Ryan Stanton, rstanton@ExplorerNews.com

Nov. 16, 2005 - The Forest City Land Group began building a new regional park in Gladden Farms last week that is expected to be finished in the next seven months.

The Gladden Farms Regional Park will offer two youth baseball fields, new soccer fields, play structures for children, restroom facilities and more, according to plans released by the developer.

"This 16-acre, $3-million improvement will be the focus of the Gladden Farms open space and recreation system," said Dean Wingert, senior vice president of Forest City, developer of Gladden Farms, northern Marana's first master-planned community.

The park site is located at the south end of Gladden Farms, where Lon Adams Road will bisect a future four-lane loop route called Tangerine Farms Road. The developer said residents will have easy access to the park through a pedestrian tunnel passing under the roadway.

"This is the catalyst that's getting us going and we're going to have a great future in northern Marana," said Mayor Ed Honea, during a ceremonial ribbon cutting at the park site last week.

The amenity-filled park will be one component of about a 200-acre recreational area that includes the town's Heritage Park to the west and other amenities along the Santa Cruz River. Gladden Farms already boasts 35 acres of park facilities, including a basketball court, play areas for children and recreational trails that are expected to connect to trails and parks in future adjacent developments.

"We love it out here," said Sara Rodgers, who moved into Gladden Farms five months ago with her family.

The Pennsylvania native said she already enjoys taking her two daughters, ages 3 and 1, on morning strolls through Gladden Farms, and she can't wait for the new park. Like other residents, she's impressed with the town's commitment to providing recreational opportunities for its residents.

"We love Marana," she said. "It really seems like they're trying to make the community a real community."

Honea pointed out two large silos in the distance where the Gladden family once stored feed for their cattle. Those living in Old Marana in the 1960s, including the Honeas and Gladdens, never imagined the area's cotton fields becoming the site of such a lively, pedestrian-friendly community, he said.

Forest City was the first developer to take the risk and decide to build in northern Marana's farm fields about three and a half years ago. That risk paid off last year when the first set of Gladden Farms residents flocked into the hundreds of homes being developed south of Moore Road along the Santa Cruz River.

The first 700 homes sold quickly, with about 50 building permits being pulled per month during the first phase of development. Homes are now being sold in the second phase of Gladden Farms, where street curbs, sewer, grading and electrical work are being done for several hundred more lots. The development will eventually boast about 1,750 homes.

On the heels of that success, Forest City purchased another 634 acres directly east of that property in July, where the company plans to develop another 1,750 homes known as Gladden Farms II. The land, formerly owned by Evco Farms, has been a source of cotton farming for decades and is still farmed by the Pacheco family.

Conceptual plans for Gladden Farms II appear to somewhat mirror the first development. However, there will be more pedestrian pathways and a potential for more commercial development at the northeast and southeast corners of the project, said O.K. Rihl, director of new development for Forest City.

Developers hope to have a specific plan approved by the town council as early as January so that construction of streets and water and sewer systems can begin in 2006. Homes could be built on the new property before the end of 2007, Wingert said.

The developers are dedicating a 250-foot-wide mile-long strip along the south edge of Gladden Farms II for development of Tangerine Farms Road. Rihl said Westcor is considering developing a shopping mall on the triangular property directly east of Gladden Farms II, abutting the interstate south of the future Moore Road interchange.

The first commercial development in the area may come within the next year or two, though. A new Fry's shopping center is expected to be built in the first Gladden Farms development along Lon Adams Road as early as mid-2007, coinciding with the completion of Tangerine Farms Road.

"At this point, it appears this will be the first new commercial (development) in northwest Marana and, if you talk to anybody that's lived up here, they're just thrilled to death," Rihl said. "You have people who've lived here their whole life and they've had to commute to Cortaro, and before that, it was Ina and Thornydale."

Homes by the hundreds also are beginning to sprout in the farm fields north of Gladden Farms, quickly changing the view of northern Marana from Interstate 10. Forest City remains optimistic that those developments will be held to the same standard set by Gladden Farms.

The town is requiring large systems of landscaped, pedestrian trails in each new community that are expected to tie into parks and trails in adjacent developments as they're built. The idea is that residents will be able to walk for miles between all areas of town when Marana becomes a large urban city.

"We're not designing our property in a vacuum," Rihl said. "The town is being diligent to make sure our neighbors around us do the same thing, so there is a plan that all these properties are interconnected, which is really going to be fabulous."

The Gladden property was once considered undevelopable because of the Santa Cruz River's tendency to flood the area. After a large flood in 1983 and another 10 years later, local and federal officials took the initiative to create bank protection, taking the property out of the dangerous floodplain.

Developers then constructed more than six miles of sewer through the area, connecting the property to the wastewater treatment facility in northern Marana. Rihl said Forest City was bold about being the first master developer of the area because it saw Marana's vision for the future.

"For us to come out here three and a half years ago when nobody was doing anything, and put millions of dollars of infrastructure in here, if we weren't convinced that the town had the same vision for this whole area, it would have been very difficult," he said.

Stan Gladden, 71, a Tucson resident, spent 65 years living on the 725-acre property in Old Marana, where he had a farming operation of his own in full-swing by the early 1960s. Forest City has kept Gladden's old brick home on the property as its sales office.

"To see the development and quality of development, I'm certainly proud to be a very small part of the beginning of it. It means a lot to me and our family," said Gladden, who spent several decades farming the property before he sold to Las Vegas investors in late 2000 and retired from farming.

Gladden's father moved to Marana in 1918, right around the time irrigation systems were being set up to allow cotton farming to flourish in the desert. Gladden's brother, Oro Valley resident Robert Dale "Butch" Gladden Jr., 58, still manages Pima County's last surviving cotton gin, located in Avra Valley and owned by the Kai family.

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