Panel

Gilbert planners urged the commission to require the developer to revise the 40-acre mixed-use The Gilmore but members OK’d it anyway. (Town of Gilbert)

Gilbert planning staff said a developer tried to pull a fast one by redesigning two buildings and putting in a drive-thru restaurant after Town Council approved plans for the 40-acre, mix-used development in August.

The Gilmore includes a grocery store and lofts above retail at the northwest corner of Val Vista Drive and Germann Road near the Mercy Gilbert Medical Center. Apartment units total about 300.

“As a result of the changes at that corner by the applicant we have determined that the proposed changes to both buildings/PADs and the design of them are no longer in substantial conformance with the development plan,” senior planner Keith Newman said at the Nov. 2 Planning Commission meeting. “A plan approved by Town Council and must be revised to comply.”

According to Newman, Thompson Thrift Development changed a 6,500-square-foot retail building along Germann to a 2,800-square-foot building with a drive-thru.

At the intersection of Germann and Val Vista, the developer also revised two 4,000-square-foot retail buildings with a 2,000-square-foot patio space in the middle into a single 10,000-square-foot building instead, according to Newman.

“Please note that through the entire rezoning and design review process that these changes were not discussed with staff,” he said.

Newman said it was always understood by the applicant throughout the whole process, and it was communicated with them in many meetings that drive-thru restaurants would only be permitted along Val Vista.

“The Germann Road frontage all the way to the corner, which is a prominent corner in the town, would include uses that further enhance the visual appeal and sense of arrival as people enter into the Val Vista Medical growth area,” Newman said.

The addition of the drive-thru restaurant along Germann Road and the changes to the buildings don’t meet the vision for that corner, he added.

One of the conditions for approval of the project’s site plan would require the developer to comply with the council-approved development plan, Newman said.

In order to change that design, the developer would need to apply for an amendment of its planned area development, return to the commission with the new design and then proceed to council for final approval.

The project’s zoning attorney Adam Baugh argued for flexibility, saying that building a loft over a commercial project is a challenge and takes creativity to design.

“What we’ve done is have a development that’s anchored by a grocery store,” Baugh said. “At one point we thought we were going to be the first Amazon Fresh grocery store on the West Coast and we designed a plan for that.”

But that plan fell through and the developer pivoted and brought in a Safeway for the anchor.

He said Safeway has different requirements in particular with respect to the view corridor than Amazon.

“Because of the leasing requirement for Safeway we had to reduce the size of that building,” Baugh said. “Previously it was a 6,500-square-foot building. That was what we needed to do in order to land the major-anchor grocer or major-anchor tenant for the center.”

He added that the fast-casual ChopShop wanted to come to this location and it required a drive-thru.

He said it was an “insubstantial change” and actually a reduction in square feet in the exact same location as before.

“The margins on these deals are paper thin,” Baugh said. “Building loft residential above commercial is really, really hard to do. We had to make up that difference somewhere.”

So, the developer looked at the two buildings that included the patio/breezeway area and enclosed it.

“Our enclosure is in the exact same location as before,” he said. “I can’t think of a change that’s more in substantial compliance with the plan than something like this. Our overall square footage is actually less than 1% less than what we were before.”

He said the developer’s original plan was designed with the best hopes and intentions and with zero users in tow.

Inevitably, the developer needed to adjust the plan when a major tenant leaves in order to attract a new one, according to Baugh.

He disagreed with Newman’s assertion that the approved zoning for the project locked the developer “into the very, very rigid plans that don’t allow me to change even less than 1% of my overall square footage.”

“It’s the same project, it’s the same intent,” Baugh said. “It’s just being flexible to the shifting demographics and more importantly just trying to attract a tenant to come to your commercial shopping center.

“At the end day our building is in the same location as before, same central footprints as before,” he said. “It’s just a little bit smaller but the same walkability, the same access, the same design…that you’ve seen from the beginning to the end.”

Planning Manager Eva Cutro told commissioners they could continue the item and allow the developer to work on a plan that is agreeable to staff.

“We do not believe that this matches the PAD that was approved,” she said.

The commission, however, agreed with Baugh and voted 7-0 to approve the site plan.

“I have no problem with these changes,” Commissioner Brian Andersen said. “They seem reasonable to me.

“As an architect, I’ve done a good amount of PADs around Arizona and the PAD is always looked at as kind of here’s a general idea of what we’re doing here, understanding that marketing conditions are going to dictate this design changes.”

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