Plans to repurpose a church on the southeast corner of Old Litchfield Road and N. Villa Nueva Drive has become a topic of intense debate among some Litchfield residents for reasons of perhaps varying validity.
The project that has managed to cause such a stir in The Park is being called ‘The Thomas’ and seeks to adaptively reuse — though retain the existing structures — at 447 Old Litchfield Road.
The building is currently owned by Vástago Epicentro Phoenix, a church serving non-denominational, primarily Spanish-speaking Christians–but if applicant Brian O’Connor’s request to rezone the church from public facility to neighborhood commercial is successful, that space can be used for things like office space, a cafe and boutique retail.
Since the proposal was announced in May ahead of a mandatory neighborhood meeting, city leaders were flooded with messages–some in support of the project–but many others condemning the supposed loss of one of the four churches in Litchfield Park.
But applicant Brian O’Connor is adamant that the church, as well as all parish buildings on the property, will remain standing, and has even negotiated for the current congregation to retain use of the church for the next five years.
He also said that the original church assembly hall and chapel will keep its public facility zoning to retain its current use. O’Connor has proposed that the assembly hall be used as a community center and for theatrical productions when it’s not in use by the church.
O’Connor works for local real estate company Tri West Realty and also happens to serve on the city’s planning and zoning commission, though he’s recused himself from matters related to the project in his capacity as a commissioner.
He says that he’s noticed misinformation spreading in online neighborhood groups and in-person regarding the proposed development he calls ‘The Thomas’--a reference to St.Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, for which it was originally built in 1976, as well as various figures in the parish’s history by the name of Tom or Thomas.
He told the Independent that he was made aware of someone going door to door warning that the church would be turned into a Pep Boys–a use he said was never considered.
“People that live in Litchfield Park, really care about the community, and I think that’s wonderful, that’s something we all share,” O’Connor said.
He added that he doesn’t think all residents share the same vision for Litchfield.
“There’s a contingency of folks in Litchfield Park–and they have every right to that opinion — but I don’t think they want anything change,” he said.
Church leadership, for their part, are in support of the project.
Rev. Roberto Romero, senior pastor at Vástago wrote a letter to city leaders in favor of the rezone. Romero wrote that selling the church to O'Connor would reduce costs considerably, allowing the church to remain in place.
"We are excited about our partnership with Brian O’Connor and think the community and our church will be benefited with his project," Romero wrote in an undated letter.
Opinions were divided at a well-attended, but relatively mild July 12 planning and zoning meeting held at Souers Hall, less than a mile from the property in question.
Commissioner Vickilyn Alvey started the discussion by addressing misconceptions reflected in many passionate letters sent to the city in fervent opposition to the project.
“I've read every letter and every email…sent to the city,” Alvey said. “I'd like to just say that we're not heathens, we're not anti-God, we do not hate the church, because that has been the tone of some of the letters and the feedback that we've received,” she said.
Alvey added that the rezone has been a fluid process and was unsure if those in opposition were aware of recent concessions made by the applicant to preserve the church and its existing body of worshipers.
But some residents see the plans as a threat to their neighborhood and have not wavered in their opposition regardless of any deal with the church.
“I’ve lived in Litchfield Park for 20 years. I’ve seen beautiful fields of cotton, roses and citrus replaced by warehouses and homes so close together, you can reach out your window and touch your neighbor’s house,” Robin Baker-Cook wrote in a neighborhood group in response to the development.
“One of the draws of Litchfield Park was its peaceful lifestyle,” she continued. “We are being surrounded by the urban sprawl of Phoenix and it’s being reflected in the decline of the quality of life we once enjoyed.”
Several people — some with pink ribbons pinned to their tops — expressed concern about the creep of commercial zoning into residential areas, and the associated noise, traffic and increased activity it could bring.
Some made the point that the Litchfield Square development planned just down the street would become the city’s shopping hub, and that other mixed-use developments need not encroach upon neighborhoods.
“Litchfield Park is known to be a residential community,” resident Carl Hartman said at a July 12 meeting.
“We have taken great steps at defining the city center, Litchfield Square, and that's where commercial development should occur. Not on the periphery,” Hartman said, referring to the major development underway at the northeast corner of Litchfield Road and Wigwam Boulevard.
Hartman added that he once heard O’Connor say that The Thomas could become the south entrance to Litchfield Square, which will be built less than a mile south of the site.
“Nothing could be more insane than to try to funnel all the traffic” by Litchfield elementary school and the various parks along the road to city center, Hartman said.
O’Connor clarified in an email that what he had said was that he’d be willing to allow the city to install a sign “on the corner of Indian School and Old Litchfield Rd. to have a "south" entrance connecting to Litchfield Square."
“The point was I wanted to work with the city and show that we want to be a complement to that development versus competing,” O’Connor said. “If that idea was received well then great, if not no worries too.”
“We are focused on being a small, intimate neighborhood project, as our corner is substantially smaller than the city development,” he continued.
O’Connor acknowledges that the project will bring increased traffic, as a third-party traffic study showed. However, he said the level of traffic projected is still in compliance with city ordinances.
Speakers at the July 12 meeting were by no means universally opposed to the project. Residents and area business owners voiced their support for the proposal.
“I see the rezoning as a spectacular opportunity to expand and deepen the offerings, and as an asset to the side of town,” said resident David Drew. He also applauded that the structures would be preserved from an environmental standpoint.
Kameran Schaffner, owner of local interior design firm K Design, also voiced her support.
“The lack of available retail office and commercial space in the West Valley, and specifically, in Litchfield Park, poses additional challenges for small business owners who want to grow and build their brand within the community,” Schaffner said.
“This lifestyle center will provide these small businesses a place to do that, while still maintaining the neighborhood charm that is currently here,” she continued.
At the meeting, O’Connor’s representative Jason Harrington presented an amended plan to the commission, what he called a compromise in response to outcry. (O’Connor was not present in the meeting while his application was discussed.)
Commissioners, expressing apprehension at changes made to the plans, ultimately decided not to take a vote, but to continue the public hearing until the commission meets again on Aug. 9.
But even if opponents successfully halt ‘The Thomas,’ Vástago still has plans to sell the building — a decision that was reached during the pandemic. It’s a gamble as to who might ultimately purchase it and for what purpose.
Harrington pointed out that the current applicant is a local, who has assured that parish buildings will remain intact. If the project is halted, it could lead to an even less-desirable outcome for residents opposing the current proposal.
Harrington said that “having a local invest their passions into the urban fabric of Litchfield Park,” will be a win for the city, and preferable to non-local — or even out-of-state — entity that could come along in the future.
Madeline Ackley Salazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or found on Twitter @Mkayackley.