Longform

That Goes On Behind Closed Doors?

There were great sighs of relief at City Hall Monday. Now we can get this damn thing off our backs was the prevailing sentiment in the offices of Mayor Terry Goddard and Councilwoman Linda Sue Nadolski. For months, the two had been fighting off charges that someone--and each accused the other--had crawled into bed with developer Bob Gosnell in a secret meeting last year to rezone Thomas Mall.

Neighborhood groups were up in arms; so were other developers, because it appeared City Hall had secretly given Bob Gosnell the store and then abdicated its duties by putting the final decision in the hands of a hired consultant doing a market study.

The deal was so bizarre, city planners admitted they'd never seen anything like it and hoped they never would again.

So there were great sighs of relief at City Hall as the consultant's final report said the words that could save Goddard and Nadolski from further anguish: Giving Gosnell any additional space would create a traffic nightmare around the mall at 44th Street and Thomas.

Nadolski immediately said she knew all along there was too much office space zoned in that area and the study was a "common sense" conclusion that put an end to the issue.

But anyone who knows Bob Gosnell knows it's not over yet. This is not a developer who's used to losing when he steps inside City Hall. In many circles, he's best remembered as the guy who convinced the Phoenix City Council three years ago to trade him Phoenix Mountains Preserve land so he could build a private golf course at his Pointe at South Mountain Resort. That sleight of hand--coming as it did right after voters thought they'd protected the preserve against development--so riled Phoenix that it went back to the ballot box to prevent the council from touching an inch of the preserve without a vote of the people.

The 1986 preserve vote was a clear signal that citizens don't trust City Hall when Gosnell is involved. There are plenty who say the strange case of Thomas Mall is further proof. Many think City Hall still has a lot of explaining to do about how it got itself into this weird position.

THE CROWD GATHERED at Arcadia High School on May 25 was definitely hostile. For weeks, these folks had been accumulating a fascinating collection of correspondence between Gosnell and city officials about the redevelopment of Thomas Mall, an aging hulk of a shopping center on 72 acres of prime urban land. Nobody liked what they were reading. Not the neighbors who live around the mall and had long fought Gosnell's ambitious plans--especially for a giant office complex that would bring constant traffic headaches. Not the people who live farther south around the Gateway project at 44th Street and Van Buren, who don't want to see Gosnell gobbling up all the office space--they hope to be bought out by developers and escape the shadows of Sky Harbor Airport and the Papago Freeway. Not volunteer members of the 44th Street Specific Plan Committee, who thought they were charged with planning the future of that major corridor of Phoenix and now wondered if they'd been snuckered.

Some of the unhappy readers had happy memories of the hard-won compromise the Phoenix City Council passed on May 18, 1988: Gosnell would build only 650,000 square feet of offices at Thomas Mall, half of what he'd originally sought. Now they were reading, among the prodigious output of Gosnell's letter-writing staff, that he was confident of getting far more. Some letters mentioned as much as 900,000 square feet more, depending on an economic study that Gosnell was helping to finance and that would determine the corridor's future needs for office space.

In the letters, Gosnell repeatedly claimed his project--he plans to rename Thomas Mall "Camelhead"--had first dibs on any additional space the study found justified, if not all of it. And what was worse, Gosnell was claiming the council had given him that increase automatically upon completion of the study. No more council hearings, no more citizen hearings, forget what the specific plan committee was doing--whatever the magic amount of unzoned "excess" need would be Gosnell's for the taking. As he told the city countless times, his ability to attract a major retail store like Macy's or Nordstroms depended on having significant office space nearby (in other words, lots of built-in shoppers).

But what most disgusted the readers was Gosnell's constant reference that his claims were based on an "agreement" privately worked out two weeks before the public zoning hearing on May 4. And who made such an incredible agreement? As Gosnell's letters boasted, Councilwoman Linda Sue Nadolski--the district representative for these neighbors--and Mayor Terry Goddard.

That private agreement was the basis for the No. 1 zoning stipulation the council had approved. (A zoning decision includes various stipulations--the particulars of the case--which spell out everything from square footage to landscaping requirements.) But when citizens looked up the zoning stipulation that was changing their lives, for the life of them, they couldn't see it. Yes, it said there'd be an economic study. Yes, it said Gosnell could have more office space if the study could justify it. But it also provided for the formation of the 44th Street Specific Plan Committee--and most readers concluded that meant the plan would help decide if Gosnell got more space and how much.