Surprise’s downtown includes its city hall, a library, a four-year university and plans for new popular restaurants.
Downtown Surprise is an island of city buildings and amenities in a sea of dirt.
But city leaders see the raw desert as the community’s best shot at creating a unique downtown in the fast-growing suburb of stucco master-planned communities.
On the 1-square-mile block bounded by Bullard Avenue and Litchfield, Bell and Greenway roads, they envision a walkable shopping district, a university campus and entertainment venues.
However, the Surprise City Council is split over how to realize it.
The division was on full display this summer when a four-member council bloc rejected a developer’s plans to build houses on a chunk of the land.
A fractured council
Dissent over how the city should develop its downtown erupted in June as the council, the landowner and residents clashed over a proposal for Mattamy Homes to build single-family homes in the area.
Some council members and residents opposed the development, calling for apartments or condos to attract Millennials. Mattamy Homes representatives said focus groups show greater demand for single-family homes.
Mayor Sharon Wolcott urged the council to vote “on the side of history” in rejecting the proposal. “Of all the accomplishments we have shared over the past five and a half years, as a city, this is the signature project that will define us as a city.”
“We need higher density to support the business and entertainment uses the city hopes to attract. Millennials want an urban feel, which is contrary to this plat. We need an urban product to attract diversity to Surprise,” Wolcott said.
The council voted, 4-3, against the proposal, with Wolcott joined by Vice Mayor Todd Tande and councilmen Ken Remley and Jim Hayden.
Councilmen John Williams, Roland Winters and Skip Hall argued that apartments and condos don’t need to be in that specific part of the future downtown. Single-family homes would spur growth just fine.
The call for more detail
Tande said he and the mayor have since met with Mattamy Homes representatives to detail their concerns.
He said the reps told them they weren’t confident apartments or condos would attract enough of a market. Tande said he thinks there’s something that would have convinced them — a more detailed master plan.
Tande and the mayor want the city and the landowner, Surprise Center Development Company, to hammer out a plan that offers greater detail on the city’s aspirations.
The development company is an affiliate of Scottsdale-based Carefree Partners and its president, Rick West, would not comment on the council majority’s call for a more detailed plan for the future downtown.
But he did describe “a great deal of cooperation and collaboration” between his company and the city following past legal disputes.
“The key issue is a public-private partnership and working together,” West said. “And we believe that there’s that potential and there’s been great progress in working cooperatively together and we hope to see it continue.”
The latest conflict comes on the heels of legal battles between the city and the developer that had only recently been put to rest.
In 2014, the city sued Surprise Center Development Company, arguing it took too long to develop the mostly-empty square mile of land surrounding the civic center. The city demanded the developer return the land, but a Maricopa County Superior Court judge denied the claim.
The city will cover the company’s nearly $700,000 legal bill through waived development fees. It also leaves room for the city to pay over $100,000 in future legal costs the company might incur from the settlement.
Surprise officials also agreed to improve Greenway Road between Litchfield Road and Bullard Avenue with sidewalks, drainage facilities and other features with an estimated cost of $2.7 million.
Multiple plans through the years
While the single-family homes caused an uproar, city leaders agree on general aspects of what the downtown area should become.
They agree on the idea of a pedestrian-friendly shopping and entertainment district that encourages visitors to wander and peruse.
Already the area is home to a city park, aquatic center, tennis and racquetball center and library. The spring-training home of the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals is nearby.
The city opened its civic center there eight years ago and Ottawa University expects to begin classes in a building there this month. The private university has plans to build a full, residential campus there in the coming years.
And private growth is beginning to pick up, with popular restaurants such as In-N-Out Burger and Raising Cane’s applying for permits in the area along Bell Road.
Hall said he wants a downtown entertainment district where people can relax as much as they shop. He hopes to see specialty retail shops like an Apple store or Gap, as well as misters and shade structures to shelter summer visitors.
Hayden wants something similar, but with condos or apartments built on top of the shops.
While he also wants a shopping district, Tande seeks to attract financial-services and information-technology companies to downtown Surprise, as a study found many employees in those industries live in the West Valley but commute east.
How to get what they want
The city’s general plan lays out a rough idea for Surprise’s downtown, calling for medical offices, restaurants, shops, hotels, entertainment options and a four-year university.
Through the years, the city and the landowner have detailed those plans in master plans, a flexible blueprint that helps keep the two sides on the same page. Those plans have changed as the city has grown dramatically and with outside forces, including the Great Recession.
The most recent master plan was borne out of discussions over the past 18 months, Carefree Partners Vice President Scott Phillips said.
The council majority’s rejection of the single-family homes appears to show a need for further talks.
“We need to get all parties together and come up with a master plan from a meeting we all agree to and go from there,” Hayden said.
Some in the council minority worry the city will chase development away.
Winters said he couldn’t recall the last time the council voted against the Planning Commission’s recommendation as it did in the Mattamy Homes case. He worries the decision could dissuade prospective developers from investing in the city if it means sparring with council.
Hall said the city’s vision for the area must have some “reasonable accommodation.”
“If City Council has got seven different points of view about things and we make it difficult for the developers, well then they’re going to go somewhere else,” Hall said.
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