That was the theme Nov. 19 from panelists on the Urban Land Institute’s Technical Assistance Panel. The group was put together to help the town take a fresh look at its oldest and largest employment area.
Amy Malloy, the managing principal at Evolve Ventures and the panel moderator, praised the town for looking at the area before it declines.
“Gilbert's whole paradigm of the ‘City of the Future,’ the idea is preparing for weathering future storms in the best possible way," she said. "I come from commercial development, and it's really easy to have everything be great when the winds beneath your sails and to keep charting the open waters. And it's very hard when things are against you. I think there's a certain character it takes to anticipate that things may not be perfect always.”
The nine panelists, who came from different facets of development, have spent six months studying the area and toured it before the panel discussion.
Malloy said her biggest takeaway was the town needs to look at existing land use constraints.
“Do some planning and visioning, but marry that to the market reality,” she said. “What is the market saying to you right now wants to be developed, and then how can you refine that to help the area sustain and thrive?”
Malloy said it would be important for the town to partner with area businesses to sustain what is already there and invite in what the town wants.
The panelists agreed the area could use an infusion of multifamily housing to help grow the employment base.
“Rather than discourage multifamily, encourage it and let it drive employment,” said panelist Stan Shafer, the chief operating officer for the Holuloa Cos., a real estate investment firm out of Tucson. “People can walk or ride their bike to work. Let the [Loop] 202 be your area where people drive into work.”
That would help solve one of the problems often discussed for the area: parking. Large setbacks for the commercial buildings from the street, required by code, also were frequently cited.
The panelists also talked about the importance of the Neely connector route, part of the Heritage District’s most recent redevelopment plan, meant to make give that district a western route in and out of the district. Commuters using that route would be going through the Northwest corridor.
Panelists discussed the importance of partnering with area schools, and panelist Charley Freericks, the senior vice president of Catellus, a land development firm, said he was concerned about falling grades for some area schools.
Some panelists noted the area did not feel like much of the rest of Gilbert and that developing character would be important. Malloy mentioned a wall mural along the Neely connector. Carolyn Oberholtzer, a partner in the real estate law firm Bergin, Frakes, Smalley & Oberholtzer, said a regular “food truck parade” could give workers an easy way to eat and be a part of the area’s culture, as with Arizona State University’s SkySong business park in Scottsdale or The Esplanade business area in Phoenix’s Camelback Corridor.
None of the panelists were from Gilbert, ensuring an outside perspective. Gilbert Economic Development Director Dan Henderson called that “incredibly insightful.”
“I think this group is giving us a lot to contemplate as we continue our public involvement and public engagement in the area over this next fiscal year,” he said.
Henderson said staff plans to present an area plan to council around June. Council then will give direction to staff on how to proceed, he said.
“We are excited to work with this group and all the stakeholders in the area to develop a plan that addresses the needs the wants of today, tomorrow and well into the future,” Henderson said.