Desert Discovery Center location a quandary

The controversial construction of the Desert Discovery Center at the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve took another step forward when the Scottsdale City Council voted five to two to approve a contract with the architectural firm Swaback Partners.

While the design of the DCC will proceed, its final location still faces vigorous discussion between Scottsdale residents, civic groups and council members.

Building the Center on the Preserve faces strong opposition by a large and vocal segment of the Scottsdale community. More than 50 Scottsdale citizens spoke during the five-hour council meeting, the majority opposing the planned location. While most of the speakers welcomed the idea of a discovery center, they objected to the proposal that calls for 30 acres of the Preserve to be used in its construction. As Scottsdale resident Glen Smith asked the council, “How does bulldozing 30 acres improve the desert landscape?”

Greg Krizel, the in-coming chair of the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, supported the resolution to hire the architect, saying he believed Scottsdale would benefit from a Desert Discovery Center located in or near the preserve. “We believe a center should be built and operated in strict accordance with existing rules and regulations. The Conservancy does prefer that the center, if built, should be built outside the preserve,” he said.

Scottsdale resident Jerry Smilac questioned the right of the council to sanction the construction and use of a center within the Preserve, claiming “only the most far-reaching reading and misconstrued reading of the ordinance would permit construction of the Desert Discovery Center on Preserve land. Therefore, the proposal constitutes a total misappropriation of taxpayer funds. The purpose of the Preserve is to preserve the desert.”

Vice Mayor Kathy Littlefield, who voted against the resolution, agreed with Smilac and others that the operation of the DDC on Preserve land would be in violation of the original ordinance 3321, citing prohibitions against the sale of food, beverages or other merchandise, as well as the consumption of alcohol. She also pointed out that the ordinance states, “No person shall remove or excavate sand, gravel, rocks or soil within the preserve. That’s going to make it very difficult to build there.”

However, as supporters of the proposal emphasized, where the center will eventually be built was not the issue at the moment. Resolution 10422 only awarded Swaback a contract to provide programming and schematic design services for the DDCS and was not a contract that funds construction or a definite design. The contract stipulated that Swaback will work with the DDCS over the next year or so to develop a business plan and figure out programs and objectives for the center.

Councilman David N. Smith, who voted for the resolution, pointed out that Swaback Partners’ $521,090 bid was well below the $700,000 allocated by the Council in January for the contract. He also argued for the necessity of designating a specific geographic location in order for the architects to be effective in determining the plan. The council agreed by a six to one vote January 11 to use the Gateway at the Preserve, but Smith said this location was not absolute, explaining, “Whether we locate this project at the Gateway, I think, is a decision in my judgment that will be made when we know what the project is, including the architectural implications of that project.”

But Littlefield contradicted Smith’s assertions, claiming the Gateway was the only site truly under consideration. She explained that the DDCS refused even to entertain conversations with her regarding any other location. Also, according to Littlefield, when she called Swaback to ask if they would be open to any other locations, they replied absolutely not. Not only would Swaback not be using the year-long study to help determine a location, as suggested by Smith, but the Gateway as the location for the DDCS was already in the awarded contract, she said.

Mark Hiegel, President and CEO of the Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce, said the feelings of local Scottsdale businesses about the project reflected these conflicting and unclear assertions by the Scottsdale City Council. On one hand, Hiegel said “there is extremely high statistical support the DDC would have a significant and positive impact on the Scottsdale economy. However, they did believe the amount of clear and unbiased information about the DDC was very low for both the business community and the citizens, and much more information needs to be shared. It is imperative the process continue, so the community will have an opportunity to learn truly what the DDC will be.”

However, Littlefield said that before the council approved the resolution, “It needs to amend this contract with the architectural firm to consider locations outside the preserve boundaries.” If not, Littlefield said locating the DDC in the Preserve should be put to a vote. “We need to ask for the consent of the citizens to see if they want to remove the voter-approved restraints of what cannot be done within the boundaries of the preserve.”

Councilman Guy Phillips, the only other dissenting vote, spoke more directly on the issue: “We have a public who does not want the Preserve exploited. And we have influential people who don’t care what the public thinks. I’m extremely disappointed in the DDCS’ decision to not take any public comment unless it’s on the preserve. And there’s been no public discussion on what the size, scope or what it would consist of. You are more than willing to have the council give you taxpayer money, but you don’t want to hear public opinion.”