Don’t Even Think About Fighting Phoenix City Hall Unless You’re a Good Old Boy

Miriam Hayenga isn't your typical developer.

For the most part, the Valley's earth-movers and shakers tend to be conservative white guys. Hayenga's not just female — she's a lesbian.

And that's not all.

They drive giant SUVs; Hayenga favors a sporty VW Bug convertible. They're politically connected; Hayenga is out of the loop. They're into McMansions; she and her partner have lived in the same modest north central Phoenix home for nearly two decades.

But Hayenga, 47, has long been accustomed to playing with the boys. As a girl, she got good enough at tennis to turn pro by taking on her brother — anything he could do, she learned to do better. It never occurred to her that land deals would be any different.

Hayenga thought that she had a simple project, one that required no special favors from the city. Instead, she found herself in a nine-year nightmare. "I was so naive," she says.

Development, as it turns out, is nothing like tennis. In tennis, there are rules, and referees to enforce them. A point doesn't suddenly become a fault. It's about how good you are — not about the people you know.

In the city of Phoenix, development is infinitely more arbitrary. Forget fair play: You're now dealing with double-speaking businessmen, angry neighbors, and lawyers. (Always, inevitably, lawyers.) Rather than referee, the officials down at City Hall seem intent on muddling the process.

Yesterday, they told you that you could build 120 condo units? Ha! You didn't ask the right question. Today, you get only 10. Are you upset? File a lawsuit. Want resolution? Sorry, we can't talk if you're in litigation.

For Hayenga, one simple development plan turned her life haywire. City Hall bungled her case badly enough that former Councilwoman Peggy Bilsten now accuses officials of a "cover-up." Meanwhile, Hayenga says that her lawyer, Paul Gilbert — arguably the Valley's top zoning attorney — talked her into suing a lifelong friend, then left her holding the bag when the trial went south.

Ultimately, Hayenga lost a mentor, a jury verdict, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the deal itself — only to realize in the end that her city had screwed her over, and her own lawyer let them get away with it.

It's been the most excruciating civics lesson imaginable.

It was tennis, indirectly, that led Miriam Hayenga to development.

Hayenga is that rare Phoenix resident: a true native, and one who never really left town. Why should she? She loved — okay, make that loves, in spite of everything — Phoenix.

She grew up in a blue-collar family, the third of four children born to a linesman and a (for the most part) stay-at-home mom. After Squaw Peak Elementary and Camelback High School, Hayenga stuck around for Arizona State University. She was a standout on the women's tennis team there, and for a while after, played the pro circuit.

Hayenga ended up settling right back where she started, in Phoenix, where she and her brother started an event-planning business. In her mid-20s, the young entrepreneur met Mary Slaughter, who ran a small non-profit agency devoted to helping disabled children. The two fell in love, dealt successfully with the familial disapproval, and settled into a quiet, happy life together.

Then came a real business opportunity.

As a teenager, Hayenga had taught tennis lessons at the Pointe at Squaw Peak, later renamed the Pointe Hilton. While there, she got to know Bob Gosnell, the master builder who'd developed that site as well as its sister projects: the Pointe communities at South Mountain and Tapatio Cliffs.

Gosnell was a Phoenix visionary. Not only were his Pointe resorts among the very first high-end resorts built in this desert, he also built developments that were ahead of their time. Instead of the usual strict separation between commerce and residences, Gosnell got city approval for "planned community developments," or PCDs, that featured a mix of hotels and condominiums, tennis clubs and dining facilities. The Pointe projects also benefited from prime location: both Tapatio Cliffs and his development near South Mountain are nestled into some of the city's loveliest mountain ranges.

Thanks to his success as a builder, Gosnell became a larger-than-life presence in the Valley. (As Gosnell recently reminded New Times, this newspaper once depicted him on its cover, in bed with then-Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard.)

Gosnell, as Hayenga is quick to volunteer, was a mentor. In 1996, when Gosnell decided to sell off both the club and the adjacent casual eatery, the Waterin' Hole, he gave her the chance to purchase them.

Ric Williams, current president of Gosnell Builders, tells New Times that Gosnell was willing to sell the property on the cheap because he thought he was helping Hayenga to fulfill her dream: She wanted to own the restaurant, and create a tennis ranch.