Phoenix sues Tempe over Coyotes arena district

Featured image credit: Manica Architecture

The City of Phoenix has launched legal action against the City of Tempe over residential developments planned as part of the project intended to deliver a new arena for NHL ice hockey franchise the Arizona Coyotes.

After what it claims is more than a year of attempts to resolve a dispute with Tempe over planned residential developments in a high-noise corridor directly under Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport’s flight path, the Phoenix Aviation Department has filed a formal complaint in Maricopa County Superior Court.

The City of Phoenix, which owns and operates the airport, is suing Tempe for breach of contract, asking the court to rescind Tempe’s recent zoning and land use changes and prohibit future residential uses in an area that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says is incompatible with residential development.

“The Phoenix Aviation Department does not object to a sports arena, restaurants, shops, and other compatible uses related to the proposed Tempe Entertainment District,” said Phoenix Director of Aviation Services, Chad Makovsky.

“This action is about ensuring Tempe lives up to its commitments to protecting our state’s largest economic engine – Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, the more than 57,000 employees and 44 million annual travellers who depend on the airport, and the communities surrounding the airport who depend on the long-standing agreement between our two cities.”

At issue is a 1.2 square mile area of land adjacent to the airport in the City of Tempe which is exposed to noise levels exceeding 65-decibel day/night level (65 DNL). The FAA recently re-affirmed the boundaries of this high noise area and confirmed that it is not compatible with housing.

The cities of Phoenix and Tempe formally agreed back in 1994 that Phoenix would actively defend a modified flight path that follows the Salt River bottom in order to keep departing planes away from homes, while Tempe promised not to permit the development of homes under that modified flight path in the 65 DNL.

Phoenix said it has tried numerous times over the past year to resolve disagreements with Tempe and attempt to find a path forward, avoiding litigation. It is concerned that residential development in the area concerned could expose it to residents taking actions such as filing noise complaints, lawsuits, and other initiatives to reduce or halt airport capacity and development.

“After more than a year of meetings and negotiations, we are disappointed that these efforts did not resolve the dispute,” said Makovsky. “As neighbouring cities that mutually benefit from Sky Harbor, which drives our region’s tourism, travel, and trade economies, we felt we were very close to a reasonable resolution. 

“We are now left with no other option than to put this in the hands of a judge to confirm the obligations Tempe agreed to in 1994.”

In November, the Coyotes hailed Tempe City Council’s approval of its $2.1bn (£1.7bn/€1.93bn) arena and entertainment district, with president and CEO, Xavier A. Gutierrez, stating the venture will turn a “landfill into a landmark”.

Residents will get the opportunity to vote on the Tempe Entertainment District on May 16, following the Council’s 7-0 vote to approve key aspects of the plan put forward by the NHL franchise.

If voters approve, the 46-acre project could be built with a planned 16,000-seat Coyotes hockey arena, practice facility, hotels, multi-family residential, retail and more. The developer will use largely private funding to build the four million-square-foot development and, according to November’s agreement, will pay Tempe $50.3m for the land. This includes $40m in non-refundable cash up-front before environmental remediation of the site.

While the City of Tempe has not responded to Phoenix’s legal complaint, pro-district group Tempe Wins has issued a statement on the matter. The statement, reported by Arizona’s Family, read: “The complaint filed by the Phoenix Aviation Department represents new heights of hypocrisy.

“While it is OK for Phoenix to build a baseball stadium, a basketball arena, and a soccer stadium in the flight path of Sky Harbor Airport, somehow, it’s wrong when Tempe attempts to convert an old polluting landfill into a new sports and entertainment district.

“And there is no shortage of new residential development in and around Downtown Phoenix sports venues. Nor is there a shortage of residential units around the airport in Phoenix. Is this really about Phoenix protecting a handful of apartment units in Tempe or is it really a matter of Phoenix protecting the interests of its downtown sports franchises at the expense of Tempe taxpayers who stand to gain many millions of dollars in revenues and benefits.

“Unlike other stadium deals and developments in other cities including Phoenix, the Tempe proposal costs taxpayers nothing. Indeed, it results in hundreds of millions of dollars in net positive benefits for taxpayers. The ultimate question for Tempe voters is this: do you stand with Phoenix hypocrisy or an incredible environmental and economic opportunity for Tempe?”

In September 2021, the Coyotes revealed plans for a development in Tempe. The arena has been designed by Manica Architecture.

As the Coyotes seek to progress the plans, Mullett Arena in October staged its first-ever NHL game as the team fell to a 3-2 defeat against the Winnipeg Jets, with a crowd of around 4,600 in attendance.

The Coyotes are playing at the new 5,000-seat facility from the 2022-23 to 2024-25 seasons – and potentially the 2025-26 campaign – as the team continues efforts to secure a permanent home.