By Don Hadder
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, public improvements, particularly streets, were made through the use of improvement districts. A project scope would be identified and then it would be shopped to engineering firms. The firms would be responsible for designing the project, securing property owner support for it and providing construction financing. This kept the management and capital costs minimal to the city.
Although this was effective, it began to stir animosity across the community. The engineering firms in some cases used high pressure sales techniques to secure the signatures required to form a district and costs often escalated above the projected figures. Many owners felt “strong armed” and in some cases multiple districts applied to their property, making their property tax bills higher and hard to understand.
By 1964, the City Council had decided to try another way to build public infrastructure. Growth in Scottsdale was exploding and the county did not require development to build infrastructure of any significance. Public facilities were falling behind as the community almost overnight changed from a farming town to a major suburban city.
There was a good deal of public unease at the time, having only recently been the recipient of freeway plans that would split the city into pieces, a Corps of Engineers plan that would create a massive concrete-lined channel down the middle of the city, explosive growth of schools and a lack of many key facilities such as parks, libraries or even a City Hall.
A new approach to build public facilities and infrastructure was chosen: the issuance of municipal bonds. This approach would require the fledgling community to take an active role in the design, financing and management of the construction process. It also required that a majority of the voters in an election support the issuance of the bonds, which are financed primarily through property taxes.
Given the rumblings in the community, the council wisely chose to create citizen committees to help determine what improvements were to be included in the bond proposal and then to recruit support of voters across the community. The collection of committees appointed for this effort were placed under the overall title of the “Scottsdale Town Enrichment Program,” later commonly referred to as the STEP Forums.
These committees worked over several months to identify and prioritize public improvements to be included in the upcoming bond election. Since this became the basis of the council’s call for an election, the STEP committee members became a strong force of support across the community. Ultimately, the bond election was successful, and the new City Hall and Civic Center Library, Eldorado Park, street improvements, the extension of sewer lines and many other projects were able to move forward.
Most notably, the selection of Bennie Gonzales as the architect/planner for the new Civic Center was in large part due to the recommendations of the STEP participants. He was not a traditional and well-established architect, but he brought a sense of vision and of the Southwest that appealed to citizens.
In April 1966, the city in conjunction with Arizona Town Hall held a series of meetings to establish goals for the community. This was one of the earliest Town Hall programs in Arizona and laid a strong foundation for the future of the city. The goals as presented were approved by the City Council in June of 1966.
These were not per se a “General Plan,” but would shortly become incorporated into a new General Plan. Adopted by resolution, they established formal and defined directions for the future of Scottsdale. Underlying this effort was a strong affinity to the desert Southwest, its special natural setting and its particular native traditions and cultures.
The recommendations were grouped under the categories of physical development, residential, commercial, parks, streets and highways, economic and social-cultural. Many of them would significantly change the appearance and function of the growth of Scottsdale, including landscaping in parking areas, a range of park types and sizes, an economic emphasis on tourism, a comprehensive Civic Center, medians in major streets, the Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt, an emphasis on open spaces and no more “strip” commercial.
Once these goals were approved, the city retained the services of Simon Eisner and Associates to prepare a General Plan for Scottsdale. This firm had completed a number of plans for communities in California and brought a sense of planning beyond just land uses and streets.
Approved in July 1968, this “General Plan” was likely the earliest “comprehensive” General Plan for any community in Arizona. It embodied elements that, although modified over time, are still a part of the community, such as an “Airpark” business center, major detention basins as part of the Indian Bend Wash greenbelt flood control system and the “resort corridor.”
What is interesting about this plan is that it was more of a tutorial of ideas to think about, pursue and consider, and less about regulatory limitations. Unfortunately, this became its Achilles’ heel in that it was not specific enough to make decision making easy or predictable in hotly contested development cases.
Through 1967, 1968 and 1969 the STEP Forum effort was directed toward neighborhoods and how local areas could be made better with residents, business owners and visitors working together in harmony. Also during this time, STEP committees assisted in the recruitment and concept for a junior college (Scottsdale Community College), enhanced design review (a Beautification Committee was established), the initiation of a city arts program and special studies into youth and senior services.
In the fall of 1969, the STEP committees were reconvened to plan for the next decade of growth and enhancement of Scottsdale. The final report of this effort was titled “Scottsdale Town Enrichment Program – Long Range Goals & Plans.” The committee reports were included under the headings of community development, community affairs, economic development, community services and community improvements.
Some of the ideas from this process includes historical and art museums, manpower development, two redevelopment areas (Civic Center and Vista del Camino), a major roadway connection along 64th Street, municipal golf courses, creation of a municipal water system, expansion of fire service facilities, a new police headquarters, fire and police training facilities and “brokered” community services.
This did not finish the STEP committee work. The planning firm of Wilsey Ham and the Brookings Institute were retained to develop an updated General Plan. In the process, the Brookings Institute conducted community surveys and organized a number of forums. The initial report from this process was titled “Alternate Futures for the City of Scottsdale.” It was organized under topics that included growth, population and land use, economy and human resources, environment, design of the city, housing, transportation, education, health and public safety, recreation, cultural and entertainment activities, government and city financing.
This was a summary of 10 seminars in which experts from across the nation spoke. Of note is that in the community survey, the most universally accepted idea was protection of the McDowell Mountains.
In September 1973, about a year after the previous report, a report of the STEP committee focused on sign regulations, undergrounding power lines (up to 12kV), requiring developments to dedicate school and park sites, requiring development to provide municipal infrastructure facilities, and providing bike paths and flood control systems.
The final major report of the STEP committees was released in June of 1974 and focused exclusively on transportation. It addressed all forms of transportation and covered local and regional issues and coordination. This would be the last major result of the original STEP Forum process.
In 1974, the city approved updates to the land use transportation plans of the General Plan. Unfortunately, these were later discarded. From what little evidence that has been detected, they were more detailed and regulatory than those included in the 1967 General Plan, and they appear to have had relatively little impact.
In 1981, the STEP committee process was brought back for a report card and re-evaluation process. The report at the end of this effort included subcommittee headings such as city buildings, cultural affairs, economic development, issues of the elderly, housing, long-range financing, neighborhood revitalization, parks and open space, public safety, resource conservation, transportation and issues of youth. For the most part, this process substantiated the recommendations of the earlier committees.
Of general note about these processes was an emphasis on the Southwestern culture (particularly Native American), environment and lifestyles. The sense was that Scottsdale was a leader in appreciating the unique setting of the Southwest.
In summary, citizen participation and collaboration with city leadership through the STEP program brought about significant changes and advancements for Scottsdale, including:
- Comprehensive general planning
- The Indian Bend Wash greenbelt
- A city-wide parks system
- A municipal water system
- Significant control of outdoor signage
- Underground utilities
- Design review
- The Senior Centers
- Museums and the Center for the Performing Arts
- The “Resort Corridor”
- Emphasis on open space
- And many more attributes that make Scottsdale a better place to live, work and play.
The ingredients necessary for this to add lasting value to the community were:
- A group of citizens willing to commit time, energy and perspective; and who were prepared to reach consensus and develop collaborations. They also were prepared to learn about the past and the present as well as consider a wide range of possible futures. They had heated discussions at times and differed on how to achieve the goals, but they were willing to abide by the consensus reached by the group.
- City leadership willing to take risks and make decisions. The risks were not rash but well informed and taken after a wide range of options had been considered. They were also willing to accept failures but were prepared to learn from them and continue to press forward.
- The citizens and leadership were focused on vision and values, with the horizon being a long range ahead. Some of the goals and ideas brought up through the STEP program were not reached or achieved for 20 and even 40 years. There often were differences on how to achieve the consensus vision, but the vision was held in common.
- The greatest failure of the STEP process became a lack of passing the baton on to the next group of newcomers to Scottsdale as the community grew. Within 10 years of the program ending, very few people were aware of the program and most no longer understood or accepted the visions, values and priorities so many had worked to achieve. The forward thinking, “can do” attitudes and willingness to compromise and build consensus that characterized the STEP process became lost. Instead of a focus on community, control shifted to local interests, short-term thinking, fear of making decisions and the unwillingness to support actions that achieved city-wide benefit.
Don Hadder is a retired city planner, long-time resident of Scottsdale and a local historical resource.
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