Camelback Corridor: Phoenix City Council Deciding Whether To Strip Building Restrictions From 44th Street & Camelback Road Project

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The Phoenix City Council is expected to vote later today on whether or not to strip the northwest corner of 44th Street and Camelback Road of zoning restrictions that now limit the building heights to 36 feet.

(Update: The council sided with property owners and removed the existing building restrictions; neighborhood leaders consider filing a referendum.)

If the restrictions are removed, building heights would increase to 56 feet and increase the density of the development, from 300,000 square feet to more than a million square feet, allowing a developer to cram more buildings on the property.

This has been an ongoing battle between neighborhood leaders and city leaders, even though residents thought the issue was settled decades ago when they first negotiated the zoning restrictions.

Residents have clearly stated that they are not opposed to redevelopment of the site, but they ask that the City Council not just grant the property owners request -- especially since they haven't even come up with a development plan for the area.

Neighborhood leaders' request to sit down and mediate the issue have been repeatedly denied.

The issue on the table now is that the property owners -- the Dallas Police and Fire Department Pension Plan -- say they need more flexibility to plan their redevelopment of that corner.

Residents are concerned because, while the owners say they are not planning to just grab the upgraded zoning and sell the property, minutes from a 2006 meeting  of the Dallas Police and Fire Department Pension Plan show that this is exactly what property owners planned to do.

Sarah Fenske, a former New Times columnist (now managing editor of the Riverfront Times, our sister Village Voice newspaper), suspected there was something shady going on with the players in this case.

In March, she wrote a story about Councilman Sal DiCiccio stacking the Camelback East Village Planning Committee with residents who would cast the votes that were more in line with what he -- and area developers -- wanted to accomplish.

She wrote:

"Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio has been systematically removing longtime members from the two village planning committees under his control. He's not getting rid of everyone, mind you -- just the more outspoken members and the people who refuse to rubber-stamp the plans of developers."

In the months leading up to the February meeting, DiCiccio had been stacking the Camelback East committee. The committee, which represents the area just west of Arcadia, lost a handful of longtime members and gained, instead, eight newbies. And the new members were ready for change: Just after Heath was unceremoniously removed from the dais, the committee voted on a new chairman and vice chairman.

Typically, such officers serve two terms, and incumbents are rarely challenged. But even though both the current chair and vice chair were running for a second term, and there'd never been a hint of controversy surrounding either man, DiCiccio's new appointees voted to topple them.

Voting as a bloc, they provided just enough votes to halt the incumbents' re-election. Then, they elected two members, Jay Swart and Michael Maledon, with the barest majorities. (In Maledon's case, the vote was 9-8.)

It was both Swart and Maledon's first village committee meeting.

Like most of DiCiccio's appointees, the two Biltmore residents donated money to his recent re-election campaign. But that may not be the only reason for their overnight success.

Both Swart and Maledon are friendly with Scott Schirmer, another Biltmore resident. More importantly, Schirmer is a broker who hopes to rezone the corner of 44th Street and Camelback. His Camel Square proposal would allow a 465,000-square-foot office complex with buildings as high as 11 stories."

And, in the same way, the Camelback East Village Planning Committee, also narrowly approved removing the zoning restrictions on that Camelback Road corner in a 12 to 9 vote.

Now, it's up to the Phoenix City Council to decide.

Greg Stanton, a former Phoenix councilman who represented this part of Phoenix and is now running for mayor, urged council members to vote against stripping the property of building restrictions.

"This afternoon the Phoenix City Council faces a critical decision - whether to allow the interests of an out-of-state developer to outweigh those of Phoenix neighborhoods," Stanton said in a statement released earlier today.

"I represented this neighborhood for nine years, and I know the residents support appropriate redevelopment of the property. However, the proposal being voted on today is not in the best interest of the community," he said, noting that the issue was about "special interests trying to make a quick dollar, rather than acting in the long-term best interest of our city."

Stanton has been known to champion neighborhood causes and was ballsy enough to vote against the infamous Trump Tower that mega-developer Donald Trump wanted to build along Camelback Road a few years ago.

Check back for how the City Council voted.

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