Gilbert’s Agritopia Epicenter, a mixed-use development envisioned as a thriving urban oasis amid a sea of suburban sprawl, is drawing stiff opposition from nearby residents who say the plan for mid-rise apartments is the wrong fit for their villagelike neighborhood.
In terms of sheer size and scale, Epicenter is likely to be well-known developer Joe Johnston’s biggest project yet, having successfully launched a coffee chain, three restaurants and the popular Agritopia community.
While many of the details are still being hashed out, conceptual plans for Epicenter depict several five-story apartment buildings, some with retail space on the first floor, near the northwestern corner of Higley and Ray roads.
Johnston is working in conjunction with Phoenix-based RED Development, which notably created the CityScape project in downtown Phoenix. With about 23 remaining undeveloped acres slated for Epicenter, Johnston wants to create a destination that will be known far and wide.
“Some of the places you really like to visit, like Portland, Little Italy in San Diego or Brooklyn, they all have this vibrant mix of residential and commercial on the street,” Johnston said. “It’s really a very attractive and interesting way of doing things.”
A Gilbert planning staff report on Epicenter included 30 e-mails from residents who said they object to the proposed zoning change, specifically because of the apartments.
“This rezoning of that area into a high-density apartment complex seems to go against the very essence of Agritopia,” resident Lynn Morrison wrote. “One of the draws to this community is that there is absolutely no renting allowed and that all homes are occupied by owners.”
“I think this is a tragic idea and will completely change the dynamic of our loved community,” resident James Macias added.
Johnston said that while mixed-use development with a multilevel residential component has always been part of his plan for the community, he’s not at all surprised by the opposition coming from some residents.
“Whenever you’re trying to do something new and innovative, if there isn’t significant push-back, you’re probably doing the same old thing,” Johnston said.
Ultimately, Johnston says it’s his job to explain his vision for Epicenter as clearly as possible. If people choose to oppose it even after hearing all of the information and thinking it through, that’s just the “American way,” he said.
“I can already see this thing built, how much enjoyment people are going to have and how great it’s going to be,” Johnston said. “Some of the residents, they don’t see it as I see it. They just see the potential negative aspects for it.”
Stripping out the residential aspect and proceeding with only commercial buildings is simply not an option, Johnston said.
“That’s not mixed-use, that is just same-old again,” Johnston said. “If you start doing that, this could end up being another dead corner like you see around Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa and all over the place. It wouldn’t be fair to the residents of Agritopia and to the town of Gilbert.”
Johnston said he already has commercial users lined up for the project but was not ready to announce names. Amenities he would like to attract include a brewery, fine dining and gardens.
Johnston did say he plans to open an Agritopia store that will sell organic produce grown in the neighborhood, goods made in Agritopia and other local products.
Although many Agritopia residents have voiced public opposition to the apartments included in Epicenter, others are more supportive, including architect Paul Prosser.