Mike Branom, Tribune Civic leaders in Fountain Hills long have wanted something, anything, to enliven the dormant downtown.
Now, a developer and investment company have announced plans to construct a large mixed-use project, featuring a 12-screen movie theater complex, near the town’s namesake park. Groundbreaking on Fountain Hills Town Square could start by the beginning of 2008, its backers said Tuesday.
So, Fountain Hills soon will learn whether its hopes for an energy boost can survive the realities of zoning hassles, free-market competition, wary residents and the idea of handing over incentives worth mil- lions of taxpayer dollars.
“My feeling is, if the numbers work out I support it,” Mayor Wally Nichols said. “If the numbers don’t work out, I don’t support it.”
Plans call for 120 to 150 loft condominiums, 200,000 square feet of retail shops and restaurants, and up to 100,000 square feet of office space. Also to be constructed is a two-story parking garage.
The project would be constructed on a 13-acre parcel bordered by Avenue of the Fountains and Paul Nordin Parkway, Saguaro Boulevard and the Town Hall/Civic Center complex.
According to developer Eric Saur, the estimated cost is $140 million.
“Instead of people seeing the fountain and going home, we want them to see the fountain and then shop and play,” Saur said.
The Town Square Project, Saur continued, was inspired by the success of Kierland Commons, the 38-acre “lifestyle center” in northeast Phoenix.
“We’re trying to build an urban core in a suburban market,” Saur said.
Saur is president of Conrad Properties West, a St. Louis-based development firm. Town Square would be its first project in the West.
Attracting retailers to Fountain Hills has been a chronic problem for the town because of its small size and remote location.
But George Kasnoff, who heads the investment firm backing Town Square, is banking on drawing from new developments in the town’s state trust land and nearby Goldfield Ranch. Also, the project will target Scottsdale residents who live on the eastern end of the Shea Corridor.
“In 1995, when I moved to Scottsdale, Fountain Hills was out in the country,” Kasnoff said. “Now, you can throw a baseball from one to the other and hit residents from both sides.”
Before this project becomes a reality, however, many issues must be settled between the developers and the town.
Special-use permits will be needed because current zoning does not allow residential use, and the movie theater’s height of 46 feet would exceed the town’s current limit by 6 feet.
Also, the town’s formula for determining the number of parking spaces needed shows Town Square to be 1,000 short. But Saur hopes to use a “shared parking” solution, which takes advantage of specific groups of motorists — residents, office workers, moviegoers — needing parking at different times.
Of course, residents will have to be mollified that such a massive undertaking will not ruin what, to them, makes Fountain Hills special. For example, the average weekday traffic count on Avenue of the Fountains at Saguaro is 6,100 vehicles. By how many multiples might that grow?
An expert on Valley real estate wondered if this may be too much for the town to swallow whole.
“I suspect a lot of people are going to raise a great deal of ire over the project because this would be so changing the nature of Fountain Hills,” said Jay Butler, director of the Arizona State University’s Realty Studies program. “Desert Ridge (in Phoenix) and Kierland, they came in first and everything sort of built around them.”
But the largest potential sticking point is the developer’s request for $9 million in incentives. The breakdown is:
• $4 million for a parking garage, first paid for by the developer, then refunded through town sales tax rebates.
• $4 million in waived commercial permit and licensing fees.
• $1 million for renovating Avenue of the Fountains. Kasnoff said the town already has the renovations budgeted.
Kasnoff insists “the town’s not writing a penny of the check.”
But Nichols wants to make sure that’s true.
Said the mayor, “I’m not going to mortgage the future of our grandchildren.”