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.
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The expanded Hayden Ferry South proposal was withdrawn before it received a formal hearing.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.