City Hall

Camel Square (Off): Phoenix Neighborhood Leaders Contemplate Referendum Over City Council Repeal of Building Restrictions

Many neighborhood leaders and homeowners are sorely disappointed with a City Council decision that stripped building restrictions from Camel Square, a 17-acre site on the northwest corner of Camelback Road and 44th Street.

And now area residents are floating the idea of filing a referendum, a process in which residents gather signatures to force the City Council to either undo their vote or allow voters to decide the issue.

(The referendum was an effective tool when the City Council approved a high-rise project for New York developer Donald Trump near Camelback Road and 24th Street. In that case, the neighborhood leaders won and the City Council repealed its own decision.)

The City Council voted on December 15 to remove stipulations, or building restrictions, that limited development to, in part, protect residents from losing their spectacular -- and expensive -- views of Camelback Mountain.

The council decreased building setbacks on the west side of the site from 160 feet to 34 feet (a setback dictates how far from the property's edge the developer can start building); increased building heights as high as 56 feet (up from the previous 36-foot building height limit); and jacked up the allowable square footage of the entire development from about 300,000 square feet to more than one million.

Regarding the City Council decision, Councilwoman Peggy Neely, who is eying the Mayor's job, said in a statement to New Times:

"With Council's direction that a working group, including members of the adjacent community, must be formed for site planning, this is a great opportunity for the community to work together to re-develop the corner for the betterment of the entire community."

But that group can't change the heights, square footage, the setbacks or anything the City Council has already granted. And, since the property owner already got what it wanted, where is the incentive to reach a compromise with area residents as they develop plans for the site?

Residents believe these working groups are just for show, designed to make it look as through elected officials care about the interest of residents over developers. They also believe that these groups are simply stacked with individuals who will ensure the outcome elected officials want.

There has been no real compromise and the property owner (
the Dallas Police and Fire Department Pension Plan), which does not even have a plan in place for the redevelopment of the area, got what it wanted.

DiCiccio said that there was no compromise because neighborhood leaders he appointed to a working group he created to find middle ground just walked away from it.

Bob Pohlman, president Stanford Neighborhood Association, said he walked away because the group was focused on what a future project might look like. He was more interested in the immediate threat facing his community: the neighborhood losing the hard-fought building restrictions they negotiated about two decades ago.

"I was spending my time trying to fight the removal of those stipulations," he said. "Now that they are gone, we've got no leverage. Our ability to have something that is neighborhood-friendly and consistent with the quality of life in the neighborhoods has eroded to the point that it is just not feasible."

Jasper Hawkins, a neighborhood leader who tried to broker a compromise between other neighborhood leaders and the property owners, told New Times that his efforts went nowhere.

"There wasn't any discussion directly between the developers and the homeowners, other than [DiCiccio's] working group," he said. "I'm not sure why, but the meetings just never happened."

DiCiccio, who represents the area, said that he agreed with the property owners' because they had a "reasonable request."
He also said that development flexibility was needed because the "site is in disrepair and looks terrible" and that the buildings on the site, which have basement-style (underground) office space, are "obsolete."

Neighborhood activist Paul Barnes said he was very disappointed and it was just "business as usual" at City Hall -- elected officials favoring developers over residents.

"The thing that hurts is that residents were begging DiCiccio, begging the Council to allow the issue to be mediated," Barnes told New Times. "But the owners were bound and determined to get everything they wanted."

In an e-mail to area residents about the City Council vote, Barnes wrote that the vote "was a complete victory for the out-of-state owners and a total defeat for the abutting residents who were seeking to protect their quality of life. ... This again proves that harmful speculation in Phoenix is alive and well."

Some residents believe that the property owners intend to sell off the property, which is worth a lot more now that it isn't saddled with building restrictions. While owners maintain they were not trying to remove building restrictions just so they could sell the property, minutes dug up from a Dallas pension plan meeting a few years back reveal that -- at least at the time -- that is exactly what they intended to do.

Councilman Claude Mattox, who is also exploring a run for mayor, could not be reached for comment.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo