A shopping center owner wants to knock down some store buildings in north Gilbert that have sat vacant for nearly eight years and put in a 205-unit apartment complex instead.
Town Council is expected to vote March 24 on SyWest Development’s request for a general plan amendment and rezone for 8.63 acres at the southwest corner of Cooper and Baseline roads in the Shoppes At Gilbert Commons, which includes tenants Kohl’s, Ross and Old Navy.
The Planning Commission voted 5-2 earlier this month to recommend the Council approve the requests, going against planning staff, the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce and nearby residents such as Jennifer Cabral.
Cabral at the March 4 planning hearing said the proposed apartments would destroy her quality of life.
She said she lives near the shopping complex, having moved to Gilbert about seven years ago from Boston, Massachusetts. She added she was thankful she did not live in Tempe with all its apartments, which makes it look “like a cheap city for college students.”
“I chose Gilbert because of the fact it was full of single-family homes, because of the fact there is a lot of farms around and because it’s so homey to me,” Cabral said.
“I see families, I see kids playing outside. I feel comfortable in my neighborhood,” she continued. “My neighborhood, they leave their garage doors opened, I leave my front door opened. I have no issues. I chose here. I want to keep it like that. I want to keep that value here.”
The apartment project would bring in more noise, police and ambulances, Cabral claimed, telling Council:
“It doesn’t matter how fancy they make it look. It still brings everything down. It just makes it look like you don’t have as much money. It doesn’t seem family oriented. It just seems like you’re shoving people somewhere because they need somewhere to be.”
Other residents voiced concerns with increased traffic, crime, diminished home value and loss of retail.
They contended that the owner could put in something other than residential.
Staff also presented the commission with the results of a neighborhood SurveyMonkey, which showed 128 opponents and 14 supporters of the apartments proposal.
If Council approves the changes, SyWest intends to sell the 8-acre site to multi-family developer PB Bell, which would develop Gilbert Commons, consisting of three-story buildings and carriage units along the eastern side of the property.
The development also would include a pool, clubhouse, dog park, entertainment pavilions, community fire pits, an outdoor kitchen and tot lot.
The proposed units would range from 703 square feet to 1,342 square feet and rent from $1,100 to $1,850 a month.
The developer came to the town over two years ago with a proposal to tear down the 90,000 square feet of empty commercial buildings facing Cooper Road for the apartments, planner Amy Temes said.
She said planners at the time told the developer that the town was open to the proposal, recognizing the growing number of younger and older people preferring apartment living and the impact of online commerce on brick-and mortar stores.
“We said, ‘Bring us something innovated, bring us something out of the park, bring us something that is creative and a lifestyle center,’” Temes said.
Instead, she said the proposed project is a standard multi-family development that can be found anywhere in the Southeast Valley.
According to Temes, the overall project lacked the design elements needed to realize the mixed-use vision of the town’s General Plan.
Temes added that the town’s overall land use was zoned about 3 percent multi-family, 3 percent office, 10 percent commercial and over 68 percent single-family.
“If we continue to lose our commercial and our employment, are we sustainable?” she said. “That is a good question. Can we continue to provide everything that we provide to our town residents if we keep chipping away, chipping away at our numbers?
“We need those employers here so our people can work local, close to home, not do the hour-long commute to downtown We need the retail to keep them at home and be able to serve them.”
She said commercial up to a 10-mile radius from the site “is actually doing very well.”
Jed Craig, senior vice president of leasing for SyWest, said the retail industry has changed dramatically with fewer players since the purchase of the shopping center in 2012.
“Most of the retailers I would look to lease to my center for the Cooper Road side I already have as tenants on Baseline or they are across the street or down the street,” Craig said. “I have no other property like this and I have been doing this for over 20 years.”
He said it would be more financially viable for him to lease the space for retail but the chronic vacancy is costing him.
He added the 16-year-old shopping center has covenants in place, including lease and deed restrictions and that major tenants like TJ Maxx and Kohls have weighed in heavily on the proposed apartment and are supportive because it won’t compete with them and would bring in more customers.
He said he has worked with town staff for two years on the project and that is a well-integrated one and would protect what he has now.
Attorney Ralph Pew, who represented the developer and property owner, disputed some of the residents’ comments about the project.
He said there are no studies that show apartments negatively affect home value or stats to show they provoke an increase in crime.
He noted Cabral lives nearly a mile from the site and the project would not affect her lifestyle. He said just because someone chooses to live in an apartment doesn’t make that person a different human being.
He also said traffic would be lower with the apartments than with a fully occupied shopping center.
“The issue is not whether there should be multi-family here,” Pew said. “The real question is how do we implement a multi-family element here. Another choice is to say ‘no’ to this project. Then what happens? Then we have nothing. We have vacant space longer, longer and longer without any solution for the foreseeable future.”
He referenced the heavy toll online sales have had on traditional store and the drop in retail space development in the Phoenix region – 700,000 square feet in 2017 from almost 12 million square feet in 2007, when the economy was beginning to tank.
Pew argued that the project, although not perfect, conforms to the General Plan in trying to achieve a community live, work, play environment and would eliminate abandoned buildings.
He pointed out staff failed to note the apartment project is in the northwest corridor growth area, a major employment center the town is looking to revitalize.
He said when the town adopts its plan for the area, there would be plenty of general plan amendments coming forward looking to position property to fit in with the plan.
He also noted experts from the Urban Land Institute Arizona suggested the town embrace multi-family housing in the area to help grow the employment base in the corridor.
Pew also apologized for not having a plan showing how the apartment would integrate into the surrounding environment and that such details generally come back to the commission during the design review stage.
“It’s clear there was a disconnect on our part on what was expected,” he said.
He urged commissioners to move the case forward in the meantime and recommend approval to the Council.
Commissioner Scott September said everyone, including the property owner, would like to keep the site retail but the fact remains e-commerce is affecting brick-and mortar buildings and he expected to see more of this in the future.
However, he wished the project was one that others would want to duplicate. He and Commissioner Jan Simon cast the two dissenting votes.
Vice Chairman Carl Bloomfield said he heard the residents’ concerns and noted the property owner by right could build lofts above, commercial on the first floor and residential on top.
“They are the owners of the property,” he said, acknowledging the long-time vacancy of the buildings. “They’ve done a lot of work to get to this point.”
He said staff should have included the northwest corridor in the project report and he didn’t know how to resolve all the concerns but he will air on the side of property rights.
Commissioner David Cavenee, who has a retail background, said he appreciated the dilemma the developer was going through.
He said multi-family is a very common buffer between industrial and residential and the proposed project was not out of the ordinary and that the developer would pump a lot of capital to improve the site.
Cavenee also said if he lived across the street from a retail development that sat empty for eight years, he would rather have a vibrant multi-family development than vacant retail shells that could potentially become blighted.
Commissioner Noah Mundt said the rendering looked nice and he disagreed that multi-family developments were a precursor to crime.
He said blighted empty buildings were more likely to attract “vagrants and other unseemly people.”
Chairman Brian Andersen said retail is not working on the site and noted nobody likes apartments but they are in demand with the population growth in the Valley.
He said the stigma of apartments is a leftover from the 1980s and the demand for multi-family will grow for the next 10 years whether they like it or not.