The majestic red rock sculptures and rare desert vistas of Papago Park are in the gun sights of some of the most powerful real estate interests in the Southwest.
Led by Phoenix attorney Grady Gammage Jr., the intellectual architect of Arizona's rapacious development industry that's systematically tarnishing the Sonoran Desert, a powerful cabal of developers is quietly planning to convert the 1,500-acre park into yet another banal cash cow.
The ambitious "redevelopment plan" was trumpeted as a "grand vision" by the real estate industry's propaganda organ, the Arizona Republic, in an April 20 front-page story.
"Papago Park could be Phoenix's Lincoln Park, but it's not now," Gammage gushed to his stenographer at the Republic, referring to Chicago's landmark park. "It's an incredible piece of real estate for the Valley that's completely underutilized."
Underutilized is development-speak for "let's get our hands on that property and cash in!"
These fast-buck artists are laying the groundwork for extensive private development in the park, including construction of a plush resort hotel, restaurants and coffee shops, and -- the coup de grce -- an exclusive, high-end golf course capable of hosting major tournaments.
Real estate sharks know that some of the most expensive land in the urban West is adjacent to city parks such as San Diego's Balboa Park, home to the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
One insider told me that developers "would love to get their hands" on Papago Park while at the same time acquiring interests in nearby property that would increase in value because of the planned development.
"Look at the real estate around the park," my source said. "It's some of the lower-end, more dated properties in the Valley."
Rather than making needed, simple, relatively inexpensive improvements to the park -- like improving trails and signage and slowing down traffic on McDowell Road and Galvin Parkway -- city officials are talking to developers about bespoiling Papago Park with another Valley resort.
Phoenix City Councilman Greg Stanton says "there is no specific proposal on the table," but that there is a desire to "take advantage of tourism to get the maximum value from the park."
At the same time, Stanton says he doesn't believe elected officials in Tempe, Phoenix and Scottsdale will go for any development plan for Papago.
"I don't think you will see any of the three cities in favor of commercializing the park," he says.
This sounds like political doublespeak.
Why, then, are some of the West's most powerful developers meeting with council members from Tempe, Phoenix and Scottsdale and conducting brainstorming sessions aimed at maximizing the park's value?
This dichotomy of trying to squeeze more dollars out of the park while promising not to commercialize it should make the public very nervous.
Gammage is leading a cadre of developers working under the cover of a nonprofit, pro-development group called the Urban Land Institute. The ULI "offered" to provide technical assistance to Tempe, Phoenix and Scottsdale elected officials on ways to make improvements to Papago.
Developers offering suggestions for a Papago Park makeover include:
DMB Associates, developers of high-end residential communities, including north Scottsdale's DC Ranch and the East Valley's Superstition Springs Center.
SunCor Development Company, a subsidiary of Pinnacle West Capital Corporation, an $11 billion holding company that also owns Arizona Public Service Company. SunCor is developing property on the south shore of Tempe's Town Lake.
Trillium Residential, which is building four high-rises in downtown Tempe, where it plans to sell condos for $600 per square foot.
Sunbelt Holdings, which has built major planned communities across the Valley, including Vistancia in Peoria.
Warnick and Company, a consulting firm that specializes in resort and hotel development, including the city of Phoenix's $350 million convention-center hotel now under construction.
Salt River Project, the state's second-largest electric utility, which is developing a business park adjacent to Papago Park.
Part of their game plan involves a major upgrade to one of the two popular and relatively inexpensive public golf courses at Papago, where greens fees are less than $40. Developers hope to convert one course into an expensive, premier venue similar to San Diego's Torrey Pines Championship Golf Course, where a round costs between $140 and $205.
The effort to open Papago Park to private development interests coincides with preparations for Arizona's centennial celebration of statehood in 2012. Papago Park is expected to play a central role in centennial festivities.
I have no doubt that powerful business leaders would like nothing more than toasting Arizona's 100th birthday from a plush ballroom inside a five-star resort perched on the rocky hills of Papago Park. There, while throwing back some good Scotch, they could scan the Valley of the Sun and congratulate themselves on the billions of dollars they have made.
Turning over Papago to developers is a dreadful course for Arizona, and must be vigorously opposed. The value of public parks is not measured in dollars, but in something far more important: peace of mind.
My advice to elected officials in Tempe, Phoenix and Scottsdale is to tread lightly on Papago. Just as neighborhood residents shot down the Phoenix City Council's ill-advised plan to allow Donald Trump to build a high-rise in the Camelback Corridor, the public will not sit by quietly as one of the last vestiges of Sonoran Desert open space in this urban area is ripped apart for profit.
Gammage, who usually loves media limelight, is trying to distance himself from the plan to develop Papago.
"I don't want to be the focus of everybody's attention," Gammage told me.
Gammage says all he's done so far is host a one-day meeting where developers and city officials brainstormed about possible development ideas for the park.
"Exactly how it evolves from this point forward, nobody has figured out," Gammage insists.
Pardon me, Grady, but your history shows that you leave nothing to chance when it comes to development. Here's what your résumé states:
"Mr. Gammage has spent the last twenty years representing real estate development projects such as master-planned communities, high-rise buildings, regional shopping centers and sprawling tracts of subdivisions."
It goes on to note that you opposed the "Citizens Growth Management Initiative" in 2000 sponsored by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups that would have put brakes on the Valley's relentless sprawl.
Instead, according to your résumé, you supported the "Growing Smarter Plus" plan that gave builders the green light to spread farther out into the desert.
The Growing Smarter (more aptly the Growing Dumber) plan passed.
I suspect that you're backpedaling away from the Papago Park development plan because you already received a vicious backlash from those rightly suspecting that you and your building buddies are lusting over the park.
Papago is one of the Southwest's most important cultural and environmental gems. The park -- which once included the twin buttes on the south side of the river where Sun Devil Stadium now sits -- provides spectacular views of the Valley in a relatively undisturbed desert setting.
The famous rock outcroppings mark the narrowest point of the once-free-flowing Salt River. The park's centerpiece sandstone formation, Hole-in-the-Rock, was used by the Valley's former inhabitants, the Hohokam, for astronomical observations.
The Hohokam noticed that a hole in the ceiling of the rock shelter creates a ray of light that changes positions on the floor throughout the year, depending on the seasonal movements of the sun across the sky. These observations allowed the Hohokam to mark the winter and summer solstices and the spring and fall equinoxes with precision.
Papago Park is also home to the privately operated Phoenix Zoo and the spectacular Desert Botanical Garden. Simply put, Papago offers an easily accessible and inexpensive respite from the ruthless and ugly urban grid that developers and their gutless lackeys on city councils across the Valley have created.
The park has a long history of incursions by development interests. It was part of the Papago Sonora National Monument created by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914. But that designation and important development protections that went with it were abolished by Congress in 1932. The loss of national monument designation led to the military's using part of the park as a German prisoner-of-war camp in World War II. After the war, the camp served as a Veterans Administration hospital. The Arizona National Guard now operates a base on the park's western flank.
The federal government sold 1,200 acres of the park to Phoenix in 1959. Years earlier, the federal government in 1935 conveyed 443 acres to Tempe to be used as a municipal park. Tempe has since disposed of 147 acres, including giving 20 acres to the Salt River Project in 1955.
The park's divided jurisdiction between Tempe and Phoenix has served to some degree to protect it from overdevelopment. Neither city has been willing to make substantial investments to upgrade public facilities, including the Papago Golf Course.
I welcome an effort by municipalities to work together to make carefully considered, low-impact, noncommercial improvements to the park.
But building new trails and defining the park's perimeter with better signs is far different from the massive project that developers are now quietly formulating.
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