Saturday, July 29, 2006

FAA: Highrise Won't Bother Airport - Phoenix, AZ

The Arizona Republic
Jul. 21, 2006 12:00 AM

The Federal Aviation Administration has determined that a towering luxury hotel and condominium project to be built by Phoenix Suns majority owner Robert Sarver will not pose a hazard to aircraft using Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Plans call for the $200 million-plus development, which includes a 39-story high-rise, to be located adjacent to the US Airways Center in downtown Phoenix. The site is also right next to a swath of airspace that pilots are supposed to use if they suddenly lose power during takeoff.

The project's location and vast height prompted the federal agency's months-long review.

But after considering site plans, public comments and Phoenix's own ordinances, the FAA ultimately decided that the 450-foot tower that anchors the W Phoenix Hotel and Condominiums would not be an obstruction to the airport or its operations.

Phoenix officials cheered the ruling Thursday, saying it proves that downtown development and airport safety can coexist.

"We have always said that we believe that developers and cities that work in partnership with the FAA can reach their goals, without putting the flying public at risk," Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said.

The FAA's decision does not mean that Sarver can start construction, however. He still must contend with a Maricopa County Superior Court case that seeks to bar him from building on top of a historic structure. A hearing on that issue will be today.

Thursday, the Suns owner said he was pleased with the FAA's ruling, but that he could not provide a timetable for the project's build-out.

"We're still moving forward," he said. "But I have no idea how long this process could take."

Sarver's project, which would be built at Jackson and Third streets, includes more than 200 hotel rooms, plus condominiums and high-end retail and restaurant space. It is expected to cater to athletes and the business elite, and bring a new level of luxury to downtown Phoenix.

Original plans called for the property to open in early 2008.

And while there are still hurdles to overcome, the FAA's decision does represent a major victory for Sarver's development team.

Earlier this year, Phoenix approved changes to its construction code that prevent officials from issuing a building permit for any property deemed an obstruction to planes at Sky Harbor.

The move essentially requires the city, by law, to acquiesce to the FAA if it determines that a high-rise building is hazardous.

And that means a negative ruling from the federal agency could have killed the Sarver project as it is currently designed.

But Phoenix has been optimistic that the development, a key component of the city's aggressive revitalization plans, would be approved. Officials have long said that it meets all the guidelines set out in Phoenix's height ordinances, which were revamped earlier this year after a lengthy public process.

"I think the FAA's (decision) is the validation of those months and months of hard work," Deputy City Manager David Krietor said. "We are happy that we were able to protect the airport, and, at the same time, allow for significant development downtown."

Tempe officials, who have repeatedly battled with Phoenix over Sky Harbor and issues of economic development, also seemed pleased with Thursday's ruling. They are awaiting a similar FAA decision on the Centerpoint Condominiums, a high-rise development that will be built downtown at Sixth and Ash streets.

Southwest Airlines has already sent a letter to Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman stating that the project's 30-story height would not create a problem for the airline, despite concerns by Phoenix that it could potentially be an obstruction.

That would seem to bode well for the FAA ultimately giving the project a favorable ruling.

"We just want to be treated the same way Phoenix is - that's one of the reasons I'm happy about the W Hotel," Tempe City Councilman Hut Hutson said.

In total, there are 16 community organizations and historic preservation groups that are seeking to stop Sarver and his business partners from building their luxury property. The opponents are fighting in part because they believe the design of the hotel and condominium tower would destroy the integrity of the historic 1920s-era Sun Mercantile Building, which sits on the development site. Sarver's design plans call for an 11-story condominium and mixed-use office tower to be built on top of it.

"We were willing to negotiate some kind of design changes, but the developer was not," said Beatrice Moore of Downtown Voices, one of the 16 plaintiffs that filed the suit under an umbrella organization called the Save the Sun Merc Coalition.

Moore said she and others are not against the high-rise, but the smaller 11-story tower.

"There's a big concern as to whether the (Sun Mercantile) building is even strong enough to survive (the construction)," she said. "It was built in the 1920s and it's got some fragility to it."

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