By Jason Stone, INDEPENDENT NEWSMEDIA
The Surprise City Center draft master plan hadn’t even been revealed for more than 15 minutes before the City Council was already gushing over it at its June 18 meeting.
“I just got goosebumps,” said District 4 Council member Ken Remley, who serves the Original Town Site and other east Surprise areas. “That’s all I can tell you. I am so excited.”
The cause for the giddiness was the first glimpse into what is now two decades in the making.
Anybody who has moved to Surprise this millennium has been promised downtown development in the area between Bell and Greenway roads and Litchfield Road and Bullard Avenue. But when Carefree Partners, the company who owns the land in the City Center, revealed its rough draft of its master plan for the area, some council members said they felt it was closer than ever to really happening.
“‘Master plan’ was like a bad word around here for a while,” District 3 Councilman Patrick Duffy told Scott Phillips, the vice president of Carefree Partners and the city’s former top planner. “I think you nailed it, and I think you deserve a huge ‘thank you.’”
The draft includes walkable spaces, shade and meeting spaces, amphitheaters and a unique walking stream that will connect two new lakes that are proposed north of the current Community Lake.
“It checks so many of the boxes from the city, the community and sustainability,” Mr. Phillips said of the draft.
River runs through it
The walkable stream planned for along a new road that will go east-west between Bullard and 140th Avenue between Bell Road and Paradise Lane is getting people excited the most.
“We think with a running stream connecting those [new lakes], we can create a unique open space element that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Mr. Phillips said. “We want to make sure there are elements of water throughout this entire area. The city has already started that with the city lake that sits down there. Water is already part of the downtown vernacular.”
The stream and lakes will use recharged city water and won’t be draining additional resources.
“At first it sounds scary: We’re out in the desert and you’re going to put a bunch of water out to waste is what you would think at first,” said District 6 Councilman Chris Judd, who serves the southeastern part of the city. “But, no, you guys thought this through and planned it out, and it’s going to be recharged and put right back in to the ground.”
Mr. Remely said he believes the water feature will be a great sales tool to help spark development of the area.
“I think the water treatments you are putting in are going to be very well received by those who would relocate their businesses here,” he told Mr. Phillips. “I could see other developers getting excited to see the stuff you put together.”
Other features include walkable streets, dozens of varieties of trees, unique street lighting and furniture and diagonal street parking to promote less fast driving and more strolling.
The master plan is the collaboration between the developers, city staff and residents over the last eight months.
Mr. Phillips said he spoke to about 1,000 residents over 12 outreach sessions, reaching all demographics across the city at places like Sun City Grand, Marley Park, the Surprise Citizen Academy, spring training games and the State of the City event.
He said he spoke to older residents, who favor more upscale development like Kierland Commons in Scottsdale and other shopping and restaurant experiences.
And he talked to younger ones, who want an atmosphere like the “First Fridays” arts and music street fair in downtown Phoenix.
“At this point, I think everybody in the city has my cell phone number and email address,” Mr. Phillips joked.
The top key words residents gave during the outreach events included things such as “shade,” “walkability,” “water,” “oasis,” and “restaurants.”
Meeting places, amphitheaters, jobs and unique shopping were also frequent mentions.
Surprise Economic Development Manager Mike Hoover spent time speaking to students at Ottawa University Arizona to take their pulse on what they want in the surrounding area.
After all, in about five years, officials say about 3,000 students could be on the OUAZ campus with a possible enrollment of 10,000 students in 20 years.
One student told Mr. Phillips, “This city needs to look as good at night as it does during the day.”
Mr. Phillips said he raised the importance in the master plan of dealing with lighting, safety, signage and “how it conveys at night.”
“For Ottawa, we want to make sure that there is land for them to grow into,” Mr. Phillips said. “Let’s make sure if they want to shoot for the stars, we enable that.
Slow build out
The plan Carefree Partners is rolling out will take decades to be fully realized, and that’s for a good reason: The amount of space to be developed in the City Center is enormous.
Mr. Phillips loves to overlay a map of Phoenix’s downtown over Surprise’s City Center to show how they are the same size.
“Over time this could be a very dense urban center,” Mr. Phillips said of the 500 acres left to develop around the City Hall “bullet.”
It could take as long as 50 years or more before everything is built up, Mr. Phillips said, but he added, “Phoenix is 100 years old, and they’re still trying to figure it out.”
More than likely, a good portion of the downtown area should be hitting its stride by around 2040.
“You’re going to have varying waves of development and soft time,” Mr. Phillips said. “There’s going to be pieces of this that remained undeveloped for a long time.”
But initial development, including street work improvements and the creation of three new streets, could start in as soon as 18 months to two years, officials said.
“Bullard and Elm is where we’re going to be putting our near-term energy,” Mr. Phillips said about the area in the northwest portion of the City Center. “So, they’ll have that main street, that place to be. We’re not waiting 20 years to give somebody something.”
Mayor Skip Hall called it an “ignition point,” which could help spark the market conditions of the area.
“Right now, the market isn’t demanding 12-story condos,” Mr. Phillips said. “In fact, the market may not demand 12-story condos for 25 years. But we want to make sure we can accommodate those when the time is right. We want to make sure we don’t use up all the land and eliminate the opportunity to do some of those key uses that someday will be a really important piece of this downtown.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time Surprise residents thought downtown development was coming.
In fact, just a decade ago, Carefree Partners had plans for a regional mall to go in the corner of Litchfield and Bell roads.
“We thought we had it at some point,” Mr. Phillips said. “Then 2007 [recession] happened, and that whole concept went away entirely.”
Mr. Hall, who is a self-proposed fan of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower even quoted “Ike” when talking about the city’s past plans.
“Eisenhower said, ‘Plans are useless. Planning is essential,’” Mr. Hall said. “There’s a distinction. It’s an active. It’s moving. Adapting.”
Vice Mayor Roland Winters said he’s been “hearing about downtown Surprise” since moving here 11 years ago.
“I think we’re closer now than we’ve ever been of actually seeing it,” Mr. Winters said. “So, I may live to see it.”
Mr. Phillips said market-driven conditions will force the developers to be patient and flexible, especially in the early years.
“We have to make sure it’s appropriate for this market, and we’re going to continue pushing that,” Mr. Phillips said. “We’ve had some wonderful plans, but at the end of the day, somebody has to pay rent, somebody has to buy the space, somebody has to live in the condo or whatever it ends up being.”
Carefree has had city approval to develop its land in the City Center for years.
As the draft plan continues to be tweaked, Mr. Phillips said he hopes to show it to the Planning and Zoning Commission as a courtesy — probably at one of the August meetings — and take it to the City Council one more time.
Two more outreach meetings are also planned, including one at Arizona Traditions during Mr. Winters’ monthly constituent meeting in August.
Mr. Hoover called the revealing of the master plan draft a “sneak peek” and an “evolving process.”
“There’s going to be continuous input from the public and hearing from residents and the business community,” Mr. Hoover said. “Over the last eight months of outreach we learned a lot — not just the master plan but how to engage with our residents.”
Mr. Phillips said she’s hoping the city will put the draft plan somewhere on its website since it’s part of the marketing push the Economic Development team will be using to help fill the spots.
“It’s about firing on all cylinders,” Mr. Phillips said. “The stuff that we’re doing here isn’t being done anywhere else. But it takes time to let the market to absorb that and understand that.”