With the pace of large commercial and residential projects accelerating, a key city manager is urging those taking part in the process to speed up their reviews.
This may raise eyebrows among those who complain the city is “rubber stamping” projects, including ones neighbors vehemently oppose.
Nana Appiah, the city’s planning director, often plays the part of referee in a tug-of-war, with developers pulling on one side, to the chants of “Go go go!” and residents on the other side, insisting “No no no!”
Projects typically are reviewed by the Design Review and Planning and Zoning boards before being presented to City Council. Appiah was present at the Aug. 25 Planning and Zoning Board meeting, for example, during which two projects were opposed by residents.
Twenty neighbors spoke out against a proposed industrial project near Thomas Road and Val Vista Drive.
Later at the same meeting, a rezoning was presented to allow Adobe Luxury Villas, billed as a condominium at Adobe and Recker roads.
Neighbor Jerry Kearsing’s comment read:
“To claim that the proposed project is a condominium project is a total lie. It is an apartment complex! This is smack dab in the middle of senior housing, so multifamily dwellings will be nothing more than an eyesore for the community.”
The P&Z Board unanimously approved both projects and several others in a meeting that lasted just over an hour.
That was nothing compared to the Design Review Board meetings Appiah also referees.
Those meetings typically last three to four hours. At a recent meeting, Appiah told the board this was a growing concern.
“Last month, I started this conversation with the board about ways to streamline the meetings because some of the feedback we get from the development community and staff and also council is, the length of the meetings is becoming a little bit unsustainable,” he said.
Appiah will preside on Wednesday over two meetings of particular importance to residents near Power Food Park: The Board of Adjustment is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. and the Planning and Zoning Board meets at 3 p.m.
Both will take place at Council Chambers and both will consider plans related to the food truck park on North Power Road just south of East McKellips Road.
Owners of Power Food Park will appeal Appiah’s recent interpretation, which stated, “the current use of the property, primarily as a food truck park, does not conform to the requirements of the definition of Public Parks and Recreational Facilities.”
Owners David Darling and Ray Johnson will be asking for approval of their plans to expand the food truck park.
Appiah told the Tribune his “streamline” request to the Design Review Board is “part of a continuous process of improvement. That has been one of my major tasks.”
Appiah, who has a doctorate degree in public affairs from the University of Texas at Dallas, started his education in Ghana. He came here in 2019 after working in development services in Colorado and Florida.
He stressed the need for the city’s process to be “predictable,” so “the development community knows what the expectations are.”
“We want to create a structure in the city of Mesa that ensures there is consistency ….with the application review process. Precision and timeliness are very important,” he said.
A speedy process is particularly important now, he added.
In 2020, Appiah’s office received 823 applications, slightly down from the 886 applications in 2019.
But 2021 started with a bang, with a whopping 569 planning applications received in the first six months. “Mesa is experiencing a tremendous amount of growth,” the planning director said.
“With the Design Review Board, a couple years ago...City Council asked the Planning Department to revise and streamline design review... there was a level of unpredictability. ‘Is this more opinion or standard?’”
He said City Council approved new design guidelines last year. “The goal was to streamline the review process,” Appiah said. “Council directed staff to come up with specific design guidelines. We went through extensive public outreach, study sessions.”
Sean Banda, a senior planner for the fast-growing city of Buckeye, is the new chair of the Design Review Board; he has been a member of the board for six years.
“I really believe my experience as a planner provides me with design insight with the projects we have reviewed as a board in Mesa,” Banda said.
The Tribune asked Banda if he feels any pressure to “fast-track” designs as part of the plans to streamline the process.
“No,” Banda said. “Our purpose is to make recommendations. I hope our insight and experience guides staff and applicants.”
Asked why he wanted to become part of Mesa’s design review process, Banda said, “I really feel that good design has a lasting impact on a community. I wanted to work with fellow citizens who share that same passion to ensure Mesa has high quality development.”
Long meetings are hardly unusual, he said.
“In my time on the board, meetings have always been two to four hours long,” Banda said.
At the August meeting, the calm, mild-spoken Appiah reproached the Design Review Board.
“You are the only board that goes to three- or four-hour meetings, and I think it is also even becoming challenging to recruit people to serve on the board because you guys are passionate,” Appiah said.
“But that’s not the main issue. Their concern here is, as you recollect about two years ago, the City Council, as one of their main goals was to make sure that you recommended based on the approved design guidelines.”
He suggested board members were giving too much “personal preference.”
“The board can absolutely add certain things, but steer our way from personal preference, and also create a predictable environment. It seems like that has never really materialized because we are spending a lot of time on these reviews,” he said.
The planning director pointed to an extensive discussion of a fast-food restaurant “where you had three board members having different preferences than the other three.”
And he made it clear he wanted a team effort: “How can we all work together to really streamline the process and also to improve the structure of the meeting?”
He stressed his department vets projects with “several reviews before being placed on the agenda. We just don’t put it on the agenda because they’ve submitted. We go through the design review guidelines, the code and all that.
“So when it is put on the agenda it is really close to meeting the standard most of the time, but it seems like that has not really achieved the intent,” he continued.
After Appiah’s monologue, Banda pushed back.
“I think today we streamlined it as best as we could,” Banda said. “Sometimes if it’s not a good design, we have to come up with something to give a clear direction. And I think by doing that, it takes us time to kind of derive these comments that can actually be taken by staff as guidance.”
The other Design Review Board members are Tanner Green, Scott Thomas, J. Seth Placko, Paul Johnson, Dane Astle and Jeanette Knudsen.
Banda told the Tribune that, regarding streamlining, “I am looking forward to continuing the discussion at the October Design Review Board (meeting).”
The Design Review Board meets Oct.12; the agenda was not available at press time.
“I feel the board has a lot of experience and guidance to offer,” Banda added. “I feel the board is doing a good job.”
He noted that when neighbors protest a project, it’s usually not for anything his board considers.
“Most of the opposition we have heard from the neighbors over the years rarely has been about design, but rather about the use,” Banda said. “However, we do listen to the concerns, the neighbors may have site specific insight that the standards may not cover.”
He stressed that his contributions to the board are meaningful to him.
“I was born and raised in Dobson Ranch and I currently reside in Dobson Ranch with my wife and three daughters,” Banda said. “Mesa is my home, it is why I care so much about the quality of the design.”
In recent months, neighbors have protested a half-dozen projects, from a housing complex downtown to an office expansion near Riverview. Each ultimately received approval, with no known rejections this year in the public part of the planning process.
But Appiah insisted neighbor concerns are heard and considered.
Though neighborhood meetings required in the process can lead to developers making voluntary changes to appease residents, neighbors simply cannot shoot down projects that meet the city’s overall plan, Appiah said.
The Mesa 2040 General Plan was adopted by the Council and voters of the City of Mesa in 2014. As downtownmesa.com notes, “Mesa’s General Plan lays out the vision and the plan for developing a sustainable and healthy community.”
Appiah affirmed that.
“I have to follow the guidelines and principles of the general plan. That’s what the residents have approved,” Appiah said.
“Ultimately, we have to administer the policies that have been approved by Council.”
He returned to his theme of “creating a predictable environment. That also goes to residents... there’s an expectation this is what the whole neighborhood has agreed to.”
He insisted he does not favor one side over the other.
“This is not only about the development community but also about the (residential) community,” he said.
“We take the community involvement very seriously….Our process is not one sided. Our review is very much multifaceted.”
At the beginning of 2020, Mesa City Council approved “a series of amendments to Chapters 3, 4, 8, 22, 30, 31, 33, 69, 86 and 87 of Title 11 of the Mesa City Code, relating to the adoption of quality development design guideline standards.”
According to a staff report pushing for the changes, “In comparison to the surrounding jurisdictions, Mesa has inadequate design standards... the standards that exist lack specificity.”
The report said input was received from both developers, who were seeking “flexibility in design,” and residents, who wanted architectural design and pedestrian-friendly designs.
And, returning to Appiah’s mantra, “Overall, the amendments will provide predictability within the development review process and establish consistent expectations for developments.”
Those changes were approved just before the pandemic – which briefly paused developments, before another surge of new projects in late 2020 and throughout this year.
That makes Appiah’s job interesting.
“It’s been great,” he said. “I have enjoyed working here in the city. There’s a lot of things happening in the city; that’s what a planning director wants, to be part of growth and creating a unique place to live.”
While the Eastmark area had led the way, first with hundreds of homes and now with Facebook and other massive commercial projects, Appiah noted, “We’re experiencing growth all over the city…We are fortunate to be experiencing this tremendous amount of growth.”
“I feel excitement in the growth. We’re very busy, which is an exciting thing for the community.
Residents near some fast-track projects are excited — in a bad way.
Though some are complaining the city is rolling out the red carpet to developers and rolling their eyes at local concerns, Appiah insisted he and his planning department play fairly.
“There is no ‘rubber stamp’ approval,” Appiah said.