Tempe Asks Arizona Supreme Court to Keep $1.8B South Pier Project Off Ballot

Article originally posted on AZ Central on February 7, 2023

The South Pier development would include an "observation wheel," similar to the iconic London Eye or the Pacific Wheel in Santa Monica.

Tempe has tripled down in its battle to keep a $1.8 billion project on Town Lake off the ballot, appealing two previous court losses to the Arizona Supreme Court on Friday.

The city hopes to overturn rulings won by an advocacy group that collected thousands of signatures in an effort to let voters, not the council, decide the fate of the deal.

The project, called South Pier at Tempe Town Lake, is located on Vista Del Lago Drive on 12 acres of property near the lake’s south bank. It’s an empty plot of mostly city-owned land that developers hope to transform into a bourgeois “resort-inspired” community with apartments, stores and restaurants.

Tempe’s Supreme Court challenge comes just a week after a panel of appellate judges rules that the city had to send the deal to the ballot. It’s the latest in a yearlong battle between Tempe and the developer on one side, and a group called Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) on the other.

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CASE believes the project won’t bring enough public benefit to justify the eight-year tax break it’s slated to receive, especially since there won’t be any affordable units on-site. Group leaders said the city failed to do enough public outreach before approving the deal in March, and now they want voters to decide whether it’s worth pursuing.

“We haven’t felt like there’s been enough public input in the decision,” said CASE Executive Director Brendan Walsh, who added that Tempe residents should be able to weigh in on decisions that “relate to the affordability of housing in Tempe, relate to the quality of life for people in Tempe, relate to the policy issues with how development is created.”

The project is made up of seven buildings that would be built in phases over the next 15 years.

Tempe and the developer pushed back on two fronts. They argue that the group’s signature form was illegitimate because it flipped the order of two key sections and that the deal doesn’t meet the criteria to be sent to voters because it’s an “administrative” issue rather than a “legislative” one.

A Maricopa County Superior Court Judge shot down the latter argument last June, ruling that the deal meet the “legislative” referendum criteria because it qualified as a new city policy, not just the implementation of existing rules. But that judge also deemed CASE’s form invalid, putting both the referendum and project on pause.

Both sides appealed their respective losses. Late last month, a panel of appellate judges decided that CASE’s petition was OK because it included all of the required information, while also confirming that the deal was eligible for the ballot ― meaning Tempe’s entire case was tossed out and its earlier victory was undone.

The city’s recent appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court only has to do with the eligibility question, an argument that has failed twice already. The development company, South Pier Tempe Holdings LLC, is appealing the ruling that deemed CASE’s mismatched petition form legitimate.

The South Pier development is a massively pricey project that would take up 12 acres on the south shore of Town Lake, east of Rural Road.

Together, the appeals represent a last-ditch effort to keep the project off the ballot, but neither party appears to be deterred by their losses. A city spokesperson wrote that Tempe still “maintains (the) decision should lawfully rest with council,” while the developer told The Arizona Republic that they “believe the Court of Appeals is wrong here.”

CASE also remains confident that they will come out on top, especially given the group’s previous victories.

“It’s really kind of astounding for me that the city is doing this,” he said. “I don’t know how they could think that they’re going to prevail in the decision.”

It’s unclear when the Arizona Supreme Court will make a final decision. CASE will need to win on both arguments for the South Pier project to appear on the ballot without the group having to re-do the lengthy process of collecting signatures on a new petition form.