build a water park for Las Vegas-style shows on Rio Salado land that had been set aside as a public park.

They also point to a 1992 recommendation by city staffers to give part of Tempe Beach Park, the city's oldest park, to developers who wanted to build Red River Music Hall. The developers, Benton/Robb Associates and Bay State Milling Company, who own a portion of the Butte site that MCW is set to develop, withdrew the proposal and built the project across the river instead.

"What it comes down to is nothing's sacred in this town," Martelli says. "Everything's for sale."

Dissidents may not be gaining much political ground -- a recent candlelight vigil saw only a small turnout, and the commission making recommendations to the city council on MCW's plan has given little consideration to opponents' concerns. But the vocal opposition has at least struck a pang of conscience at City Hall.

Late last summer, in the midst of his reelection campaign, Mayor Neil Giuliano, a strong supporter of more aggressive development downtown and along the river, issued what's become known as his "I went to the mountain" memo, calling for guidelines controlling building around the Butte. Among other things, he recommended protecting some views of the mountain and restricting building heights to half the size of the 160-foot grain elevators and silos of the historic flour mill.

City management assigned the task of recommending guidelines for city council consideration to the city's Rio Salado Citizens Advisory Commission, which oversees development within the Rio Salado project area. For the past three months, the commission has been refining comments and recommendations from about 15 city departments and other groups. It's expected to have final recommendations for the city council to review later this month or early next month.

So far, the commission's process has done more to protect the developers than it has to protect the Butte. The commission has downplayed the more difficult issues surrounding development of the Butte, reducing a thick pile of public comments to a two-page summary. At the direction of the city's development services department, the commission also has resisted including a "no-build" option for the city council to consider -- something opponents have repeatedly urged.

"Basically a bunch of people complained," says Scott Burge, vice chair of the commission, who ran unsuccessfully for city council this year and considers the commission's approach skewed toward development. "So the city did something. But they did it by ignoring everything the people had to complain about."


The Butte is hardly an icon of pristine nature. Ancient Indians buried their dead there and etched its stones with pictographs. They terraced and tromped all over its slopes. And ever since Charles Hayden, the founder and first developer of modern Tempe, clambered to the top in the late 1860s so he could scout out a spot to build a town and launch a ferry service across the flowing Salt River, modern Tempeans have found a variety of ways to put the mountain to use. They've stamped it with an "A," painted, blasted and quarried it. They've ridden horses, bicycles, motor bikes, trucks, cars and steel-wheeled trains all over it and stitched its flanks with railroad tracks. The construction of Sun Devil Stadium blew out the entire eastern end of the Butte. The old flour mill, water tanks, broadcast antennas and park trails mar other parts of the mountain.

ASU owns the eastern chunk of the Butte. Tempe claims most of the remaining portion, except the acreage where Hayden Ferry South is planned. The development site includes city land and the parcel owned by Benton/Robb and Bay State Milling.

Opponents of Hayden Ferry South are concerned development might limit or cut off access to the Butte and further degrade what many residents consider one of the city's genuine -- though long mistreated -- treasures.

Geologists bring thousands of students a year to study the history and character of its outcroppings. And thousands of other people huff and puff their way to the summit for no reason other than to watch the sun rise or set.

"When I was up there yesterday," says Martelli, "the sunset was beautiful. The creosote bushes were blooming. It smelled just wonderful.

"Why are we giving that up for an office building?"

MCW officials say their proposed development would not affect access to the Butte.

"In fact, we're hoping to design the buildings and walkways so they could improve access to some of the trails," says Ted Claassen, part-owner of the Tempe firm.

MCW has built a number of successful projects in Tempe's downtown redevelopment area and has a track record of sensitivity to historical details.

The firm renovated the Laird and Dines building -- better known as the Hooters building -- at the southeast corner of Fifth Street and Mill Avenue. It also produced the Gordon Biersch building, also at Mill and Fifth. More recently, it has been building the Brickyard and Orchidhouse projects, farther south on Mill.

The approved plan for Hayden Ferry South featured two- and three-story buildings that faced Mill Avenue adjacent to the flour mill.

"There were two purposes behind that plan," says Claassen. "One was to open everyone's eyes up to the density that was possible on that site. Second was to establish a line that showed where the cut into the Butte would be necessary."

The scheme included stores, movie theaters, restaurants, some limited office space and a small hotel -- about 40 rooms. But it had no housing -- something urban planners and designers consider essential for vital downtowns.

Last summer's revised plan changed that in a big way. Among other things, its approximately 1.2 million square feet would have included a condominium tower with about 300 residences and another 50,000 square feet in retail space. Two- and three-story office and retail buildings would have occupied another 500,000 square feet on an additional 2.5 acres of adjacent city-owned property.

"We brought in an interior road to create a small-town feel with residences above stores," says Claassen. The plan, he adds, would have produced a miniature city inside downtown and "created the kind of energy that retailers are crying for. They want traffic."

The urban rationale for Hayden Ferry South is fairly obvious. Its mixture of stores, offices and housing is a throwback to older cities, where people lived above shops and businesses. It would create a 24-hour atmosphere in the area, says Dave Fackler, deputy director of Tempe's development services department, which oversees all development downtown outside the Rio Salado area. "So there's always someone going through the entrances of the buildings. There's always someone in the windows looking onto the street. It creates a safer, more lively downtown area."

Hayden Ferry South would also extend what developers and planners call "The Mill Avenue Experience" down to the river, linking the booming area around the university with the emerging one at the lakefront.

"We've been calling Hayden Ferry South a linchpin," says Rod Keeling, who heads the Downtown Tempe Community, a business organization that supports the project. "It provides the connection downtown needs between the development on the lake and the rest of Mill Avenue."

Right now, that connection ends around Fourth Street, about a block from the mill. When people get there, they typically turn around.

The importance of walking and shopping can be measured in sales tax revenue. In the past decade, the number of taxable sales in the downtown redevelopment area (a few blocks east and west of Mill Avenue north of University Drive) more than doubled, from about 62 million a year to 137 million. Sales tax revenue has climbed from about $760,000 annually to more than $2.6 million. The Hayden Ferry South project could add more than $1 million a year to that total.

These fiscal matters go to the heart of the downtown development debate. While other Valley cities argue about sprawl at the edges, landlocked Tempe is wrangling over urban density and growth at the core.

"When you look at those huge developments and the density being planned downtown, you have to wonder just how they're going to pay for city services there," says Rich Bank, a businessman who ran unsuccessfully for city council this year and opposes development on the Butte. "They're really trying to turn it into a little Manhattan down there."

But Keeling and other downtown advocates contend that raising the tax base through more concentrated downtown development makes good urban sense.

"Here we are gobbling up an acre an hour at the edge, and yet if we cannot build quality infill, and these higher-density, urban developments, then how are we going to provide an alternative to growth on the edge?" says Keeling.

But he concedes that the goal of extending Mill Avenue's stores and offices to the lakefront can be accomplished without cutting into the Butte.

Opponents say they'd be willing to allow development anywhere below the railroad tracks that once serviced the mill.

Keeling says that probably wouldn't affect a developer's ability to build storefronts.

Vice Mayor Ben Arredondo says such a restriction would be a sensible option. But that option is not included in the latest draft of the Rio Salado commission's guidelines.

City officials say that because the area is part of a redevelopment zone, the city could buy back all or part of the site. But the cost -- estimated at $15 million to $25 million -- and the potential of a lawsuit make that a difficult option to carry out.

It isn't one that MCW is considering. Claassen says his firm has invested about $3 million in the project thus far. He says MCW plans to abide by the 312,000-square-foot plan the city approved in 1997 and begin development of the project's first phase next spring, which will include a historic restoration of the flour mill. MCW plans to move its offices into the top two floors and adapt the bottom floors as a restaurant incorporating a historic tribute to the mill.

Scott Burge says he'll urge that the guidelines limit Hayden Ferry South to the 312,000 square feet the city originally approved. "That would keep buildings in the area at about half the size of the mill at the highest," he says.

Claassen says MCW will live with the smaller project. "I don't think we can afford to fight that war now. If we tweak the plan at all, we'll lose," he says.

Many opponents wonder why guidelines defining the Butte's relationship to the development around it weren't drafted before the city approved the initial plans to cut into the Butte.

"I don't really have a good answer for why those guidelines weren't done before," says councilman Dennis Cahill, who is in the upcoming runoff election to retain his council seat. "It's a mistake on our part. We should have had them."

Arredondo says bluntly that the city's staff "dropped the ball."

"I thought we'd been operating under some kind of guidelines. But right now, if we're not careful, anything and everything could be developed."

Fackler says general height limits have been in place, but more specific guidelines balancing open space and development on the Butte don't exist.

Arredondo says that before further development occurs, the city needs to define more fully where its open spaces should be.

The irony of the Butte ruckus, says councilman Hallman, is that the Hayden Ferry South project is suffering from animosity that would be more accurately aimed at another big commercial development nearby known as Hayden Ferry North.

"MCW's initial plan for Hayden Ferry South was really pretty responsible," says Hallman. "The scale was right. They've shown some historical sensitivity in their past projects downtown. They've done really high-quality work. But I think part of what's happening here is they're catching hell from folks who've just realized what's happening at Hayden Ferry North."

The north project is being developed by Benton/Robb and SunCor. It would plant a 1.5 million-square-foot suburban-style complex of offices, condominiums and a hotel, with buildings as tall as 12 and 15 stories, smack up against the lake, walling off views to and from the water and the Butte. Its major architectural statement along Rio Salado Drive would be a huge parking garage.

Martelli and other opponents of MCW's plan concede that they missed that one, too.

But, then, so did the city. The guidelines being generated for Hayden Ferry South won't apply to the development just across the street to the north.

"It kind of makes you wonder," says Ralph Risoli, a developer who opposes the densities proposed for the area. "What good does it do to save the Butte if they're going to build 12 or 15 stories in front of it?"

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