Gilbert’s Agritopia moves forward with commercial hub

(Source: EastValleyTribune): Wayne Schutsky – Nearly two decades after they first broke ground at Agritopia – the agrarian masterplanned community in the heart of Gilbert – the family behind the ambitious project announced plans to build Epicenter, Agritopia’s commercial hub that will be the final major development built in the district.

The project will feature a 287-unit apartment community along with over 55,000 square feet of space for retail and restaurants on the first floor.

“Once Epicenter is completed that is the last big piece to the Agritopia puzzle,” said William Johnston, Agritopia business manager.

Johnston’s father Joe Johnston first came up with the idea to turn the family farm into farm-centric village in the late 1990s. Since then, the community has thrived and Johnston has participated in the revitalization of Gilbert’s downtown Heritage District through his restaurant concepts Joe’s Real BBQ and Liberty Market.

“Joe has quite a vision for what he does and is a tremendous partner (for the city),” said Dan Henderson, Gilbert economic development director.

In the original Agritopia plans, the plot of land at Higley and Ray Roads that will become Epicenter was conceived as a grocery-anchored center. It was even in escrow twice for that purpose, but those plans fell through, William Johnston said.

As demographic and consumer trends shifted in recent years, the Johnston family decided against that original model and developed the current plan for Epicenter.

“It’s been pretty solid in this idea since 2011 or 2012 (as) this cool apartment idea with retail and residential above it,” Johnston said. “The idea hasn’t changed much since then.”

The increasing demand for multifamily in the East Valley also played a role in the shift from a grocery center toward an apartment-centric development.

Agritopia has partnered with IPA Partners to develop the multifamily aspect of the project, which will feature a first floor entirely occupied by commercial tenants with garden-style apartments on the upper floors.

Agritopia previously worked with IPA Partners on Generations, a senior living and retirement community within the development.

“(We were attracted by) their values and their love of Agritopia,” Johnston said. “Everything that they do matches the ideas that we have at Agritopia, so a dialog began about what we could do (at Epicenter).”

The Gilbert Town Council adopted a development reimbursement agreement that will provide Agritopia Epicenter with over $1.3 million.

The agreement provides for up to $500,000 for the cost of construction of off-site improvements and up to $817,772 for permit and plan review fees.

Off-site improvements typically include infrastructure items such as road, curb and gutter improvements and in some cases water lines and wet and dry utilities, Henderson said.

Prior to approving the agreement, the town commissioned an economic impact study from Applied Economics. The conclusions derived from that study justified the town’s concessions for the project.

In part, the study found that Epicenter will have a yearly economic impact of $18.5 million. It also found that, when completed, the project would directly support 215 jobs.

The study also found that the construction of the development will have a one-time impact of $99.2 million and contribute over $600,000 in construction taxes, said Henderson.

The town was an engaged partner in the development of Epicenter and previously worked with the Johnston’s to develop the unique zoning needs for Agritopia, which features narrower streets than other parts of the town.

“When we come against a challenge, (Gilbert) helps us come up with a solution,” Johnston said.