Council debates changes to Promenade

When the Promenade shopping mall was first announced, the project ran north from Florence Boulevard to past Kortsen Road and was projected to someday be a part of a massive work/shop/play area.

The present part of the mall was built, but after the national economic downturn, the northern part was sold to a different developer.

That area, now known as Casa Grande Commons, has been reworked in the past, changing areas for residential, apartments, commercial and businesses. It was again before the City Council for the latest change requests.

Points to remember are that, contrary to postings and speculation on social media, the requests do not affect the present Promenade shopping mall and that full development is far in the future — hinging on future growth and the proposed Kortsen Road interchange, which the city does not have the money to build — and could be changed again.

The request brought some sparring among the City Council members when it was first discussed on Jan. 17, but was given final approval during the Feb. 6 council meeting.

As Planning and Development Director Paul Tice told the council during the January consideration, “Another way to think about it is essentially a zone change request. It originally was part of the Casa Grande Regional Shopping Center planned area development, where our mall has been built. The vacant property has been purchased by the Walton Group and it’s being rebranded as a new PAD known as the Casa Grande Commons PAD.”

Tice said a general plan amendment a year-and- a half to two years ago took much of the property out of the residential land use category, changing to commerce and business.

The latest change, he said, shows four areas of Casa Grande Commons, three of which are commercial and one residential, broken down as 414 acres of regional business and 50 acres of residential.

Building height

What caught the attention of Councilman Dick Powell were building heights and separations from the residential area.

In general, Tice said, commercial buildings are limited to 45 feet high, with a 30-foot limit in transitional commercial, such as the small piece in the lower right of the land map (included with this article).

But, there is a proposed exemption in both areas to allow 100 feet for hospitals, office campuses and hotels.

“As we looked at that, staff became a little concerned about 100-foot building heights close to the boundary of this PAD, especially where it might abut an existing or future residential area,” Tice told the council. “We thought putting 100-foot-tall buildings, basically 20, 25 feet from the boundary, from the perimeter, was going to be too close in those areas and we needed to push those buildings further back to achieve land use compatibility.”

He continued, “We developed a compatibility standard — which the applicant has agreed to — which is that all buildings within 200 feet of any part of the boundary that is adjacent to residential, future or existing, would be limited to 30-foot height. So, these 100-foot buildings would have to be 200 feet back from the boundary in those cases. The other compatibility standard was to introduce what we call a landscape buffer at those same locations. The buffer was a 30-foot landscape buffer and in that buffer the trees would have to be increased from our normal size of 24-inch box to 36-inch and half of them would have to be evergreen, so we have a year-round screen and spaced at a maximum of 30 feet apart.”

The developer had asked for exceptions for multifamily buildings, such as apartments next to single-family homes.

“What they’ve asked is that they be allowed to have multifamily structures adjacent to single-family up to 50 feet tall, as long as they provide a 75-foot setback from the single-family site and they provide a landscape buffer that is 25 feet wide and the minimum number of trees at one per 30 feet, 50 percent of which shall be evergreen,” Tice said. “In the PAD, that eastern boundary is adjacent to Hacienda Road. Hacienda will have 110-foot right of way, so the single family in this case is going to be on the east side of Hacienda. So, you would have the intervening street of 110 feet, an additional 75-foot setback and in that 75 foot, a 25-foot landscape setback with the wall and the trees, so actually you’re going to get more than 75, a lot further than 75 feet from the backyards of those single-family homes. On the south area there’s planned to be a collector street that would have a 60-feet right of way. And again, any single-family homes built to the south of here will have the intervening street, then the 25-foot landscape and then a building setback of 75 feet.”

He continued, “Really, the only location in this PAD that multifamily can be built is along the eastern border of that yellow area, and that’s because the general plan requires that multifamily housing have primary direct access onto an arterial or collector street. For this reason, staff believes that it would be appropriate to grant the exception. We think that actually with the exception, which requires the increased building setback, the landscape buffer, we’ll get a better outcome than our current code, which allows two-story buildings to be put 20 feet away from the property without the landscape setback.”

Tice said a close example is Tierra Pointe, adding that, “The buildings are 43 feet tall, not 50, and you can see how that is adjacent to McCartney Center of single-family, increased building setback and the landscape buffer, as well, from that single-family home.”

Powell objections

Councilman Powell said, “It seems like we’ve changed our standards, pretty much, by letting other places use it and have it in other PADs and plans. And the two-story for apartments can be done pretty much, if you want to do it now in Casa Grande.”

That’s not the case, Tice responded.

“We haven’t changed things across the board,” he said, “but the code does allow for council to consider and grant exceptions if you think they are appropriate. So, any exception that’s granted, it’s only granted through council action by request.”

It’s probably too early to be making such decisions, Powell said.

“This is going to be a project that’s five, six years, at least, down the road,” he continued. “Before you get onto Kortsen Road you have to have an interchange; you have to know who’s putting up the money to build the interchange. When you give people approval ahead of time, you really don’t know, a future council, you kind of tie their hands. I would rather see us go three-story, which is a story more than we normally grant, and at the time they’re ready, they can come back to council if they can make a case to get the 50-foot.”

He added, “I don’t see why anybody that wants to do it now can’t come in and say we want to build all the apartments 50 feet tall, because you’ve let some others do it and if they’ve done it, everybody should be able to do it. The thing about a 50-foot apartment that makes it a little bit different than a hospital or something else, this is where people live and have all their belongings. They’ve got kids. Everybody’s in there. In a hotel, people check in (and) it’s pretty empty during the daytime; they sleep overnight; they leave in the morning.”

Fire safety is also an issue, Powell said.

“When you talk about a 50-foot height and try to fight a fire on that tall of an apartment building, there’s some real danger. I talked to our fire chief today about what could happen.

“One of the things that’s interesting is a 50-foot ladder won’t reach the top of a 50-foot building because you have to have the lean effect to get up it. If those started to catch on fire or whatever, it would be problematic to guarantee the safety of the citizens.”

Tice pointed out that major water lines have to be extended to the proposed PhoenixMart to the east, coming through the Kortsen corridor and providing enough water for firefighting in the Casa Grande Commons area.

Fire Chief Scott Miller said, “Sprinkler systems will be built into the system, so you’re going to have it where if something did happen — and not saying it’s catastrophic — such as a room content fire, one or two heads usually will control it and put it out unless there was some catastrophic failure of that. So I don’t see a concern with that.”

He continued, “Regarding 10 stories, we have the two ladder trucks – one’s 100-foot, one’s 114-feet. If you average 10 feet per floor, I would say you could get up to about an eight-story to be able to get to a window. It just depends on the setback, as Councilman Powell has alluded to, because that does lower reach. And that’s where the fire marshal comes in and looks at roadway access around the building, so we always have some kind of an access. As far as the sprinkler system in there, that’s the best protection and we’d be going up and inside and hooking up to the standpipes in the stairwells and then extending on in from there, so it’s designed with those safety features in mind.”

Other council views

Councilman Ralph Varela asked if coming back later for changes could cause obstacles for the developer.

Tice responded, “What would have to happen with that procedure is they would have to come through with another amendment to request for the PAD to amend that, create the new standard. So, it would be the process just like we’re going through now.”

Mayor Craig McFarland asked if that would cost a lot of money.

Tice answered, “It would cost. I think the short answer is, yes, it would be in the neighborhood of processing fees of over $2,000 plus whatever legal fees or consulting fee they would be paid.”

Powell said, “But they probably wouldn’t have any money in construction at the point they ask for that so they could build at 50 feet.”

That is correct, Tice said.

Councilwoman Mary Kortsen wanted to know if fire safety would be considered before anything is built.

“We would never, would we, build something that is not fire safe – we wouldn’t allow it?” she asked.

Tice answered, “No, we would not build it if it was unsafe. There are a couple of opportunities in the process for review of fire safety. One is at the site plan level, where we have just started putting our paper together, citing the building, the parking, the access ways. And the fire marshal is in that review process to make sure that there’s adequate provision for fire access. And at the building permit stage, the building stage, all of these would be sprinkled buildings, and there’s an additional review for fire apparatus access. So, yes, there is opportunity for fire review at different points in the review process.”

If problems are found, the developer would have to alter plans.

Powell was still not happy.

“I’m disappointed, I guess, to see us make deals with almost every developer that comes along, special accommodations,” he said. “Basically what it does, it waters down the effectiveness of our code. And when we make an exception, I can guarantee you that people if they put in apartments they’re going to want it to be 50- foot,” he said. “This is going to be a really busy road on Kortsen. They said it was designed to be on the section lines, where it would be the busiest on the arterial roads, but you can’t keep people and commercial away from a busy highway and that’s going to be an extremely busy road.

“We don’t know yet when it will happen. It’s going to be well into our future unless something pops and somebody comes up and says we’ll pay for that interchange. I just hate to set a precedent right now with this sitting council, because we don’t know what it looks like in five or six years when this thing may be ready to be built. Maybe it’s a good idea; maybe it’s not a good idea. I’d rather set it at three stories and then let them come back. You can always come back and ask for a plan exception. It’s done all the time, if you have a good reason for it. I’m not going to commit civil war or anything about this, but I’m disappointed to see us not enforcing the rules that we have and making, in my mind, too many exceptions to the bigger developers and some of the small people that need something are not necessarily going to get it. It’s usually somebody that’s got a big development going. That does trouble me, but whatever the council’s pleasure is I’ll accept.”

That riled Councilwoman Kortsen.

“Personally, as each of these were brought up over the nine and a half, 10 years I’ve been doing this (on council) I can’t recall a time, truly, where I have voted one way or the other based on the need of a person that was on the proposal, if it’s a small proposal, if it’s another proposal. I don’t care for the inference that I have participated in the idea that the developers come to town and we give them what they want. I can’t recall a time since I’ve been on council that we haven’t actively discussed, had different opinions. There’s been times where I thought of one thing and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s good point,’ to whatever someone said.”

She continued, “And so I just want that to be said, that as we’re looking at this piece, this piece is a future part. I believe that as we do each one, we considered each one. There’s been discussion on buffers, on fire prevention and that sort of thing and there there’s been consideration. It isn’t as if we sat down and we rolled over on it.”

Powell answered, “Mary, I’m not talking about what you vote on, what I’m talking about it what has been presented to council. If you have somebody that wants to build a five-story hotel in other places, we haven’t seen that kind of thing come from the small people. It’s almost always the big one. If you go back and look, almost invariably – and a lot of times they deserve it – they’re putting in a lot of infrastructure; they have some innovation that makes things different that we will change for if it is an improvement or something that embellishes the result we’re going to get. But it’s not always the case and it’s always basically the bigger ones that that happens with.”

Kortsen responded, “I’m not going to get into that argument.”

Councilwoman Lisa Fitzgibbons said, “I’m not looking at it on who is bringing it, either. I understand your point, Dick, and I think over the years I’ve been on council, we’re all pretty conservative on making sure that we’re setting a precedent. And I get that. We have so many exciting things going on in this community and I think when you look at the future, these people aren’t buying homes; they’re buying apartments because it more affordable. It’s convenient.

So I get your point but we have the flexibility here. They’re not guaranteeing they’re building a five-story building, but at least we have the flexibility to be progressive and competitive with cities that we compete with – Phoenix, Tucson, whatever.”

She continued, “I get your point. I do respect that, Dick, but I’m looking at the future and I think this is something we could use here.”

The vote that night for initial approval was unanimous, with Powell adding an explanation of his “yes” vote.

“I have a component that I don’t like,” he said, “but I’m not going to vote against the plan. It’s good plan overall.”

There was no discussion during the vote for final approval.