By Wayne Schutsky GSN Managing Editor
Gilbert’s Heritage District has transformed mightily over the past decade, going from a quaint, sleepy downtown to a legitimate nighttime destination replete with some of the Valley’s most popular dining destinations.
Now, a new plan aims to transform the downtown once again by promoting the growth of commercial, multifamily, entertainment and hotel developments to complement the existing restaurants.
Much of the downtown growth has been guided by the town’s Heritage District Redevelopment Plan, which the town adopted in 1991 and updated in 2001 and 2008. Town staff and local stakeholders have worked on that plan’s most recent update since 2015.
The town’s Redevelopment Commission has sent its final draft to the Town Council and it will be considered for adoption on Aug. 16. Oregon-based Crandall Arambula served as a primary consultant during the plan update process after winning a contract with the town in 2017.
The 150-page document lays out a plan to achieve that lofty goal that includes extensive roadways improvements and the use of both private and public monies to build community gathering spots and improve pedestrian and bike access.
The plan highlights a range of key and complimentary projects that would contribute to development of the district over the next 10 years.
In an attempt to infuse more commercial businesses into the area, the plan designates two spots for private commercial development, referred to as the North and South Anchors – both with a mixture of business and ground-floor retail uses.
Amanda Elliot, Gilbert’s redevelopment administrator and Heritage District liaison, said that the town has received interest from businesses that want to move into Class A office space downtown and the new developments would provide the product they are looking for.
The redevelopment plan said that the current market demand for office in downtown Gilbert is between 334,000 and 584,000 square feet.
“Part of the overall study within this was looking at what will the actual market bear,” Elliot said. “Office (product) has some opportunities to yield some high numbers.”
The North Anchor, located at west of Gilbert Road and east of Ash Street near Juniper Avenue, would also include entertainment options and a potential hotel or conference center.
Elliot said the town already has issued a request for qualifications for development of a 9.1-acre site near Juniper Avenue and Gilbert Road that currently houses a Burger King. The eatery is privately owned, but the town owns all the land surrounding it.
The plan also focuses on attracting multifamily apartment and condominium projects to the area.
“In order for downtown to be sustainable, we need density,” Amanda Elliot said. “Retail shopping cannot survive off of nighttime visitors only.”
The redevelopment plan states that the market could absorb up to 500 new multifamily units in the short term and 1,650 units in the long term.
Demand for rental properties in Gilbert is on the rise and the 5.9 percent yearly rent growth in the town is the highest of any municipality in Arizona. The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Gilbert is $1,440 and also leads all other Arizona cities, according to Apartment List’s August 2018 Rental Report.
Despite that demand, the infusion of rental housing in Gilbert is always a hot-button issue, as evidenced by the negative community reaction to the now-scuttled City Gate Apartments project.
Elliot said that residents downtown have largely been open to more multifamily projects, and staff has worked to explain that multifamily does not necessarily equal rentals.
“One of the things we are trying to do that word ‘multifamily’ doesn’t always mean rental or low end,” she said, noting that the plan calls for for-sale condominiums as well.
The plan has identified a site, called The District Core, for a mixed-use project featuring multifamily rentals, condominiums, a hotel, retail and restaurants. The site is west of Gilbert Road, south of the canal, and north of the railroad tracks.
A key aspect of the plan is the creation of public amenities to attract that private investment, including a gathering spot at the northern edge of downtown called The Commons to compliment the proposed North Anchor nearby.
Plans for that development – on land currently reserved for parking west of Gilbert Road between Juniper Avenue and The Western Canal Trail – include grass lawns, shade trees and native plants along with a splash pad, retail pavilion, dining patio and space for public art.
The plan calls for a similar development called Living Room Plaza – off Gilbert Road between Vaughn and Page Avenues – that would function as a space for farmers markets, holiday events and other gatherings.
The plan also calls for the construction of a continuous pedestrian and bike path that will run the length of downtown from Juniper Avenue to Elliot Road.
The path, called The Paseo, would be located to the west of Gilbert Road and include a lighted underpass where it intersects with the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.
The Paseo would pass through many currently vacant properties and side streets and function as a link between other amenities listed in the plan like The Commons and Living Room Plaza.
The plan also calls for a robust street improvement plan to accommodate anticipated growth in the Heritage District, including improvements and extension of existing roadways to relieve the already-considerable congestion in the downtown area.
To major components of that plan are the Vaughn Ventilator and the Ash Street Extension.
The Vaughn Ventilator is an anticipated extension of Vaughn Avenue west of Gilbert Road. The street currently dead ends at the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, and the plan calls to extend the roadway west to Neely Street to provide alternative access route to the area.
“That really opens up a lot of parcels in the back off of Gilbert Road,” Elliot said. “In order for office or retail or hotel to be viable, we need a lot of drive by traffic.”
Along with extending Vaughn Avenue, the plan calls for curbside and landscaping improvements to transform the road into a walkable shopping area for visitors.
The Ash Street Extension would run from the intersection of Gilbert Road and Cullumber Avenue northwest along the current railroad route to a realigned portion of Ash Street at Page Avenue.
The new circulation framework in the plan also includes increased pedestrian and bicycle access along Elliot Road and street improvements on Page Avenue.
In addition to upgraded roadways, the document mentions a new public transit station downtown with a park and ride and bus stops.
The station would also be a placeholder for a future stop on the proposed high-speed rail line between Phoenix and Tucson that would run along existing Union Pacific railroad, Elliot said.
Arizona Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration have studied the feasibility of the high-speed rail project and made recommendations on the route it should travel. However, the project has no anticipated start date or funding sources.
The plan does not identify specific funding sources any of the proposed projects, but it does single out which projects could potentially receive public funding.
The plan calls for the town to fund the design and construction of The Commons, The Plaza, The Vaughn Ventilator, The Paseo, a neighborhood park, improvements to the Water Tower Plaza and other road upgrades.
However, Elliot noted that certain projects, such as The Commons, could ultimately be constructed by the company selected to develop the North Anchor.
“We are still in the conceptual phase,” Elliot said. “The important thing to note is this is adopting the concept. Then, we will vet all projects in depth with the capital improvement projects group and look at how do these projects get funded.”
According to the plan, Gilbert could fund its obligations under the plan using a mix of local tax, bond and general fund monies along with state and federal funds allocated for specific transportation and infrastructure projects.
Elliot said that any project designated for public monies underwent scrutiny by staff to ensure it would contribute to eventual private investment. She said best practices indicate that every $1 of public money spent should result in $7 of private investment.
“We did an initial investment analysis,” she said. “Our threshold was that it had to meet the best practices at a minimum. Some projects got cut that did not provide that return.”