Michelle’s email broadcast this week poking fun at me for supporting Airpark development generated some interesting feedback from behind-the-scenes…mostly to the effect that readers were sincerely echoing her feigned surprise that I support ANY development.
One reader actually stated “Armageddon must be near!”
Obviously, the developers whose projects I have opposed have been successful at painting me as “anti-development,” as though I’d prefer Scottsdale to revert back to the horse-and-buggy days. As this is not the case, I clearly have not done a good job of articulating what I think is “good” development.
So I’ll take a stab at it here.
As a kid, I wanted to be an architect. But I got ‘sidetracked’ into the less artistic field of aerospace engineering, pursuing my career as an Air Force Pilot. While I was stationed at Williams AFB (now Gateway Airport), one of my first sightseeing excursions in the Sonoran Desert was to Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, Taliesin West.
Well, I was disappointed.
You see, as a kid I envisioned “good” architecture to be “big” architecture. I thought bold, iconic, visionary statements in concrete and steel should stand out. Taliesin West did not, and I was unimpressed.
But that was then.
Ironically, years later, the very project that sparked my interest in development in Scottsdale was the Waterfront Towers. They are bold and they stand out…but they just don’t fit.
In my opinion, they don’t belong in Scottsdale.
You see, I had grown to appreciate about Scottsdale what Frank Lloyd Wright expressed via his original Taliesin in Wisconsin: That “good” development proceeds in harmony with its context.
The word “taliesin” is from the Welsh word for “bright brow;” “brow” being the projecting edge of a hill. As in, NOT the top of the hill. In Wright’s own words about his original Taliesin in Wisconsin, constructing on the brow of the hill made the structures appear to be, “…not on the land, but of the land.”
Even though Taliesin and Taliesin West were both constructed in relatively rural settings, the same principles of contextual design applies in suburban settings like Downtown Scottsdale. Previous Scottsdale administrations did a pretty good job of putting metrics to this otherwise artistic notion. These metrics are described by terms like setback (distance from the street), stepback (greater setback of upper floors), floor area ratio (amount of developed square footage allowed for a given lot square footage), and buffering (transition areas between low-intensity uses like residential and higher intensities like commercial and retail). These concepts translate to greater open space, less visual impact, and a distinctive physical character…all the things that make Scottsdale so attractive to tourists AND to residents.
So, what kind of development do I support?
Development that seeks to exploit loopholes in – or outright ignore – the zoning code via “incentives” and special exceptions will never get my support.
Such projects include the apparently-now-defunct Solis, Blue Sky, X Lofts, and many other recently approved projects. The antithesis of contextual design is the Henkel Building at Scottsdale Road and Loop 101, ironically designed by a student of Wright’s: Will Bruder. This project was widely criticized for lack of contextual consideration.
One of the best examples of a “good” project is actually one that I initially opposed: the award-winning Optima Camelview. I’m still not thrilled with the height of the project, but architect David Hovey’s design is very good. The setback and stepbacks of the upper floors show how you can make a larger project look less massive. The extensive use of glass reflects a lot of the sky back to the observer, so that the buildings actually appear see-through.
A really good example of “good” development and “bad” development is the juxtaposition of Kierland and the Scottsdale Quarter. Kierland has a lot of setback and looks very low-scale by comparison to the Scottsdale Quarter’s massive street front appearance.
I firmly believe that it is a mistake to “go big” in Downtown or anywhere else in Scottsdale. But Optima is a good example of how big can be “less bad.”
“Development” is easy to do, especially if you throw the rulebook out the window. Good development that considers context (both physical AND historic) requires much greater intelligence, in my opinion.
Should Scottsdale be about “easy” development, or should it be about “intelligent” development? I’m sincerely interested in what you think.
*Editor’s note: ‘So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright’ is a Simon & Garfunkel hit that was rumored to be their break-up song. Art Garfunkel studied architecture before meeting Paul Simon and eventually creating some of the best music ever made. Did I just date myself? I think I did. -M.A.