By Wayne Schutsky
The Scottsdale City Council approved a major redevelopment of the Seventh-day Adventist campus that has bordered the Scottsdale Airport site for nearly 70 years.
On November 10, the council voted to approve several requests from The Arizona Conference of Seventh-day Adventists—including a minor general plan amendment and zoning modifications—to pave the way for the development, which could include office building, industrial aviation uses and residential.
The 75-acre site, located at the southern end of the airport near Scottsdale Road and Sutton Drive, is home to a Seventh-day Adventist campus that includes a church and the Thunderbird Adventist Academy.
According to the development plan, the project will be built around the existing campus.
But the property owner also asked for approval of around 250 units of residential housing to replace the 300 units of dormitory and faculty housing on-site if they close the campus in the future.
At a planning commission meeting in September, Kurt Jones, a zoning attorney representing the project, noted that the plan for now is to keep the campus in place.
“This entire development plan is about keeping the campus,” Jones says. “It’s about keeping 60 years of tradition of teaching students in this private religious and educational campus and keep it going for another 60 years.”
The Arizona Conference of Seventh-day Adventists has long roots in what is now known as the Scottsdale Airpark and played a key role in the airport’s creation.
The airfield that became Scottsdale Airport opened in 1942 as Thunderbird Field II, a training field for U.S. Army Air Force aviation cadets, Scottsdale historian Joan Fudala wrote in Scottsdale Airpark News.
The Arizona Conference of Seventh-day Adventists took over ownership of the Thunderbird Field II from the federal government in 1953 and relocated Thunderbird Adventist Academy there.
After Scottsdale annexed the airfield site in 1963, the conference transferred ownership of its portion to the city “for a modest sum,” paving the way for the airport’s opening in 1967, Fudala wrote.
The conference sold other parcels to private businesses, setting the stage for the creation of the Scottsdale Airpark, one of the city’s major economic drivers today.
Now, the conference is looking to capitalize on the success of the area.
According to plans submitted to the city, the project could include two 60-foot office buildings at the southwest corner of the site at Scottsdale Road and Sutton Drive along with more office or industrial buildings farther north, behind the bus station at Scottsdale and Thunderbird roads.
Plans for the northern end of the site, which borders the airport, include aviation and industrial uses, including hangars.
Ballfields at the southwestern edge of the site and the Adventist campus at the center would remain in place.
The plan calls for phased construction, starting with the 60-foot office buildings in Phase 1 before moving to the industrial and aviation product in Phase 2.
A potential Phase 3 would include the redevelopment of the existing Adventist campus.
Under the general plan, the site was split between 30 acres designated for employment uses and 45 acres for “mixed use neighborhoods.”
The conference asked the city to transfer an additional 5 acres from the employment designation to the mixed-use neighborhoods.
Additionally, the city approved new zoning for the site, which previously included a mix of industrial zoning and rural residential zoning for homes that allowed maximum heights of between 30 and 52 feet.
The developer asked to change the zoning to a handful of special designations for mixed-use projects in the airpark to allow for greater heights.
The new zoning would allow for heights up to 134 feet, but the conference’s proposal only included heights up to 60 feet along Scottsdale Road and near the center of the site.
That height will be stepped up gradually to provide a 300-foot buffer between the taller buildings and neighborhoods to the east and south. That buffer zone would feature smaller 30- to 42-foot buildings.
Additionally, the development will feature a 60-foot-wide landscaped buffer between existing neighborhoods and the development.
The city received dozens of letters in support of the project from neighbors, although some also expressed concern about the impact the increased heights and traffic could have on their neighborhoods.
Jones told the planning commission in September that many of those issues had been addressed and that the 60-foot landscaped buffer and stepped-back heights were in place to create a transition zone between neighbors and the taller buildings.
Former Planning Commissioner David Barnett, a neighbor to the project, wrote to the city that he supports much of the redevelopment but opposes hangars on the north side of the property near residences.
“As we all know, jets, planes, helicopters and other aviation uses including future types of flying drones, taxis, etc. are currently very loud, emit noxious fumes, frequently store combustibles, and generally are a use that is totally incompatible with residential uses,” Barnett wrote.
But Jones says those uses are consistent with the city’s character area plan for the airpark area.
“We’re only following what the character area plan states,” Jones says.
Shortly before the planning commission meeting, commissioners received an email comment stating neighbors had gathered 800 signatures opposing the project.
However, Jones said he was “highly” skeptical that such a petition exists and City Planner Bryan Cluff says staff said it has not received a copy of the petition.
The commission ultimately recommended the project for approval on a 5-1 vote.
Only Commissioner Christian Serena opposed it, for the conference plans’ lack of explicit details on how it would develop 250 residential units in the future.
There was little opposition to the project when it reached the city council.
Only Betty Janik, who will take office on the city council in January, asked the current council to postpone its vote until the city can restore in-person public comment.
She also says the council should wait to approve more class-A office buildings until there is a better idea of what demand for that space will look like in a post-COVID-19 world.
The council did not postpone the vote, though, and unanimously approved the project. ν