The Maricopa County Planning and Zoning Commission could bring the Phoenix area’s first new large-scale movie production studio closer to reality.
Desert Studios is proposing a multi-phase, $900M development on 320 acres north of Interstate 10 and 339th Avenue in the Tonopah area.
According to the project narrative, “The Desert Studios Complex is envisioned as a production hub to include services for all aspects of movie and TV production. Although a site plan for the Property has yet to be fully developed, it is envisioned to contain numerous studios/sound stages and theaters with support uses. Key facilities may include but are not limited to sound stages, administrative offices, craft services, theaters, post-production, wardrobe/costume, warehouse, props, motor pool, medical, security, mill, laundry, print shop, maintenance, fitness center, cafeteria, restaurant, and parking facilities, hospitality uses such as hotels, resorts and temporary rental housing facilities, and a retail, restaurant and entertainment district. The studio complex is expected to create thousands of on-site and film industry related jobs. It is also anticipated to be a major driver for the larger Belmont development, along with advancing the growth of regional tourism and transportation infrastructure.”
The first phase of development would include 12 sound stages of approximately 40KSF each, along with supporting structures, including offices and services. The full build-out would have up to 48 sound stages.
To allow for the development, the company is requesting a zoning change “from Rural-43 One Acre Per Dwelling Unit (RU-43) and Planned Shopping Center (C-S) to Light Industrial (IND-2) Industrial Plan of Development (IUPD).”
The request also asks for three variances to normal standards in the proposed overlay. The project will require building heights of up to 80 feet. The applicant also wants reduced site screening for a minimum 6-foot chain link fence and a reduction to the required parking ratio, given the large amount of floor area the project requires.
Belmont Plan Amendment
Along with the rezoning for the Desert Studios site, the developers are also requesting a major comprehensive plan amendment for 1,402 acres in the Belmont Development Master Plan area. The Desert Studios site is located within Belmont, and the developers want to allow for potential growth and buildout of the entire area.
According to the staff report, the full request reads: “Major Comprehensive Plan Amendment (CPA) to change land use designation from large lot residential, small lot residential, medium density residential, high density residential, regional retail center, community retail center, neighborhood retail center, recreational open space, dedicated open space, public facility, and educational to mixed use.”
The site is made up of 13 contiguous lots. The owners want to allow for a variety of potential uses as the site develops beyond just the film studio, including a possible resort and theme park. Individual zoning entitlement requests will be submitted as the site is developed.
The 24,800-acre Belmont DMP was initially approved in 1991 and revised most recently in 2008. Belmont was originally imagined as a community built around a town center with smaller villages of mostly residential uses. Mixed-use and retail designations were included around I-10 interchanges.
The Belmont request narrative says, “Since the approval of the latest Belmont DMP land plan, markets have shifted, demanding more mixed uses and employment opportunities, especially near major freeway intersections. Additionally, in 2022 the State of Arizona passed the Arizona Motion Picture Production Program, making Arizona a prime location to produce film and television programming. Belmont Infraco (the “Applicant”) is proposing a Major Comprehensive Plan Amendment in order to respond to these shifting market demands and allow for a mixed-use development within the southern portion of the Belmont DMP. In order to accommodate the proposed mixed-use development, the Applicant is requesting to remove the 1,140 acres from the Belmont DMP and amend the land use designation for the entire 1,400-acre Site to Mixed-Use.”
Film Studios Slow to Launch
Another major production studio plan was announced following the enactment last year of The Arizona Motion Picture Production Program, which will ultimately provide tax incentives of up to $125M per year for movies filmed or produced in the state.
According to an industry publication write-up after the law was passed, “To qualify, producers must use an Arizona production facility or, if the project is primarily filmed on location, must mostly shoot and conduct pre- and postproduction in the state. The program features a tiered credit system: productions that spend less than $10M will get a base tax credit of 15%, while those that spend more than $35M will get 20%. Projects with budgets from $10M to $35M are eligible for 17.5% of their spending to be offset by the incentives.”
The program has a 2023 cap of $75M and will grow to $125M by 2025.
Desert Studios was heavily involved in lobbying for the program, as was Acacia Filmed Entertainment. Acacia President Matthew George, who also heads Castle Rock Entertainment, planned to build 14 sound stages on 70 acres at the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
Despite repeated inquiries, no new information has been released since the original announcement last July. The status in the DATABEX project database has been listed as On Hold since January of this year.
Another studio project was announced in Peoria in 2018. The Desert Sky Studio Complex would have been a $200M development spread across three phases with 24 sound stages and an entertainment and retail district on 130 acres at Loop 303 and Lone Mountain.
A 2019 article reported the developer was working with City of Peoria officials on the project and with then-Gov. Doug Ducey on what would eventually become the Production Program incentives package. No additional plans were ever submitted to the City beyond the initial pre-application. In the intervening time, the project webpage has been taken down and the project has been listed as Canceled.
With the incentives program now in place and two land use requests filed with Maricopa County, Desert Studios appears ready to move forward. County planning staff has recommended approval for both requests, and the Planning and Zoning Commission will hold a hearing on the matters Nov. 2.
Belmont Infraco LLC is the property owner. HILGARTWILSON is the Belmont Mixed-use planner and engineer. RVi Planning + Landscape Architecture is the planner for the Desert Studios Complex. Both projects are represented by Gammage & Burnham.
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