Is Gilbert ready to grow up?
The leaders of the town that has steadfastly refused to incorporate as a city are close to changing the zoning ordinance to allow for taller buildings, in a bid to shore up Gilbert's tax base.
But it can be a hard sell.
"Gilbert absolutely hates high-rises," Mayor Steve Berman said during the council's annual retreat Saturday, recalling the controversy that surrounded a proposed five-story building at Baseline and Gilbert roads. He made it clear he doesn't like the idea, but is likely to support it in the name of economic development at a council vote scheduled for Sept. 9.
The plan would confine the buildings that could go as high as 11 stories to areas near freeways or Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, which still puts them in the proximity of numerous neighborhoods, like Allen Ranch at Pecos and Gilbert roads.
To Nino DiGiulio, Allen Ranch HOA vice president, Gilbert wouldn't be Gilbert anymore if the taller buildings came in, because the town is known for being a low-slung suburb dominated by community-level businesses.
"I'd be opposed to the bigger buildings just for aesthetics' sake," he said. "Gilbert is known for a residential look. By bringing in the bigger buildings I think it would change the look of Gilbert."
He doesn't agree with the argument that the extra height is needed to bring more jobs to the town. "I think if we go to a three-story and use the rest of the land in Gilbert that would be enough, four stories max," he said.
Fellow Allen Ranch homeowner Fidelis Garcia said the town has been moving in this direction for years, and supports the overall idea of adding more office towers.
"I think it's great forward thinking on the town's part to have that capitalization on all the development the city of Chandler is doing around the airport," he said. The Chandler Airpark area sits just east of the line between Gilbert and Chandler.
Garcia said his neighbors have no objection to the building heights either, as long as the really tall buildings aren't too close to their homes. "Nobody wants a 10-story building across the street," he said.
Under the town's current rules, developers can build three-story office buildings, without a permit, on land zoned for office or commercial uses. That goes up to six stories in the mostly undeveloped Cooley Station area around Recker and Williams Field roads. Anything taller than that requires a conditional use permit from the town, and there's no cap on how tall the buildings could rise.
The proposed changes would give developers the right to build office structures four to six stories tall within the designated areas, and the option to apply for a permit to go as high as 11 stories.
The proposed law is complex, with the maximum allowable heights based further on the zoning within, and in some cases immediately surrounding, those areas. Town planner Mike Millilo said there's a reason for that: the lengths and lawyers the town has gone to in order to lawyer-proof the ordinance.
"We've never had two individual outside attorneys review an ordinance, just to make sure it was pretty tight, and it wouldn't be too difficult to administer it," he said.
The draft ordinance would not allow any buildings taller than three stories within 200 feet of single-family houses.
Still, the town deleted a 20-acre chunk of land at Higley and Ray roads from the eligible land area after residents from the Rancho Corona subdivision just to the west objected. Millilo said since then the neighbors have not voiced any objections.
Cindy Sacha lives in the Lexington Estates neighborhood near Mercy Gilbert Medical Center, which is trying to ensure that building heights in an area to the north are minimized. "I don't have real strong feelings about the taller buildings in general, but whether they're right up against residential," she said. "Then there are concerns about privacy, about wanting to be able to go into your backyard. When you're in your swimming pool you don't want somebody from three stories up being able to look down at your pool."
Former Town Councilman Larry Morrison said the controversial building Berman alluded to was inappropriate when it was approved 20 years ago when Gilbert intended to be "not just a bedroom community, but a farm bedroom community."
When it came to U.S. 60 on the north edge of town, "they decided not to annex land between the freeway and Baseline, and they basically let Mesa have all of it, and in retrospect it was probably devastating as far as the economic base is concerned," he said.
Now that Gilbert has considerable freeway frontage, the broader economic indicators are not encouraging, at least for the short term. David Stadnick built and is trying to lease office space in what is now Gilbert's tallest building, the five-story Rome Towers on Pecos Road just east of Val Vista Drive.
He said the building, which opened at the beginning of the year, is now approaching 50 percent occupancy.
"A lot of deals went away in September and October of last year," he said. But he said that Gilbert is well-positioned to be a business hub for the south East Valley over the long term.