Can the city’s mess be a boon downtown? | News

MESA City Council hopes this is the year to finally turn a downtown mess into a downtown boon.

Council recently heard the latest development plan for 27 acres of city-owned land just north of Main Street near Phoenix Marriott Mesa, which Mesa acquired through eminent domain, razing 63 homes to a cost of $6 million to taxpayers.

If Mesa succeeds in bringing the long-dreamt of redevelopment to fruition with the city’s latest partner on the project, Miravista Holdings, it would make the third decade the charm of prime real estate that has long lain vacant.

The city began buying property on the southwest corner of Mesa and University Drives in 1996 and eventually acquired homes in eminent domain to make way for a 12-story water park proposed by a Canadian developer.

But the planned Mesa Verde resort died after the developer failed to secure financing.

Since then, city planners have considered different types of projects for Site 17, as it is known, and hoped that one developer after another would take over; but these agreements have all failed.

City Manager Chris Brady told Council the current plan is the third he’s seen in his term.

But city planners are hoping 2022 will be the year a deal with a developer leads to ground breaking.

Last year, the city signed a nine-month “exclusivity agreement” with Miravista Holdings to create a master plan for the plot, which commands a critical location within walking distance of downtown attractions, light rail and the Arizona State University campus.

Officials seemed cautiously optimistic that the multi-phase, mixed-use development concocted by Miravista and architectural firm Gensler will come to fruition and keep the redevelopment project only on the drawing board for a fourth decade.

Downtown Transformation Director Jeff McVay said the city has extended its memorandum of understanding with Miravista to continue working on the plan with the goal of signing a development agreement by Aug. 29.

At full construction, Miravista and Gensler envision a mixed-use residential project.

They are planning 800 to 850 market-priced residential units of varying construction styles to suit different income levels, including townhouses, walk-up apartments, and living and working spaces.

The concept also includes 200,000 square feet of office space, up to 30,000 square feet of community-focused retail space, and a multi-storey parking structure.

“It was really important for us to develop a true mixed-use project,” said Ben Ayers, director of Gensler Design, who also sits on Mesa’s planning and zoning board.

The plan is divided into eight sections which can be developed in any order after the initial phase.

“The remaining blocks have the flexibility to be developed in partnership with you as opportunities arise, depending on market demands,” Ayers said. “Really, the city has the ability to control this process for the most part.”

The planned first wave of construction would yield 375 multi-family units over four stories on a one-story “parking podium” and a three-story walk-up apartment to hide the parking podium.

The initial phase also envisions 44 single-family townhouses, two to three stories tall, individually clad and measured for possible future “for sale” product.

Vice Mayor Jen Duff told planners it was important to include units for sale.

“A lot of people are asking for units ‘for sale’ in the area. We have nothing but our historic neighborhoods,” Duff said.

If the city signs an agreement with Miravista in August, the company would be required to purchase the first two blocks of land within a year of council approval and complete construction within two years of purchase.

Councilman Kevin Thompson expressed some skepticism about the high ratio of residential to commercial, as well as the amount of office space included in the plan, noting that the pandemic has affected demand for this type of space.

He said retail and entertainment were needed to “balance” the number of units planned.

For some of his colleagues, the residential orientation of the development was key to impacting downtown Mesa.

“We have always thought of this site as a support and a complement to strengthening the city centre. The idea is that we didn’t want it to compete with what already exists downtown,” Brady said. “Downtowns, to be successful, have to have that residential vibe, that 24-hour vibe, not just during the workday.”

Giles put it more bluntly: “What downtown needs is people,” he said.

Throughout the session, council members and city staff noted that Mesa residents had a variety of ideas for the land.

“I see the posts on Facebook and there’s no consensus, there just isn’t,” councilor Julie Spilsbury said. “It’s a challenge and a struggle trying to make everyone happy and figuring out what’s the best thing for this site to do, so I think that’s a nice boost.”

Miravista is planning two neighborhood information meetings next month to share details of the plan. He will hold an in-person meeting on Thursday April 7 and a virtual meeting on Monday April 14. Miravista said notification letters were sent to neighbors late last week.

The only thing neighbors have agreed to in previous meetings, according to city staff, is that the developers said they couldn’t promise.

“The one thing we had real consensus on in all of our neighborhood (involvement) opportunities was a grocery store,” McVay said.

The developer said he cut 12,000 square feet of retail space from the plan that would be ideal for a grocer, but he couldn’t guarantee a grocery business would commit.

“If the opportunity arises, the team itself would love to have that,” Ayers said.

In addition to outlining the master plan, McVay also outlined the outlines of a development agreement with Miravista for board members.

Miravista should follow the timelines for the completion of the first phase and also reserve money for the city to carry out the “restoration” if the project fails for any reason.

The city, for its part, would sweeten the deal for Miravista by giving it the opportunity to significantly offset the cost of the land.

The city would agree to reimburse Miravista for up to 75% of the purchase price of the land for what appear to be modest public improvements in the master plan, such as a “linear park” along the south edge of the property on 2nd street, and “improvements to the streetscape” at Hibbert and 2nd Street.

The linear park would be the start of a “connected network of shaded spaces” throughout the development, Ayers said.

The city would also agree to consider tax holidays on certain master plan development blocks deemed to provide particular public benefits. The state allows cities to waive property taxes for up to eight years for developments located in a designated central business district that meet other specified criteria.

Council members seemed pleased that Miravista’s plan had the potential to inject energy into downtown Mesa, but optimism was tempered by caution, knowing how many false starts the site has seen. .

“I’ve been sitting in this room talking about this property since the 1990s,” Giles said. “I can’t wait to see a shovel sink into the ground.”

David H. Henry