A majority of negative opinions from public commentary and a lengthy presentation by Mayor Sharon Wolcott in opposition to the Mattamy Homes’ project at Surprise Civic Center led into a divided city council denying the developer’s plat by a 4-3 margin June 6.
The three-hour-plus process with more than 20 public speakers going on the record and more sending in comments via email, appears to move the development of — in effect — downtown Surprise into limbo. Mayor Wolcott proposed a meeting between several council members, property owner Surprise Center Development Company, city staff, City Attorney Robert Wingo and three members of the Planning and Zoning Commission.
If that meeting or some other negotiation comes to fruition, it may be a while — city staff, the council and others were part of executive sessions on the proposed 56-acre development with a mix of single-family homes and duplexes for most of the past six months.
In the end a minor plan amendment to the downtown plan allowing single-family residential development in the City Center proved the major point of contention for a majority of the council and 16 public speakers. Following an executive session Wolcott, Vice Mayor Todd Tande and councilmen Jim Hayden and Ken Remley voted to deny the plat while councilmen Skip Hall, John Williams and Roland Winters voted in favor of it.
“For the purpose of integrity, what we’re looking at is not a minor change, but a complete major redo,” resident Ken Wright said. “It’s not what we saw when were asked to vote (on the General Plan in 2013). It’s a big lie. If you have integrity you will not support this. If you don’t have any integrity go ahead and vote for it. I would like to propose a public hearing where people can one and voice their opinion. Let’s go back to the start.”
Proponents of the Mattamy project, including four residents and Planning and Zoning Commissioner Matthew Keating — after the commission unanimously approved it May 20 — said more dense home developments downtown should follow but the market will not support multi-story housing in the Civic Center right now.
Several speakers also argued that because of an recent uptick in the Valley housing market, starting development with a single-family project now makes the most sense.
“To get a vibrant downtown, you’re going to need some mixed-use properties and you’re not going to put mixed-use properties in there until you have something to start. This is the start. You have one chance to make this right. If Mattamy walks because you deny it, you have set yourself back many years — again,” former councilman Gary “Doc” Sullivan said.
Following the public comments Mayor Wolcott called Surprise Center the signature project of the city, then introduced six documents intended to show the history of the vision for the downtown site — and that single-family home were never a part of that vision.
Among those documents was a submitted planned area development by city staff in September 2000 changing the parcel to a planned area development. However, the mayor said, it was never adopted.
But the city and SCDC have been working with this document as the downtown PAD for 15 years. A revised ordinance passed in January 2001 was discovered in December 2016, just before the Mattamy project went to the planning and zoning commission.
The ordinance also prohibits single-family residential development and requires 10 housing units per acre. Once councilman from that era backed up this interpretation in a statement read onto the record.
“In the early 2000s we spent over $1 million on plans for developing the city Center which the City Council later ignored. Now the owner is proposing to take down (56) acres of prime property to build single-family detached suburban style homes. This proposal is not consistent with the underlying zoning PAD adopted by the council in 2001. It is not consistent with the general plan adopted by you, the voter,” stated former Councilman Bob Vukanovich.
Mayor Wolcott said she voiced opposition to the Mattamy project with city staff since she first heard of it from Carefree Partners Chairman Rick West at a 2016 spring training game. SCDC is operated by Phoenix-based Carefree Partners Investments, L.L.C.
She said she has met with countless builders, and none suggested single family is needed to kick off development.
“Single-family residential does not generate revenue beyond its initial permit. It simply generates more people to serve,” Mayor Wolcott said.
But, those in favor of the Mattamy project argued, documents from more than 15 years ago do not anticipate market conditions today. That’s why the minor plan amendment was proposed, though several in opposition to the project called including single-family homes the textbook definition of a major plan amendment.
Councilman Hall said higher density means higher profit, so he does not believe Mattamy proposed this project as a cash grab or would not support a project with only attached homes if the market supported it.
He also said Mattamy’s home product would be unique in Surprise with the type of elevations and floor plans not seen in the city’s other housing developments. Councilman Hall said the developer also spent considerable time and money learning about Surprise before proposing this plan.
“Rick West and his people are the risk takers. We’re not the risk takers. This is America, we reinforce people taking risks. Mattamy’s not going to take a risk by building something that’s unacceptable,” Councilman Hall said. “Do I want single family houses all over the place? No. But I think it’s an ignition switch to the rest of this property and we can build momentum. If you don’t understand the market it is going to penalize you big time. And I think Mattamy Homes has gone out of its way to understand this market.”
When making her remarks earlier, the mayor took issue with the idea that Mattamy’s project is the key to unlocking Civic Center development.
“I would argue the linchpin is Ottawa University,” Mayor Wolcott said.
The mayor also took issue with the Mattamy Homes sign at the site north of Statler Boulevard
A local business owner took issue with an email sent by the mayor over the weekend encouraging residents to voice opposition to the project.
“When a friend forwarded me an email from the mayor, it inspired me to come here tonight. I feel this email was inconsistent with the pro-business position this city has always promoted. We need more people taking risks and willing to bring into quality housing. Now the mayor wants to stop development and is trying to inspire people opposed to what they want to build. That makes no sense to me,” resident and business owner Kirk Van Metre said.
Another business owner living in Surprise spoke from a different viewpoint. Brenda Maldonado’s store in north Glendale focuses on millennials.
“If you guys make this into a thriving urban development, you’re going to bring in those coffee shops, boutiques and gyms. You’re going to bring in the millennials, or keep the millennials from Ottawa here,” Ms. Maldonado said. “I think it’s unfair to build another single family units that aren’t needed. (Younger residents) shouldn’t feel like they have to move to open businesses or find jobs.”
Vice Mayor Tande said the property needs to be special and that city leaders in the early 2000s had some good thoughts on how to make the area a showcase for Surprise. He said he likes Mattamy’s developments, in particular its lofts, and asked if those could work as an attached product
But, he said the current proposal does not have the density to promote a walkable downtown.
“Mattamy’s not the issue. The public is very hungry for the city to move forward,” Vice Mayor Tande said. “I’m not sure it has the density, a high enough population to add people to walk around. Let’s say there’s 1,000 residents. How many of those residents will be walking a quarter mile at any one time. It’s probably not 500, or even 100.”
Councilman Winters said nixing this development now, after the time, money and extra effort spent by Mattamy sends a signal to other developers. And that signal could stagnate the downtown for years to come.
“We need something to jump start construction on this property. We’ve been vacant far too long. If the council decides to vote against this project I think we’re missing the boat. And there’s not many other boats that are going to stop here and help Surprise develop anything. When the development companies hear that we went this long on this project only to clip it, they’re not going to have a very good opinion,” Councilman Winters said.
Vice Mayor Tande frequently posts council agendas one social media. He said the majority of online feedback from residents is clearly against the proposal.
One of those residents, Tim Jarrell, said he learned of the proposal through Facebook.
“We didn’t want to move to a community that has already been developed. There is a lot of potential here. But what is special about Surprise? It’s a good city but I’m not satisfied with it being a good city,” Mr. Jarrell said. “I want to be in Surprise 10, 20, 30 years from now. I don’t want single-family homes in downtown. Be visionary. Don’t accept the bare minimum.”