FAA Calls Proposed Phoenix High-Rise Air Safety Hazard

Mar. 15--At the same time Phoenix scolded Tempe that a proposed high-rise could endanger airplanes, federal aviation authorities said a proposed high-rise in Phoenix was likely a safety hazard.

Phoenix officials did not publicly disclose the concerns about the 39-story W Hotel and Condominium until now. That raised the ire of Tempe officials who feel Phoenix is turning a blind eye to warnings about its downtown projects while complaining about the same hazards for Tempe buildings.

"I don't know if you'd call it hypocritical," said Tempe Councilman Hut Hutson, chairman of the city's aviation commission. "I would call it very deceiving and untrustworthy."

The Phoenix project would stand 450 feet at the edge of the US Airways Center near Jefferson and Second streets. Phoenix has approved the project, but the Federal Aviation Administration wrote a Jan. 8 letter to W Hotel that found the building was a "presumed hazard."

The FAA letter states the site is safe for a building of up to 281 feet.

Hutson and Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman said Phoenix officials didn't mention the FAA's findings in the last month or so as tensions rose over the Centerpoint Condominiums near Sixth Street and Ash Avenue in downtown Tempe. The FAA said a 22-story version of the project was OK, but Tempe later approved 30 stories. Phoenix officials told Centerpoint's developer not to build the extra stories unless the FAA gave its blessing. The taller version would be 343 feet.

Hutson said Tempe officials first learned about the FAA's concerns about the W Hotel on Tuesday. He suspects Phoenix is trying to thwart downtown projects in Tempe under the guise of airport safety.

Tempe made similar accusations several years ago, when Phoenix successfully blocked an Arizona Cardinals stadium in Tempe over airport safety concerns.

"This whole thing has been about economic development," Hutson said. "By them hiding this letter, it just tells you their intentions."

The swanky W Hotel would include condos and is seen as a significant development in an effort to turn downtown Phoenix into a hip urban center. The hotel would be owned by Robert Sarver, the managing partner of the Phoenix Suns. Phoenix officials estimated it will cost $100 million to $200 million to build.

Phoenix officials have insisted safety is the reason for raising red flags on Tempe projects in or near the flight paths of Sky Harbor International Airport. They also raise concerns that tall buildings in some places could reduce airport capacity -- which would diminish the airport's role as one of the Valley's major economic engines.

Phoenix has not issued building permits on the W Hotel, said David Cavazos, Phoenix's acting deputy city manager. City officials will only do that if the FAA says it's not a hazard, Cavazos said.

"To my knowledge, we have never supported a project in Phoenix that was not ultimately approved to the satisfaction of the Federal Aviation Administration," Cavazos said.

He noted a planned Sheraton Hotel in downtown had a similar presumed hazard ruling from the FAA, which later declared the building was OK. Cavazos said he expects the same will happen with the W Hotel.

That's entirely possible, said Bill Merritt, an FAA official in New York who issued the presumed hazard finding on the W Hotel.

He described the findings as a cursory study that will trigger more extensive research if the developer wants to keep going.

A second study will allow pilots to comment and considers whether other tall buildings in the area might have already changed how planes fly in the area. Merritt said he couldn't predict what further study will lead to for this project.

"A good many of them are approved, but then again, I've had some recent cases where we couldn't support it," Merritt said.

The additional study would take about three months. The developer hasn't requested it yet, Merritt said.

Cavazos said he'll have his first meeting with the developer today to address the FAA's findings.

Tempe and Phoenix have sparred over Sky Harbor for years, largely because of noise in north Tempe.

The problems, coupled with recent building height disputes, underscore the need for regional reliever airports, Hallman said.

Other airports would ease noise problems and make it easier for the downtowns to develop without undermining safety, Hallman said.

"The airport is here to serve our communities, not the other way around," Hallman said.