By Dan Gruber, Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale board member and long-time volunteer in Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve (originally published by the Arizona Republic, April 19, 2016)
The Desert Discovery Center will be a place to educate and inspire residents and visitors to value, thrive in, and conserve desert environments in Scottsdale, in the Sonoran Desert and around the world. For the next 18 months, the City of Scottsdale and its nonprofit partner, Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale Inc., will be working to determine how to accomplish this: what elements will be included, how they will be presented, how large the facility will be and how much it will cost to build and operate.
It’s understandable to have varying opinions on major community endeavors, but to have an effective community dialog those opinions need to be based on facts. It’s important to correct misinformation and misperceptions about the DDC.
The first fact is that the DDC will be owned by the City of Scottsdale and run by a nonprofit operator under contract with the City. It will be a municipal use, not a commercial enterprise or development run by a for-profit company.
The second fact is that the DDC concept has been part of Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve vision from the beginning. Even before the Preserve was a reality, early planners envisioned an interpretive center to educate residents and visitors about the Sonoran Desert. That remains the main focus of the DDC.
The next fact is that the plan for the DDC at the Gateway – with significant distance from both development and from the mountain slopes – was in place well before the purchase of the land by Toll Brothers and before homes and businesses were built nearby. Locating the DDC at the Gateway was a major justification for acquiring the land from Toll Brothers through an extended, difficult and expensive process.
Another important fact is that the DDC was approved by the Scottsdale City Council through a public process in 2007 as a municipal use facility at the Gateway. The final DDC design will go through another public process to amend the Municipal Use Master Site Plan for the Gateway area, which is typical for such plans. In approving the master site plan in 2007, the City Council determined that all the functions contemplated at the DDC are allowed in the Preserve under the Preserve Ordinance. The Council will revisit this when it considers whether to approve the new plan that will be presented in 18 months.
The next fact is that the 2010 DDC “Phase II” Study, cited by some with concerns about the DDC, is not the plan currently being contemplated. That study was not a proposal but rather a concept, and the possible interpretive approach, design, size and cost outlined more than six years ago are a place to start developing a new plan, not the place to end. The new plan will be crafted with input from the community and the expertise of professionals with experience in research, education and interpretation, architecture, business planning and financial feasibility.
It’s a fact that the Preserve was envisioned to provide access to everyone, including those who don’t hike, bike, or ride but still want to experience and learn about this unique and beautiful environment. Residents and visitors coming to Scottsdale should have an opportunity to learn about the desert even if they didn’t pack hiking boots or aren’t willing or able to explore on their own. Supporting tourism is one of the management objectives of the Preserve and the DDC will help accomplish that.
A key fact is that this planning process will be sensitive to and address neighbors’ concerns about light, noise, traffic and safety. The intent is that after-hour programs will be contained within the footprint of the DDC and that Preserve trails will remain closed sunset to sunrise. Expected ancillary visitor services such as a retail function and café will have an educational focus and be there to augment the visitor experience.
The fact is that there is no center anywhere focused on research and education about how people in an urbanizing world can live sustainably in desert environments. Through the Preserve and the DDC, Scottsdale can establish itself as a global leader in conservation policy, research and education – something befitting Scottsdale’s history and a legacy for the future.
The most important fact is that we are at the beginning of this process. The Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale team is deeply rooted in Scottsdale’s past and present preservation efforts and is committed to making this a point of pride for the community. Our goal is to present a wonderful proposal that will garner strong support. Constructive dialog will make the project better.