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"Compatable Land Use: Growing Arizona airport stirs challenges"
Wednesday, July 4, 2012
Growing Mesa airport stirs challenges
By Gary Nelson
The Arizona Republic
It is a development opportunity - and challenge - almost without precedent
in the country.
On one side of the road, a major airport is emerging from the remains of a
former Air Force base.
On the other side, developers now want to make money off the 500 acres they
purchased eight years ago in hopes of a future payoff.
And in the middle is Mesa, eagerly anticipating both developments but
nervous that they might not mesh and, at worst, actually work against each
Those worries stepped onto center stage last week as the City Council got
its first look at Pacific Proving Grounds North, a development that will
emerge in coming years under auspices of Scottsdale-based Harvard
It's on nearly 500 acres arranged in roughly triangular fashion, with its
northwestern corner at Ray and Ellsworth roads and angling southeastward.
The alignment of Arizona 24 - a future leg of the Gateway Freeway - forms
most of its southern border.
The land formerly was part of the General Motors Desert Proving Ground.
Phoenix businessman William Levine bought 2,400 acres of the GM property for
$45 million in 2004. Two years later, Scottsdale-based DMB Associates bought
the remaining 5 square miles of GM land for $265 million.
DMB jumped ahead of Levine in developing the land and already has broken
ground at Ray and Signal Butte roads for about 800 homes, the first of which
are expected to reach the market in about a year.
Pacific Proving Grounds North lies southwest of that DMB development.
It is pitched in city documents as a "new traditional" community closely
tied to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, a place of "classic, tree-lined
streets," "compact, walkable neighborhoods" and "purposeful architecture."
All of which sounds nice, council members said, but it won't mean a thing if
the result is sprawl and an aesthetic - or actual - conflict with the
The airport itself, which until 1993 was Williams Air Force Base, is
accelerating plans for a large terminal directly across Ellsworth Road from
the Harvard development.
The airport envisions a 20-year development time line with a total
investment of $1.5 billion in 2010 dollars. It expects offices and a
hotel/conference center to rise along Ray and Ellsworth roads.
The airport currently serves two airlines, Spirit and Allegiant Air, and is
aiming for more in hopes of becoming a major reliever for Phoenix Sky Harbor
Mayor Scott Smith, who sits on the Gateway airport board, said ground could
be broken within five years for the terminal, replacing a
soon-to-be-obsolete facility on the airport's eastern side.
With that coming down the pike, Smith and other council members said Pacific
Proving can't afford to blow its first and best chance to get its
Foremost on Smith's mind was the project's proximity to the airport.
"I just want to make sure we recognize we're a mile from an airport," Smith
said. "Granted, we're not in the flight path. . But I still want to be real,
real careful that we don't back into a suburban, edge-of-the-city kind of
approach. When you're a mile from the airport, those two have a tendency to
That conflict could arise even if future residents sign "avigation"
easements acknowledging that airplane noise will be part of their
neighborhood's ambiance. City officials have said one way to alleviate that
concern is to create a dense, urban-style area whose very look signals a
relatively noisy environment.
Mesa planning director John Wesley said Pacific Proving is aiming for an
overall urban feel. But based on his presentation last week, council members
"I don't want to inadvertently turn this into a suburban sprawl,
red-tile-roof development," said Vice Mayor Scott Somers, whose council
district includes the development area.
Smith fretted that could happen unless the city demands otherwise.
For one thing, he was leery of a proposed site plan that seems to push
commercial areas, even small-scale neighborhood retail, to the edges and
away from homes. He would rather see small shops next door to residences in
the manner of older neighborhoods that grew organically."If you're looking
at almost a half-mile from one end to the other and have nothing but houses,
that doesn't create an urban feel," Smith said. The upshot is that people
jump in their cars to run errands, exactly the opposite of what Mesa and the
developers say they want.
Smith also wants the developer to all but forbid the use of block walls
between various land uses. The mayor, a former homebuilder, said he fought
for years to knock down barriers between his developments and neighboring
Smith acknowledged his statements may seem idealistic but said, "I'd rather
shoot high, and then if reality sets in and we can't accomplish all those
things, at least we've elevated" the development.
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