Slippery 'slope

A shadow four stories high is looming over Sunnyslope.

Developers are planning a 121-unit apartment complex -- hardly big enough to bother even the most anti-growth urbanite in Phoenix. But in a small community that is tired of being swallowed up by Phoenix, residents say this project is a rape of Sunnyslope.

"I'm just tired of these developers controlling this whole entire community," says Christine Carlton, who noticed a sign for the project while walking her dog last December. Since then, she has helped gather about 400 signatures protesting the $10 million project.

The "not in my backyard" mantra sounds typical, but the site of the project, and its history, are not. Developers are resurrecting 15-year-old plans to cut into the last of Sunnyslope's hillside property -- the mountain with Sunnyslope's "S" on it -- to construct a four-story complex on the northwest corner of Mountain View Road and Central Avenue. Because of the steep grade of the mountain, the high-density dwelling would dwarf surrounding homes and become the dominant structure in Sunnyslope.

"It would be a big thumb sticking up in this community," says Henry "Tex" Guthrie, who owns property directly behind the five-acre apartment site, where he planned to build 14 single-family homes with panoramic views. "It would be devastating to the value of my property. I've told the developers that and they have tried to convince me that there's nothing wrong with four stories."

But Guthrie knew there was something wrong when the landowner, S.J. Dru Development Co., sought a hillside density waiver from the city in 1986. The company wanted to build a four-story structure on the flatland of its property, but it also wanted to build a second four-story apartment building behind it, on the mountain. To do that, the company would need a waiver of hillside density restrictions, which allow only four homes per acre. The developer would also need to quiet the protests of Guthrie.

While the hillside waiver was being debated at City Hall, S.J. Dru Development began the process of purchasing Guthrie's land. Later, Dru pulled out of the deal.

City planners had concerns about the project. "The visual effect of the structures from off site will be substantial [and] the density proposed will dramatically increase traffic in the area," Richard Counts, the planning director at the time, stated in his report to the council in 1986. "There has been no obvious attempt to preserve the remaining slopes on the property, and the height of the structures will visually effect [sic] one-third of the hill."

Nonetheless, the City Council unanimously approved the hillside density waiver, allowing the construction of 127 units, of which 81 would be built into the mountainside. But there were some important stipulations -- among them: that all parking be underground and that building permits be obtained within a year.

When the landowner discovered that underground parking would require blasting through bedrock, plans changed and the land was left vacant. S.J. Dru still owns the land.

Fifteen years later, while walking their dogs, Carlton and her neighbor, Susan Reed, were startled to find a small red sign nearly hidden behind desert shrub. The sign was a notice of a May 16 public hearing to modify or delete the stipulations of the hillside density waiver approved in 1986.

"They think they can just come in here, put 127 units in and not talk to the neighbors? I'll have to look out my window and see that!" says Reed, motioning to the mountain outside her sliding-glass window. "Maybe in 1985, 1986 it was okay, but since then, people have tried to clean up the neighborhood."

Although hookers still walk down Hatcher Street and at least one home is a suspected hub for drug deals, residents say the neighborhood has radically improved. Young couples have moved into the aging hillside homes, fixing them up and turning the streets into a kind of suburban Soho.

The neighborhood's main goal is to restrict apartment development in favor of home ownership. The group was successful in working with another hillside developer, Chip Halquist, who changed his subdivision plans based on suggestions from neighbors.

But convincing the site's new apartment developer, P.B. Bell Cos., which is working with Dru, to do single-family homes, will be difficult, if not impossible. Plus, the property is zoned multi-family, which means development can begin without a public hearing process, as long as P.B. Bell builds on just the flat portion of the property, says Bill Allison, the city's zoning administrator.

Expanding the apartments into the mountainside, however, requires a public hearing to change the stipulations on the hillside waiver -- namely, the one-year time limit set in 1986, says Allison.

Many Sunnyslope residents are angry at the way the city is handling the project. In their view, the one-year time limit, which was up a long time ago, means the hillside waiver is null and void, and the developer should have to start the approval process over again.

That is not true, Allison says. City legal advisors say because the waiver was obtained legislatively, it would have to be removed legislatively. Since that never happened, the waiver remains in place, and so do its stipulations.

Michael Withey, an attorney representing P.B. Bell, says the company plans to build high-end apartments on the site, with rents averaging $1,000 a month. The only question is whether they will be built on the mountain or on the flat portion of the property, he says. "We're not planning on going anywhere."

Phil Gordon, a Phoenix city councilman whose district includes Sunnyslope, says community reaction could determine which route the developer takes. With the neighborhood opposed to the project altogether, Gordon says he will stand behind the residents and vote against the development if it goes to public hearing.

Now P.B. Bell officials are telling Gordon they will avoid a public hearing and proceed with the project on the flatland -- a decision that may hurt the neighbors because it shuts them out of the process, Gordon says. "My advice is, if it's going to happen anyway, it's better to sit down with the developer," he says.

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley