By Mark Carlisle
Glendale is beginning the process of repurposing the Thunderbird School of Global Management, though few specifics have been disclosed.
The graduate business school, now part of Arizona State University, left Glendale this Fall semester to join ASU’s downtown Phoenix campus. The 158-acre site, at the southeast corner of 59th Avenue and Greenway Road, has a long history in Glendale, originating as an airfield in World War II. The school was founded after the war in 1946.
Broad details of a planned development on the site — which ASU hopes will be a mix of commercial and residential — will be discussed and voted on by Glendale’s Planning Commission next month. If passed, the matter will then be voted on by City Council in November or December.
ASU will then submit a rezoning proposal for the specifics of the development, named the Village at Thunderbird, which would go before the planning commission and City Council next year. The university plans to sell the land to a developer once it’s rezoned.
“We’re very excited to take this first step toward redevelopment of this property. But the key is… this is just the first step,” said Michael B. Withey, a partner at the law firm Withey Morris, representing ASU in the general plan and zoning text amendments for the site.
The planning commission will vote on ASU’s proposed general plan amendment in its meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 18 in the City Council chambers, 5850 W. Glendale Ave.
Major changes to a city’s general plan like this are required by state law to be heard by the city council in the same calendar year as the amendment is filed. Because of that, city staff is committed to send the matter to Council for a vote before the year’s end.
The specifics of the site will be hashed out between ASU, city staff, nearby residents, the planning commission and, ultimately, City Council, when the university submits a rezoning request to create a new planned area development, or PAD, for the site. This isn’t likely to come before the planning commission until 2019.
The center of the site is currently designated for educational purposes under Glendale’s general plan and the edges of the site are designated for commercial development.
ASU is requesting to change the center parcel and the north and west edges, along Greenway Road and 59th Avenue, to commercial and to change the southern and eastern edges, bordering other homes in the neighborhood, to medium-to-high residential.
It would be a fairly even split, with about 85 commercial acres and about 72 residential acres.
That’s about all the information the university is providing at this point, and that’s all Glendale requires them to provide at the general plan stage of the process. At the next stage, the rezoning request, far more details revealed.
The current PAD for the site lists single-family and multi-family residences, offices, retail, educational purposes and a hotel/conference center among permitted uses. Mr. Withey did not say if ASU would seek a hotel under the new PAD, but mentioned the other aforementioned uses as possibilities.
At the planning commission’s Wednesday, Sept. 12 informational meeting at the former business school, many neighbors of the site wanted details about the development immediately; so did the residents who attended the three community meetings prior to the event.
Neighbors wanted to know how dense the residences on the site would be, how many stories, how far set back they would be from their homes, whether the traffic in the area would worsen, whether the site would retain any educational components and whether the school would preserve some of its historic buildings.
Most of those shakes of the magic eight ball yielded the same answer: “Ask again later.”
“Those are all great questions. It’s just that they’re premature,” Mr. Withey said. “They’re all questions that will be answered in the context of the PAD zoning case but are not subject and are not answerable in the context of this general plan amendment.”
However, Mr. Withey did give some broad signals of what the site might look like.
Many developments submit their general plan amendments and rezoning requests to the planning commission at the same time. Mr. Withey said this wasn’t an option in this case because of the state law around major general plan amendments.
“There wasn’t really an opportunity to do it concurrently in this particular case because of the annual general plan amendment cycle and the need to get it done prior to the end of the year during the city’s annual process,” he said.
One resident, who lives just east of the former school, was upset that the applicant wouldn’t disclose more information the public.
“I can’t believe that Mr. Withey doesn’t know what (developer) ASU is talking to and why they want this amendment,” said Gary Livingston. “This general (plan) amendment and rezoning has to have some basis on a developer, and I’d like to know upfront who that is.”
Mr. Livingston was one of several neighboring residents who expressed concern about high-density residences near their homes.
Mr. Withey argued the general plan amendment would make the development a better fit for the neighborhood, putting homes, rather than commercial businesses, adjacent to the existing homes and instead putting the commercial areas along the 59th Avenue and Greenway Road.
Up to eight units per acre are allowed under the medium-to-high density residential general plan designation. Mr. Withey said the plan for the new PAD is to average about eight dwelling units per acre with some areas higher and some areas lower.
While most of the homes bordering the property to the south and west are less dense — 3.5-5 units per acres — there are townhomes and apartments to the south, which are 8-12 and 20-30 units per acre, respectively.
While residential density is a topic for the rezoning part of the process and wasn’t up for discussion in the September meeting, Cactus District Commissioner Vern Crow indicated earning his vote would require blending the homes on the development with the lower-density homes in the area.
“I see that your neighborhood residential is 5.5 dwelling units per acre on this site plan that I see — and that’s just a proposal, I’m sure — but I think if it gets much more than that, we’re going to have a problem,” he said.
Mr. Withey acknowledged the frequent request made by Mr. Crow and several other residents and indicated the university had heeded their words.
“We heard the comments before, we heard them again tonight with the desire to see single-family homes near single-family homes. And that obviously will be part and parcel of our planning process as we prepare our PAD zoning (application),” Mr. Withey said.
Glendale Arizona Historical Society President Ron Short attended this month’s meeting, speaking on behalf of his group, to urge ASU not to throw out the old with the new.
The site, originally Thunderbird Airfield No. 1 was a pilot training site during WWII. Other airfields followed it, which later became Scottsdale Airport, Glendale’s Luke Air Force Base and Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.
Mr. Short pointed out several original sites that still exist that he hopes to see preserved, whatever the next development is.
The air control tower became now contains the school’s book store, meeting places and a pub. The airfield was constructed to look like a thunderbird from above with the control tower as the head.
Founder’s Hall, the school’s alumni center, housed the general’s office and the infirmary and was the first structure built on the site. The campus also contains an original hangar and barracks.
Withey Morris indicated it would be open to preserving at least some of the historic sites on the property.
Mr. Short also pleaded for ASU to keep the site a school. He hoped it could find a college or university looking to relocate or expand that could take over the entire campus.
Mr. Withey did not address the issue during this month’s meeting, but a response listed in the applicant’s citizen participation report left the door open for future use of the site for educational purposes.
“The Applicant responded via email explaining that future commercial uses are undetermined at this time but will likely be driven by either a specific user or need or, may be employment-related or possibly educational-related,” the document stated.
Neighbors were also concerned about buildings being too tall or too close to their existing properties. One resident worried two-story homes would be able to see into their yards and through their windows. Other residents worried about street access to their homes being affected by traffic.
Mr. Withey said his team was “sensitive” to the concerns and apologized for having to postpone answering until the rezoning process. He promised they would sit down with residents to address these concerns at that time.
One resident hoped that the YMCA on the southwest corner of the property would remain. And that if it were replaced that another recreation area would be put somewhere on the site, like a park or skate park.
Mr. Withey said his team was in “continuing talks” with YMCA.
Some residents complained that they had not been notified about the proposed changes and neighborhood meetings. Ms. Perry said ASU had completed the city’s requirement of notifying everyone within 300 feet from the edge of the property. Some residents complained that wasn’t wide enough.
“Three hundred feet for some of us doesn’t even get across 55th Avenue,” said resident Vicki Wright.
Planning director David Williams said City Council is planning to reevaluate the city’s planning notification process soon, which could include extending the required radius.
Mr. Withey said if anyone outside the radius wanted to be notified about the development to contact Withey Morris to be added to a mailing list.
Contact Withey Morris at 602-230-0600, firstname.lastname@example.org or 2525 East Arizona Biltmore Circle, Suite A-212, Phoenix, Arizona 85016.