Surprise Revisits Plan To Preserve Original Town Site

By Casey Kuhn
Published: Friday, May 6, 2016 - 2:56pm
Updated: Friday, May 6, 2016 - 3:09pm
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(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Claudia Esparza's nursery off of Grand Avenue.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Martha and Roland Edward Fulcher stand in front of their original Surprise home.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Ed Fulcher points out his family, that moved to Surprise in 1945. He is one of 15 children.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Claudia Esparza explains how she grows her cacti from seeds. She's had her business in Surprise for 17 years.

As West Valley cities slowly recover from the economic downturn, some towns are revisiting plans from before the Recession. Surprise is working to preserve the city’s past for future generations.

It’s Roland Edward Fulcher’s 80th birthday today as he shows me around his house.

“That’s the original stone, yeah we carried these from out of the desert," he said, pointing at his low-lying house in Surprise.

At 80 years old, he may not be the oldest man living in Suprise, but he’s certainly one that’s been around the longest.

“He’s lived here since 1945, his mom and dad built this place,” his wife, Martha Fulcher, said.  

Behind the windchimes hanging from the house, you can hear the cars passing by on Grand Avenue, right in front of their porch.

In the 50 years they’ve been here, Surprise has changed.

“This was a farming community, this is where people helped each other,” she said, lamenting that they've lost the neighborhood feeling. 

Now, city government is trying to preserve the one square mile that the Fulchers live in, the Original Town Site.

If you look around the area, though, it doesn’t feel like there’s much history. Empty lot after empty lot line the frontage road west of Grand, right across the street from the Fulchers. One city councilmember, Rachel Villanueva, is hoping to change that perception.

“Is that the image that we want to show the people? We don’t," Villanueva said. "We want it to be nice, but we do want it to be that old, heritage district.”

Villanueva is deeply invested in her community. Her husband was on the council for 34 years, and she said this was what he wanted.

“He never got it started, but I know this is what he would have liked to have seen,” she said.

Her hope is that this gateway to Surprise will become something more memorable

Cactuses, Pottery And Preservation

Driving along that frontage road next to Grand, you can’t miss the bright pots and rows of cactuses at Claudia Esparza’s nursery.

“We started a little business in the corner in 1997,” she said, weaving between pots of cactuses she grew from seed.

She has greenhouses in the back where little baby barrel cactuses are sprouting. It’s a strategic location for her, because tourists going to and from Las Vegas stop for the Arizona souvenirs. She’s seen the city grow and grow, mostly in the suburbs, and is ready for a change in her part of town.

“I’m here for the 16 years here, and nothing happened in this area, and this is the old part," Esparza said. "Maybe now, like Tolleson and El Mirage, and Glendale, [they] do a lot of things in the old town and maybe they try to do the same thing here.”

That’s where the Surprise heritage district comes in. City planners will make a neighborhood center and redevelopment area.

Any new development would have to stick to standards, like being required to have porches, and reflect architecture from the 1880s to the 1950s. It will also phase out heavy industrial or commercial uses in the area. And, allows homes to be used like shops, “cottage” style.

Surprise planner Josh Mike said they’ve revisited the plan after it was introduced in 2002.

“During the recession, some of the priorities for the next steps were put on the back burner," Mike said. "As our staff began to rebuild here within our community development department, we started actively seeking out some of those older priorities and make it something we could focus on."

For the Fulchers, it couldn’t come soon enough. With all the changes they’ve seen, a small step towards preservation would ease their mind. "As long as they don't try to run the older generation out of the mile square, because if it wasn't for this mile square, they wouldn't have nothing else out there," Martha said.

The Surprise City Council will vote on the plan in June.

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