After nearly 20 years of being tucked in south of Bell Road with an empty lot in front of its campus, Willow Canyon High School will have some company.
The Surprise City Council unanimously approved a zoning change for 11 acres from commercial to high density residential. The parcel is on the southwest corner of Bell and Citrus roads, north and west of the entrance to Willow Canyon.
It will be paired with a 24-acre parcel to the west to form a gated community of more than 300 rental properties, including single-family detached and town homes — both with two-car garages — by Scottsdale-based Sun Belt Holdings and Boston-based Rockpoint Group.
“It would match the zoning of the 24-acre parcel to the west, which allows for 8 to 18 dwelling units to the acre and is master planned for a maximum of 432 units at a density of 18 units per acre. Overall, if combined, the 35-acre site would result in a 315 single-family rental project with a density of 9 dwelling units per acre. This is far less than originally planned,” Surprise planner Chris Sexton said during the March 1 meeting.
The site plan for this proposed development is under review by city staff.
Phoenix-based Carefree Partners Inc. has owned this land for about three decades under the label Surprise Village Company. Early in that time frame the rest of the surrounding land turned to Surprise Farms and Arizona Traditions north of Bell.
“There’s a gentleman sitting behind me named Rick West. He’s been working on this property since 1992, so believe it of not it’s been 30 years that he’s floated around these parts, This was originally zoned in 1994 and approved by the council,” Carefree Partners Vice President Scott Phillips said.
Council member Jack Hastings asked how long Carefree Partners has been marketing the property for commercial and what kind of interest was received.
“We’ve probably been marketing the commercial for the last 10-12 years. We reconfigured the commercial conceptually at some point, just to see if we could get more traction. We elongated along the frontage on Bell Road on both sides of Citrus and we were marketing a total of 16 acres for various usages,” Phillips said. “We’ve had two offers, one for mini-storage and one for a Circle K thus far.”
An online and in-person citizen meeting Sept. 23, allowed nearby residents to voice their qualms with the proposal.
“Concerns raised were traffic, density and school impacts. After the neighborhood meeting and the planning and zoning commission meeting city staff received e-mails and phone calls. Concerns were the high price of housing, density again or that it was Section 8 housing,” Sexton said.
A lower density on the portion of this proposal originally envisioned as apartments, plus replacing commercial development with medium density should lower the potential traffic on the property significantly.
Phillips said traffic impact studies show the volume of cars will be about a quarter of what it would be if the land remained apartments and commercial projects. He also said the nearby high school and number of special events and cars going in an out of Willow Canyon every day was a consideration when trying to lower the potential traffic impact from this property.
For its part, the Dysart Unified School District backs the project.
“We welcome our new neighbors to the area and are excited about the opportunity to serve them. Our sprawling community is a great place to call home, and Dysart is proud to offer extraordinary schools and programs for these families to choose from,” district officials stated in am e-mail.
Deborah and David Gentry both recently moved to this part of Surprise.
Both spoke at the meeting, and have mixed feelings about the rentals.
“We are happy it’s reduced density and that it will not be commercial,” Deborah Gentry said.”Parking is a problem already. Many houses have more than two cars. Surprise Farms residents already complain about people who aren’t residents parking on their streets. So we’re worried about parking from this complex.”
The zoning change also will lead to this area finally getting street lights as part of a new street light improvement district.’
And Vice Mayor Aly Cline is confident that improved land will benefit people that have lived nearby for years.
“Dirt does not improve your property value,” Cline said.
Also, as Mayor Skip Hall said there is an acute need of for rent properties in Surprise.
A healthy metro housing market has about 12% of its properties as rentals, Phillips said. Surprise is closer to 5% Hall said.
“What’s interesting about this is originally when this was zoned, 58 acres was zoned here for high-density residential,” Phillips said. “The reality is, this build-to-rent product didn’t exist then, It was either going to be apartments or something like apartments that was high density. The build to rent format actually gave us the opportunity to revisit the urban form in this area, and provide a really solid transition, first with the Homes by Towne project on the east side of Citrus. Some people know it as the Mark Taylor project. That density went down to almost nine units per acre — 250 units on 27 acres. On the west side it’s the same thing. We’re taking a good transition from single family to the build to rent concept.”
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