City Council members want to tweak a policy that allows building tall and dense buildings in Scottsdale.

Since 2012, developers can construct tall buildings in exchange for public benefits. Some council members want to see that change.

Two Scottsdale City Council members are calling for the city to significantly change or completely do away with a policy that allows developers to build tall, dense buildings.

Although outnumbered, councilmembers David Smith and Kathy Littlefield objected Tuesday to Scottsdale’s practice of letting developers build taller buildings in exchange for upgrades such as pieces of public art or sidewalk improvements intended to benefit the public.

They see the tall buildings as detracting from Scottsdale’s desert views, while others see them as signs of economic vitality.

Smith said residents weren’t given appropriate opportunities to shape the policy enacted in 2012, though Councilwoman Virginia Korte disagreed.

“To say this program has not been vetted by our citizens is simply not true,” Korte said.

The council majority did not favor axing the policy, although they favored tweaks.

How did Scottsdale get tall buildings?


Developers can build bigger in Scottsdale through zoning bonuses awarded in exchange for public art and other improvements.

Councilwoman Linda Milhaven said doing away with the policy wouldn’t stop the city from approving taller, denser buildings.

Those decisions would still be made on each case individually and, if approved, would benefit developers at residents’ expense, she said.

Most buildings in Scottsdale can be 60 feet tall without special approval from the City Council. Anything beyond that must seek approval.

“If we’re going to allow additional height and density, we might as well get additional benefits,” Millhaven said.

In 2012, the City Council sought to do that when it voted to allow downtown developers additional height and density if they were willing to pay more and provide elements to the project with a public benefit. The “zoning bonuses” also were extended to the Scottsdale Airpark and projects on 25 or more acres.

Some of the elements that might earn a project greater height or density are: 

  • Public art.
  • Energy-efficient buildings.
  • Sidewalk improvements.
  • Open spaces, such as a new park.
  • Cash payments, 1 percent of the building’s value, into a city trust fund for culture or public art.
  • Workforce housing.
  • Public parking.
  • Burying power lines underground.

Although developers have to provide at least one of those public benefits, the council can still deny the height and density expansions on a case-by-case basis.

Brad Carr, principal planner, said downtown Scottsdale only has three developments that used the policy to exceed height and density limits.

Still, Carr said creating the policy was a way to standardize such requests. 

He said Scottsdale allows special improvements, in part, to “encourage design and environmental innovation.”

Smith wasn’t convinced based on the three projects that have been approved.

The projects, which aren’t yet completed, are:

  • Shoeman Office Tower on Scottsdale Road and Shoeman Lane.
  • WaterView hotel and condo development planned near Scottsdale and Camelback roads.
  • Alta Osborn apartment development planned on Scottsdale Road, north of Earll Drive.

“If it’s (the policy) outlived its usefulness, let’s consider doing away with it,” Smith said.

Some possible tweaks

The council majority said the list of public benefits that could help a developer build taller buildings should be tweaked.

Vice Mayor Suzanne Klapp suggested eliminating amenities that are becoming increasingly common, such as electric vehicle charging stations.

Another suggested tweak was to eliminate workforce housing as a public benefit as it’s uncommon for companies to provide that.

Councilman Guy Phillips wanted to tweak the policy to ensure that any public art would truly benefit the public. As it stands, developers could place public art inside their own building’s courtyard.

Mayor Jim Lane suggested evaluating the amount developers must pay for additional floors to ensure the amount paid was based on factors such as the public benefits they provide.

Littlefield said the only way she would support the policy is if the city polled residents on what public benefits they would like to see.

“I don’t really like the program the way it is right now,” she said. “If it stays as it is, it’s outdated and should go away.”


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