Tempe’s leaders have decided that to get more projects built downtown and at Tempe Town Lake, they need say “No” to developers more often.
It’s hard to imagine a more radical departure from how the city operated during the heady days of the real estate boom in 2007.
At the time, leaders approved developments fast and furious – saying yes to four projects containing more than 3 million square feet of new buildings on one unusually busy day.
City officials acknowledge they approved some condo, office and hotel projects that they knew would never be built. They figured at least some things would materialize.
But perhaps just 25 percent of what Tempe said yes to during the boom came to fruition, said Chris Anaradian, Tempe’s community development director.
The city inadvertently sent the message to developers that Tempe didn’t have a clear vision by approving so many things, he said. And the staff was so overwhelmed reviewing proposals that they couldn’t advise the City Council which developments were or were not likely. Anaradian recently told the City Council that developers don’t want the city to be so accommodating to so many proposals.
“If I go out there now and do this same thing, it hurts our credibility a little bit,” Anaradian said.
Mayor Hugh Hallman said it’s more than credibility at stake. It becomes impossible to do deals, he said, when the city isn’t more selective in what it wants and doesn’t clearly lay out its vision.
He noted more than a dozen hotel developers were scouting locations downtown a few years ago though the market would likely support perhaps two to four of them.
“When you have 15 people running around claiming they’re doing a hotel deal, you can’t tell which ones are real and which ones are phony,” Hallman said. “It drives the real players out of the market, because now the financing markets can’t tell the difference either. And everybody knows 15 hotels don’t make any sense, so it scares a lot of money out of the market.”
To avoid the same pitfalls, Tempe will review its downtown and lake-area plans to determine the likely demand for hotels, offices, residential, retail and recreational uses. The city will also review 25 years’ worth of numerous consultant recommendations, public meetings and conceptual plans for what Tempe wants.
Developers want a more specific definition of the city’s vision, Anaradian said, adding it’s difficult to sum that up now given how far back the studies go and how much the market has changed in the last few years. An updated plan will help the city decide which developers and plans are realistic and worth pursuing, he said.
“It doesn’t mean we can’t dream or have visions or go after big things, but there has to be some sense of what’s reasonable,” Anaradian said.
Hallman said he’d like the city to put that together in about six months. Councilwoman Onnie Shekerjian said she suspects the City Council is mostly in agreement as what should happen.
“I actually think we have a shared concept,” she said. “It just hasn’t been articulated in a document.”
The Downtown Tempe Community welcomes the study because the results can guide business recruitment, DTC President Nancy Hormann said.
“This whole thing is very exciting to me,” he said.
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