As city officials look forward to a new year, their main focus will be on the downtown City Center development. After decades of planning, City Center will finally start to take shape in 2020, with infrastructure improvements and likely the start of land transfers to public companies with plans to build.
“It’s a game-changer for our residents and for this whole area if we can get it to develop in the right way so that it becomes a destination that people want to come to,” said Mayor Tom Schoaf.
The plans for a downtown retail center around City Hall began in 1996, then called the Village Center. Plans stalled largely because the vacant property was privately owned by landowners unable or unwilling to build.
Now that the city has purchased the 30 acres of vacant land around City Hall, it has spent the last few years revisiting and reshaping the vision for what is now called City Center. City Council’s vision is for a mix of offices, restaurants and high-end retail surrounding a park for residents to congregate and to host city events and festivals.
In 2020, residents will witness the first tangible steps of City Center taking shape. Village Parkway will be extended from Litchfield Road into the vacant 30 acres, and an intersection will be created at Litchfield Road and Village Parkway. It’s yet to be decided whether it will connect with Old Litchfield Road on the east side of the property or stop part-way through. Staff is also studying whether a traffic signal or traffic circle would be better for the intersection.
Curb and gutter will be installed along the east side of Litchfield Road, on City Center’s western edge, and the existing wall will be taken down. The curb and gutter must be installed before the wall comes down to keep cars from driving from Litchfield Road onto the vacant lot. In past Council meetings, the mayor and other Council members have mentioned the wall should come down to promote visibility onto the City Center property — so potential investors can see what’s developing on the property and perhaps decide to get involved, and once the center is active so passers-by can see what stores and restaurants City Center has to offer.
Construction of the park inside City Center is also underway as staff is installing curb and gutter and beginning to work on landscaping and irrigation. The park will not be a traditional neighborhood park with a playground or sport courts but will be an open green space for people to walk through and congregate for things like picnics. While much or all of the land around it may still be vacant, city officials plan for the park to be completed and available for city events by the end of the year.
City staff is researching what utilities, such as electricity, water and gas lines, already exist under the property. They also must determine which existing utilities are still active and which are abandoned and may need to be removed. Once land is sold or leased and businesses begin plans to build, staff will need to research what new utilities may need to be installed to accommodate businesses’ needs.
While there’s no guarantee, it’s also possible that construction of City Center businesses could start in 2020 as discussion of land transfers is already underway with interested business owners.
Mr. Schoaf and City Manager Bill Stephens believe the parcel most likely to move first is a two-acre parcel on the east side of the City Center property between The Church at Litchfield Park to the north and existing restaurants and retail businesses to the south.
The mayor said a city manager working group has been created to put together documentation to offer the piece of land for sale, and the land could be out for bid in the next few weeks. Mr. Schoaf and Mr. Stephens said a company is interested in building office and retail space there, but have not released which company.
The city has the option of selling its land to companies or leasing it to them to allow them to build. Mr. Stephens noted that leasing land is the “easier” way because when selling, the city cannot simply choose a buyer and sell it to them. Because it is public land, the city must put the land out for bid so all interested parties can have a fair chance to buy it.
Mr. Stephens said some interested companies want to lease and others want to buy. City Council has said it’s open to either as a possibility.
He said the company looking at the two acres by the church was originally looking at buying but may change to the lease option to avoid potentially being outbid in a land sale and missing out.
“They may change and decide, ‘We don’t want to risk that.’ Because they would like to relocate their company headquarters and offices and then they’d like to build some retail under that,” Mr. Stephens said.
Mr. Schoaf noted that the city will lease or sell to a company or individual if it has the financial means to buy the property, can build right away and will build something the Council wants on the property. Documentation with potential investors will state that companies aren’t allowed to buy City Center land only to sit on it for years. They must be prepared to start the planning and construction process immediately.
Mr. Schoaf and Mr. Stephens noted that several companies have expressed interest in various parcels throughout the City Center property. Both feel that a company investing and beginning plans to build on the two-acre parcel near the church could both spark other companies to invest in the area and shape what type of companies want to join.
“If things move forward in the right way, then they may be the premiere first project, if you will, in our City Center and sends the word to the world that we’re open for people to come,” Mr. Stephens said.
Mr. Schoaf noted the main things the city can control in terms of how quickly City Center develops are the infrastructure projects, all planned for this year. The rest depends on how quickly the market wants to invest.
“We could see other parcels come down the path fairly quickly, or we may not,” Mr. Schoaf said. “A lot of it depends on whether our economy stays like it has been. Because right now is a good time for people to invest and expand… It is absolutely up to the market.”
The mayor said that when planning a development that should be around for generations, City Council and staff will stress quality rather than speed.
“The emphasis is on doing it correctly. We’ll see how fast or slow it goes,” Mr. Schoaf said.
Aside from the early stages of businesses investing in City Center, the southeast corner of Camelback and Dysart roads is the biggest hotspot in the city for new businesses this year.
The Dignity Health Emergency Room on the direct corner is constructed and in the process of getting its license. It will open likely within a few months.
Elsewhere on the site an AutoZone and a Hines self-storage facility are both under construction. A Taco Bell and a Quick N Clean car wash are also both planned for the property, and Mr. Schoaf said another fast food restaurant has plans to build but the city has not made public which restaurant.
Down the road, at El Mirage and Camelback roads, there’s vacant property that could see some movement in the coming year. Recently added to the site are a Burger King, Christian Brothers Automotive and a Caliber Collision.
Other than those corners, and City Center, there’s little unused room left to build in the 3.3 square miles of Litchfield Park.
“Other than a few parcels in town for houses… we’re almost going to be built out,” Mr. Stephens said. “…Then it will be a matter of simply keeping our businesses going and helping them to be successful in the city.”
The Litchfield Park Historical Society and Museum also continues its transition into the historic Paul Litchfield house, which was donated by the Blackford-Denny family, Mr. Litchfield’s descendants.
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