COVID-19 has slowed or stopped the way of life in many areas, but residents of the Original Town Site are hoping 2020 is remembered as a time for a revitalization.
City Councilman Ken Remley thinks the recent completion of the new Heritage at Surprise complex at Nash and Rimrock streets will be the spark to make that happen.
After a few years from planning to completion, the new affordable housing complex that had a controversial beginning finally has residents.
It’s only fitting, then, that major artwork that adorns the courtyard took six months and a total of about 2,000 hours of work to complete.
“Yeah, this took a while,” said Connie Whitlock, the executive director of WHAM, who has produced about a dozen public art projects like this one in the West Valley.
Five-foot tall “HERITAGE” letters made up of 3,000 hand-painted tiles overlook the playground, with each letter containing its own theme.
For instance, the “H” has ancient Aztec symbols throughout. The “R” highlights the region’s citrus history. The “A” focuses on music.
There’s even a letter that celebrates the history of the Floyd Gaines Field, which is the former site of Heritage — and the reason for its controversial beginnings. The city is planning to move the park across the street later this year.
Ms. Whitlock and Marty Wolfe began the project last fall. The community was able to lend a hand during the Fiesta Grande celebration that took place in the Original Town Square in October.
“At a couple of events, we had kids painting some of the tiles,” Ms. Whitlock said. “But Marty and I made pretty much all of them by scratch.”
It’s a big piece of art for a big project that Maricopa County deemed was needed in Surprise.
About eight years ago, the Housing Authority of Maricopa County partnered with private developer Gorman and Co. to build new affordable housing units in various projects across the Valley. Surprise made the list, but ground wasn’t broken until 2019.
The county manages the affordable housing program, which requires all residents to qualify because of income, and offers lower rents. It’s a different program from the housing choice voucher program, or Section 8.
Mr. Remley said he’s hoping the modern look of the project will help revitalize the area. It’s also making a small dent in Surprise’s need for affordable housing, especially in lower-income areas such as the Original Town Site.
“This is transformative,” Mr. Remley said. “One of my big goals when I ran for election in the first place, all I wanted to accomplish was to restore community pride, and it’s happening big time.”
Mr. Remley is also pushing for a new recreation center and pool for the area, but, of course, everything is up in the air right now because of the coronavirus’s impact on the budget.
“You can see it all over the OTS,” Mr. Remley said. “New homes are being built. People are lot prouder of their properties now. People are keeping their yards up.”
Heritage’s beginning wasn’t as glorious as its opening — but that’s all because of where it’s located.
It sits on the site of the old Gaines Field, which is the original site of baseball in Surprise.
It’s named after a former city councilman who helped push to build the field.
It was also the former site of the old rodeos that would be held each year in the early days of Surprise’s incorporation as a town.
Early meetings about the revival project were met with stiff opposition by some in the area, including one meeting where police needed to escort some people out.
“You had to be there to appreciate it,” Mr. Remley recalled. “We had people screaming and hollering, and now people say, ‘That’s really nice.’”
A petition was even circulated to stop the project to no avail.
“Ninety percent of them [signing the petition] didn’t even live in the city,” Mr. Remley said. “I don’t know if any of them lived in the OTS.”
Peter Meyer, lead architect on the project for Gorman and Companies, said the drama didn’t stop the project.
“It was a rough start, but it was a strong finish, and that’s the main thing,” Mr. Meyer said.
Heritage opened more than a month ago and its 100 units are already nearly 80% occupied.
It’s hard to tell it’s so full on a typical day because of how quiet the grounds are with coronavirus keeping many people indoors.
“Where’s the riff raff?” Mr. Remley joked about some of the fears some residents had about the complex drawing in crime.
The county expects to have it completely filled by the end of the month and already has a waiting list for some of the units.
Most of the apartments are three bedrooms and, strangely, there is only one two-bedroom unit in the whole complex.
Because of the controlled rent prices, nothing is over $1,000 when they’re available, and 715-square foot one-bedroom units go for $711. Three-bedrooms with two bathrooms are currently available for $800.
The community features six buildings with a courtyard in the middle of them. It includes a computer center, where students can do homework and get connected to the Internet. That’s especially important these days with remote learning in effect.
Other features include workforce connection services, financial literacy help, a kids café, afterschool activities and youth programming.
The lobby has historical photos of the area, including some dating back 100 years.
“We had a lot of our favorite subcontractors on this project and it shows,” Mr. Meyer said.
For historical buffs who were sad to see the old Gaines Park go, Mr. Meyer incorporated a historical marker in the courtyard to honor it.
“I had this idea: ‘I wonder where second base was,’” Mr. Meyer said. “So, I overlayed the original survey over our new site plan, and it turned out second base was right here.”
Mr. Meyer pointed to a plaque on the ground that’s in the shape of a base, exactly where the original second base sat.
“That means a lot to the Gaines family,” Mr. Remley said.
The Gaines family plans to attend a dedication for the new field when it’s completed later this year.
The courtyard also features a bench that has a small plaque memorializing a 20-year-old construction worker who died in a car crash while the project was still under construction.
The complex also has some cost-saving and environmental features including an artificial turf in the courtyard and shaded solar parking, which will give residents a rebate through a program with APS.
“That’s a win-win-win situation,” Mr. Meyer said.
The official grand opening for the Heritage will happen this summer, likely in July, Mr. Meyer said.
To contact the Heritage about living there, call the Housing Authority of Maricopa County at 602-744-4500.
Editor’s Note: Jason Stone can be reached at email@example.com.