300-acre project includes auto mall, hospital proposed in Laveen, but neighbors concerned

A proposed development in Laveen intends to bring nearly 300 acres of development near the western edge of South Mountain Park, which could include an auto mall, hospital, resort and apartments.

The developer contends the project will bring more intensive uses, and a major boost in city tax revenue, along the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway, but neighbors worry the large project will worsen traffic problems and alter the agrarian character of the area.

The proposal to the city of Phoenix, called Gila Foothills, is planned for a large site near Estrella Drive and 51st Avenue, about two miles northwest of the Vee Quiva Hotel & Casino.

The site is within Phoenix’s boundaries but borders unincorporated Maricopa County land on portions of the site. The site sits west of South Mountain Park, east and north of Loop 202 and east and north of the Gila River Indian Community.

An 80-acre auto mall is proposed along the freeway, one of the “anchoring pieces” of the proposal, said Reid Butler, owner of Butler Housing Co. and development representative for the Lines family, the longtime owners of the land. The hospital, another anchoring piece, is also planned along the freeway, north of the auto mall.

The site had long been planned to include a resort, which had been removed in a previous submittal of the plan, but after hearing community feedback, the resort use has been added back in, Butler said. The northern, southern and eastern portions of the sites are planned for apartments and single-family rentals.

Butler said the development team has worked with nearby on both city and county land to try to minimize impact to their homes. The development includes a 50-foot landscape buffer around the perimeter, and for another 50 feet, buildings will only be one story.

“My approach has always been, we know we are bringing change, so let’s work closely with the ones who are most affected by it,” Butler said. “Our goal is, as more intensive development comes, to ask what can we do to objectively address problems for adjacent neighbors?”

However, those neighbors said the significant change in the character of the area, paired with the intensity of the development, is not appropriate for the area, which historically has included large farms, houses on large lots and equestrian properties.

Traffic control lacking in the area

Traffic and vehicle congestion is a real concern in the area, Butler said. There is a freeway exit on Estrella Drive, but as drivers move east, it quickly becomes a very narrow, two-lane road.

“Yes, it has a freeway, but it has very little other infrastructure,” Butler said. The development plans include adding streets through the site, including one Butler said will be a reliever to Estrella.

However, Dan Penton, a Laveen resident and board member for Laveen Residents for Responsible Development said, the proposed road creates a confusing traffic pattern that he worries could make traffic issues worse.

Neighbors ask for lower density, preservation

John Bzdel, a neighbor who lives in the unincorporated area near the proposed development, said he would like to see the development team work with neighbors on some of the issues they have raised, especially the planned residential density.

Bzdel said he would like to propose that the large-lot residential zoning remain in place in the areas where apartments and single-family rentals are planned, but also include the commercial space that is proposed in the plan. Bzdel is a licensed general contractor and works to design large custom homes.

“This tries to strike the best balance between what the community wants and what the developer is after,” Bzdel said. “You’re not going to stop development, but I think this is the best approach. They’d get lots of commercial but restore the rural flavor for Laveen.”

There is also a roughly 100-year-old building on the site, the Bell Homestead, that neighbors would like to see preserved or adaptively reused.

“It’s part of our community identity that’s being erased every day,” Penton said. Preserving the building could be an act of good faith.

Auto mall means tax revenue, but neighbors worry about test drives

Both Bzdel and Penton said they were told that the auto mall’s test drives would mostly take place on the freeway, but both said they are skeptical test drivers will be required to stay on the freeway, and expect drivers will also want to drive on surface streets.

Auto malls must be 10 miles from one another, Butler said, and the Laveen location fits the bill with its distance from the dealerships on Camelback, in the West Valley and in Tempe. Across the freeway, land on the Gila River Indian Community would also fit the parameters, Butler said, and it would greatly benefit the city of Phoenix to have the dealerships in the city.

Dealerships are major generators of sales tax revenue, and Butler said the auto mall is expected to generate $52 million in sales tax to the city annually. The auto mall at Gila Foothills could accommodate eight to 10 dealerships, and Butler said they already have a signed agreement with a leading dealer of electric vehicles but could not identify the company due to a nondisclosure agreement.

For neighbors like Penton and Bzdel, the idea of the auto mall is among the least palatable pieces.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s foolishness,” Bzdel said of the plans for car dealerships in the area.

Laveen underserved for healthcare

Laveen needs a hospital, Penton said, but he is concerned that it could be too near another potential hospital site.

Banner Health bought a 23-acre site on 63rd Avenue and Baseline Road in 2020, about three miles from the Gila Foothills site. So far, there has not been any construction or proposal for the site, but Penton said the community has been expecting a hospital there.

The Gila Foothills plan calls for a hospital, which could reach up to 150 feet in height. Butler said there is a hospital operator planned but did not disclose the name of the company.

Butler said the area is already underserved for a full-service hospital, and said both Laveen and Ahwatukee Foothills residents will use the new hospital in Gila Foothills. He said he expects the two hospitals will cater to their own networks.

Plan still needs city approval

The development reaches the western portion of South Mountain Park, where there are no formal trailheads, Butler said. The development team has proposed working with the city to create a formal trailhead to make the park more accessible to people on the western side, and to alleviate an informal trail that has been created, which has become a nuisance to neighbors, he said.

The development still needs to go through the public hearing and approval process with the city. It is scheduled to go before the Laveen Village Planning Committee on January 8. It is tentatively planned to go before the Planning Commission in February and before the City Council in March.

Even once approved, it will likely be more than a year before any construction can take place, Butler said. The earliest construction will likely begin in 2025, and the first portion to begin construction will be the auto mall.

Reach the reporter at cvanek@arizonarepublic.com. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter: @CorinaVanek.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Laveen development project getting pushback from residents