By Jason Stone, INDEPENDENT NEWSMEDIA
When it comes to repurposing vacant big box stores these days, cities across the Valley are learning that anything is better than nothing.
That’s the issue the Surprise Planning and Zoning Commission found itself grappling with earlier this month when it voted to approve plans to turn the vacant Safeway building on Grand Avenue into a self-storage facility – even though nobody was really happy about it.
The City Council still needs to sign off on the project in the Grand Village Plaza Commercial Center, but the message was clear: Cities are having to settle for less desirable projects in some cases to keep vacant big box stores from staying empty for long.
“If we do this, this will never again be a vibrant shopping center,” Commissioner Dennis W. Smith warned the other commissioners before the vote. “I guess some income and some retail off the property is better than none. But I don’t know if it’s the correct use for the City of Surprise.”
The Commissioners voted 6-1 to approve the plans after consulting with the city’s legal counsel in executive session.
What was discussed in private wasn’t revealed, but leading up to that moment, it was clear the commissioners were not thrilled voting to replace a bustling supermarket with a storage facility.
“It’s expected to be a retail spot, and it’s expected to be an anchor,” Commissioner Gisele Norberg said.
Project developers Mataas Partners, which is also working on buying the property between Parkview Place and Reems Road along Grand Avenue, say it’s not going to be a run-of-the-mill storage facility.
Plans call for converting the building into two stories and creating co-working space to capitalize on that growing trend across the country.
That means a small business owner who doesn’t want to open his or her own office nor work from home can store products in a locked, climate-controlled unit, while also using the offices in the front of the store to package goods and manage the business.
“So, you have your eBay people and your Amazon people who can keep their stock here and they can work here,” said Roger C. Simsiman, the co-founder and president of Mataas Partners.
Keeping everybody happy
The more than 55,000-square-foot building has been vacant since Safeway pulled out in 2017 after nearly 20 years there.
Eventually the plan is to add more retail and restaurant buildings in the parking lot, which is way too big now that Safeway is gone.
But the key is also to retain current businesses while trying to fill the other vacant ones caused by Safeway’s shutdown.
Mr. Simsiman said some of the long-time tenants in the shopping center are responding positively to the company’s plans.
“Older tenants who have been there 20 years said they’re excited to have something there,” Mr. Simsiman said. “They’re doing very well right now, but more traffic would obviously help them. “They realize large big box tenants are few and far between these days and something is better than nothing.”
IRIS USA, Inc., which brought about 70 jobs to Surprise’s Railplex Industrial District in 2016, is discussing opening up a pad in the shopping center to give it a presence in both sides of the city.
Toronto-based MedAvail, which recently opened up the West Valley’s first pharmaceutical drugs kiosk at Ottawa University Arizona, 15950 W. Civic Center Plaza, has also expressed interest in renting some space in the shopping center as well.
“We told them what we were trying to do with that center, and it’s different than what any of you are use to,” said Louis Galuppo, the vice president and general counsel for Mataas Partners. “What we try to do is bring life into a dead center.”
Some of the life comes in the form of deals with other businesses in the city. For instance, the developers said they are working with the AZTechcelerator, 12425 W. Bell Road, to have use of the facility.
“We’re going to try to create a level of synergy,” Mr. Simsiman said. “So, not only can the people who rent from us use the co-working space, but the people from the Techcelerator can come over and use it.”
Mataas has experience reviving big box stores with self-storage units in the Valley. In 2014, the company converted a Target store in Chandler. But Mr. Simsiman said the Surprise one will be a little more elaborate, thanks to the co-working features and an indoor loading area in the back of the building, which is mostly useful in the summer months.
“It’s just another opportunity for us to make the facility more attractive and more usable,” Mr. Simsiman said.
The national Self-Storage Association reports “active” use of self-storage units has been going up in recent years.
“People are actually visiting their storage units more than they have in the past and that number is increasing everywhere,” Mr. Simsiman said.
Adding the co-working space, the developers hope, will give them even more of a reason to come back frequently.
“It’s our intent to create as much buzz and activity at that center as a particular facility like this can create,” Mr. Galuppo said. “It’s not a Safeway, but there’s an Alberstons down the street.”
Albertsons has a location on the northwest side of Reems Road at 14551 W. Grand Ave.
“The only other thing that could go in there — maybe, maybe, maybe — is some sort of workout facility but they’re all around (Surprise),” Mr. Galuppo told Commissioners.
That’s exactly what Surprise did at the old Albertsons building at Bell Road and Loop 303, which shut down in early 2017. EoS Fitness will open later this year with an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
“It worked out nice,” said Vice Mayor Roland Winters, who serves District 1, which covers that area.
P&Z commissioners are hoping if the City Council approves the self-storage project, it will at least partially revive the area. But not are all sold.
“I think it will be very harmful in the long run to the other businesses in the area,” Commissioner Ken Chapman said, adding he has concerns about the “harmony with the neighborhood” and lack of foot traffic.
However, Mitchell Rosenbaum was one of the commissioners who was receptive to the idea.
“I like your repurposing,” Mr. Rosenbaum told the developers. “Great idea.”
Near the end of the debate, Chairperson Matthew Keating said he received advice during the meeting from the city’s counsel. The meeting went to executive session for about 15 minutes before the commission returned to immediately take the vote to pass the project on to the City Council.