By Cecilia Chan
GSN Managing Editor

A commercial hub for the 166-acre master-planned Agritopia community near Higley and Ray roads is finally moving forward.

Gilbert Planning Commissioners last week gave the green light for Agritopia’s Epicenter, which will include 49,038 square feet of ground-floor retail with 320 luxury loft-style residential on top on 21.8 acres.

The residential component will range from one-bedroom lofts to three-bedroom units.

“I like the project,” said Commissioner David Cavenee. “It’s a nice addition to the corner. I’m excited to see it come about.”

Cavenee said Gilbert doesn’t get a lot of mixed-used development and now has the opportunity for one.

The Epicenter’s design review was first approved by the town in 2014 and the main changes of what was approved last week involved architectural design.

The slight modifications include additional ground-level pedestrian space and walkways, allowing for retail arcades and sidewalk dining.

Applicant Joe Johnston, who came up with the concept for Agritopia on his family farm land, said he was ready to pull permits on the Epicenter eight months ago but his partner bailed on the project.

He has since found a new partner, Streetlights Residential in Phoenix. He praised their architectural expertise and quality and is confident in their ability to develop the mixed-use project.

“This capstone project will allow people to have a bit more urban vibe,” he said.

The proposal for the urban core calls for four main buildings with three of the buildings connected above the ground-floor level. 

Retail and residential parking will be separated with retail parking along Higley and Ray roads frontages and at the northwest corner of the site.

Residential parking will be to the northwest of the buildings, according to a town staff report.

Not everyone was enamored with the project — such as Lisa Ballard, who lived in the Lyons Gate community across Ray Road.

“I don’t want more traffic, more congestion and more stop lights added to Ray and Higley,” she said. “We don’t need any more apartments in my area. I don’t want to deal with the culture of those who rent.”

She said within a 5- to 7-mile radius of the project are more than 10 large apartment complexes.

She also questioned the need for more retail in the area when the town can’t fill existing empty commercial buildings nearby.

“I love Agritopia but I’m vehemently opposed to what will be there,” she said of the Epicenter. “I don’t want to see 60-foot (tall) buildings in my front yard. I want to see the Superstition Mountains.”

A husband and wife and one other person submitted cards in support of the project but did not speak.

Glen Galatan and said the project will bring in more businesses to add to the town’s tax base.

He said Johnston has done much for the community and praised the project.

“It will help with my property value,” said Galatan, who lives about two miles from the project site.

“As someone who grew up in apartments, these will be premium, beautiful apartments that will bring in wonderful people to the community,” he said. “(a) lot of people don’t want homes, they want apartments.”

Land-use attorney Adam Baugh, who represents the developers, noted the project has been in the works, going back a decade or more, longer than the Lyons Gate community.

“Personally, I’m excited about it,” Vice Chairman Carl Bloomfield said. “It fits in well with Agritopia. All in all, I’m pleased with it.”

Agritopia, built in the 2000s includes 452 homes, a functional farm, a community garden, a Christian school and on-site restaurants such as Joe’s Farm Grill. Johnston also owns Joe’s BBQ and is a partner in Liberty Market restaurant, both in the town’s Heritage District.

Senior Planner Ashlee MacDonald said the developer still needs to go through plan review for construction drawings before it can begin building.