Apartments: The Bright Future of Scottsdale?

In yet another “Hidden Letter to the Editor” today which you can’t find online, courtesy of the publishing geniuses at the Arizona Republic, Scottsdale architect Perry Becker opines on quality of design and construction; and the wisdom of developers. I’ve reproduced his column below.

First, let me say that I like Perry. I had the opportunity to meet him during the Solar Home Tour, for which he graciously opened his home to anyone who wanted to see his modern, sustainable design and construction. I got a lot out of it, and enjoyed meeting his desert tortoise, Tony Tortellini [Reptilian Romance at Villa de Zilla].

However, Perry has missed the mark with his “My Turn” column.

Good Design, Bad Design

First and most obviously, Perry equates Optima Sonoran Village with the ‘stick and stucco’ Broadstone housing project at Lincoln and Scottsdale Road. Whatever ‘stone’ is going to be used at Broadstone is going to be the faux variety, because anyone who’s driven by can clearly see it’s being built of 2-by lumber and oriented strand board.

On the other hand, Sonoran Village is a post-tension, high-strength concrete structure. The intrinsic value of this construction method is not even in the same ballpark as that used in the structure of Broadstone…which represents the absolute cheapest construction method possible.

There is no comparison between these two projects, and to draw one is to invite every developer who wants to build in Scottsdale to cheap out on us. Which, of course, drags down the property values for the rest of us who own here. Ditto for the folks down the road to the west in Paradise Valley.

Now, I’m not going to give Sonoran Village a complete pass here. I don’t think the design is nearly as nice as Optima’s Camelview project, which really is the benchmark for development in Scottsdale. Plus, Sonoran Village is too tall and too dense, partly because of Scottsdale’s General Plan-violating Infill Incentive District. You won’t see how tall until they top out construction on the building which will face Camelback, maybe sometime next year.

With regard to Perry’s assertions about safety, even an idiot knows that–all other things being equal–a concrete structure is much less susceptible to fire than a wooden structure.

As for design, how is Broadstone going to be any different than the “…nondescript, blandly beige, vaguely Mediterranean stucco boxes of the past…” which Perry derides?

Questioning economics

Perry wonders why we question whether we have enough or too many apartments. That’s not the question. The question is whether we need to drop our development standards (density of units in a given project and area) and design standards (height, setbacks from the roadways, step back of upper floors, meaningful open space) in order to accommodate apartment developer.

Every such concession is a subsidy taken from our community character and going directly to the developer’s bottom line.

As you’ve read in these pages before, the most fundamental characteristic of Scottsdale that has distinguished it from our neighbors and contributed to our success is low density. And, there’s a time-tested principle of supply-and-demand that says if add to supply, the value of the supply is diminished. In other words, our property values lag relative to where they should be.

That’s to say nothing of the generalized lower economic contributions of inexpensive apartments relative to lower-density, higher-quality development.

Developer wisdom?

Perry’s third strike is suggesting that Scottsdale needs to surrender to the ‘free market’ and trust developers to do what is good for Scottsdale. If you follow that logic, we might as well do away with zoning altogether. As far as the “wisdom” of developers, that really has nothing to do with our predicament.

The real issue here isn’t developer wisdom, it’s motivation. As local real estate economist Elliot Pollack testified before the Economic Development Subcommittee of the City Council, developers build whatever they can finance. It’s all about the money, not some noble sense of ‘what’s good for Scottsdale.’

Councilman Dennis Robbins parroted the same perverted ‘free-market’ rhetoric in an editorial not long ago. It’s obvious that the Chamber of Commerce has been handing out talking points like Halloween candy (with apologies to Chris Schaffner).

Without further comment, here’s Perry’s “My Turn” column, as-published.

New apartment projects embrace Scottsdale’s bright future
Optima complexes a breath of fresh air

In response to a letter recently pub­lished in the Scottsdale Republic critical of the new Optima Sonoran Village project, the Blue Sky devel­opment and the general amount of new apartment construction in Scottsdale, as a longtime city resident I wish to offer a different perspective.

The Sonoran Village apartments is a wonderful and vibrant project that embraces the future of Scottsdale and forward-thinking design. The complet­ed Optima Camelview project is a world-class, award-winning example of thoughtful and sensitive Southwestern architecture that is a breath of fresh air for Scottsdale. This mixed-use project enlivens Scottsdale Road with retail, restaurants, offices and art installa­tions, providing a well-conceived, pe­destrian- scaled experience. Optima continued to finish the project through the darkest days of the recession and has proved to be an admi­rable partner in Scotts­dale’s future. They have kept all their promises, and we should all be thankful that they wish to build our community.

The Optima Sonoran Village commu­nity will also prove to be a fantastic addition to our downtown. I personally do not wish for the nondescript, blandly beige, vaguely Mediterranean stucco boxes of the past, cloaked under the uninspired banner of “blending in.” Through the years great American cities have always celebrated advances in construction and urban thought through honest new architectural ex­pression. It is this authentic juxtaposi­tion of both new and old, traditional and modern architecture that has made American cities relevant, dynamic and interesting through time.

As for the new wood-frame apart­ments going up on the northwestern corner of Lincoln and Scottsdale Road, rest assured they will not go up with a single match! These fully fire-sprin­klered buildings must comply with all the latest rigorous fire-safety and building-construction codes. Wood­frame construction of this scale is a very viable, cost-effective construction type that is built throughout the coun­try. To imply that they’re unsafe in any way is completely irresponsible.

I also question why we continually ask whether we have enough — or too many — apartments and condomini­ums. These developers have expertise in these markets, as well as a great stake in the continuing economic viabil­ity of their projects — why question their wisdom? These projects take many years and great expense to bring to fruition. Simply let the time-honored market forces work to reach their prop­er equilibrium. And please, if the devel­opers need more time to ensure that these projects become available during favorable economic conditions, let’s accommodate these necessary adjust­ments for everyone’s sake.

All of these apartment projects will bring new economic vitality and resi­dents to our beautiful city. The close proximity of these new infill projects to existing businesses, restaurants and shopping will increase the “walkabil­ity” of our city and sense of community. Longtime Arizona State University College of Architecture professor emeritus and former Scottsdale resi­dent Calvin Straub often admonished his many students to simply “build good places for friends and lovers!” I fully believe that Scottsdale is doing a great job of executing that simple in­struction and embracing our future.

Perry Becker is a LEED-accredited licensed architect practicing in the Valley since 1984.


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