Fiesta Village project

The Landing at Fiesta Village would fill a currently blighted area in Mesa.

After years of fighting between the land owner and the city, Mesa’s most notorious eyesore is finally due for a facelift.

W.M. Grace Companies plans to turn Fiesta Village at Alma School Road and Southern Avenue into a modern mixed-use residential and retail project.

Construction could be months away, but the project has garnered some support from city officials and residents who are happy to see any movement on the long-dormant site.

Still, that support is measured as W.M. Grace’s plan for the center – which includes a multi-building high-end apartment complex from developer P.B. Bell – does not perfectly align with the city’s stated goal of turning the Fiesta District into an employment hub.

Once a booming, fully occupied retail destination, Fiesta Village declined over the past two decades alongside the now-defunct Fiesta Mall, partly as a result of the 2008 recession.

As the center fell into disrepair, W.M. Grace and the city fought over the eyesore, with Mesa opening multiple property code-compliance cases against the owner.

“(Fiesta Village) has been a sore spot for the city, because it is such an eyesore,” said Adam Baugh, zoning attorney for W.M. Grace. “The city has long tried to encourage redevelopment, but it hasn’t come together for a variety of reasons.”

However, that relationship appeared to be on the mend over the past year. The Tribune first reported in September 2017 that the two sides had begun working on plans to revitalize the derelict property.

The new project is called The Landing at Fiesta Village and will include a 220-unit luxury apartment community on the north side of the property in addition to restaurant and retail facilities on the southern portion along Southern Avenue and Alma School Road, Baugh said.

Unlike the large retail pads Fiesta Village was known for, the new project will feature a restaurant-heavy lineup with a range of fast-casual eateries similar to Panera Bread, Chipotle and Kneaders Bakery & Café, along with sit-down restaurants and a larger pad for a signature restaurant.

There will still be some retail, though Baugh pointed it out that it will not look like the product Fiesta Village was known for in its heyday. Rather, it will likely feature more service-oriented businesses like nail salons, spas and doctor’s offices.

“This is a prime location, and we are looking forward to this being a catalyst for the area,” said Councilman Francisco Heredia, whose District 3 includes the Fiesta District.

However, Heredia also noted that some aspects of the project have given the city pause.

“I am very optimistic about this project, but there are still things to work out,” he said.

Heredia said the prospect of putting apartment housing on the site initially concerned the city staff when W.M. Grace first floated this plan in the past few years because the area is already saturated in rental housing.

“We still have some concerns, and we would love to see commercial (development on the site), but the market made this a good opportunity for them,” Heredia said.

Mesa City Council adopted the Southwest Redevelopment Area Plan in September to incentivize redevelopment in the Fiesta District, with a focus on turning the area into an employment hub due to its proximity to several freeways and major employers such as Banner Health and Maricopa County Community College.

Heredia did say The Landing at Fiesta Village could still provide support for the growth of an employment center at the former Fiesta Mall site across the street, which developer Dimension Financial & Realty Investments Inc. bought for $6.72 million last year with the intention of turning it into a higher-education campus.

“We need a good mix of housing, jobs and other things in the area to bring back vibrancy to the Fiesta District,” he said.

Former Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh, who long fought for the redevelopment of Fiesta Village when he represented District 3 on the City Council, echoed Heredia’s concerns.

“If they are going to propose (apartment housing), my hope is it is the highest quality possible to distinguish it from some of the apartment stock to the west of the property,” he said.

Kavanaugh added that the glut of apartment housing has contributed to the Fiesta District’s being one of the densest census tracts in Mesa. He said he would prefer a residential product that can support home ownership and investment in the area over rental housing.

“These are private owners, so we can do only so much as city. City staff will continue to have conversations and dialogue (with the developer),” Heredia said. “We will work with them to make sure that it is high quality.”

Another issue is potential drive-thrus facing the street along Southern Avenue and Alma School Road. The Fiesta District design guidelines the city developed in 2009 prohibit street-facing drive-thrus in order to promote walkability and use of the streetscape improvements that cost the city $12 million.

In the past, Starbucks, McDonalds and Salad & Go have worked with the city to orient drive-thrus in accordance with city guidelines, Kavanaugh said.

Kavanaugh said W.M. Grace is seeking an exemption from that rule, according to plans he has seen, though he noted the company is considering mitigating visibility of the drive-thrus using landscaping and screening walls.

“That is a step in the right direction,” he said. “My concern is (the city has) worked with a lot of other developers that have worked to abide by the guidelines.”

Beyond concerns with the specifics of the plan, the history of the site has left some community members with an “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude toward the latest plans for Fiesta Village.

“I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, because it could be something good for the area,” Mesa Preservation Foundation President Vic Linoff said before stating that W.M. Grace’s history of inaction at the site makes that difficult to do.

“A community is made up of its components (including residents and businesses) and Grace has not been a good member of this community,” Linoff said.

Baugh said the city and the developer have been able to put past issues aside to make the new project work.

W.M. Grace Vice President Thomas Grace is now spearheading the project, and that, along with some turnover in staff and city leadership, has helped both sides reset the relationship.

Baugh noted that finding a residential partner – Scottsdale-based developer P.B. Bell – was also instrumental in moving the project forward as the Fiesta Village site is too large for a modern retail center.

“Securing a residential partner was a big game changer,” he said. “That provided use for half the site and an injection of potential shoppers (for the retail portion).”

W.M. Grace already has submitted initial plans to the city’s planning department in January and plans to go before the Planning and Zoning Board in April. It is seeking to rezone the property from limited commercial to a planned area development for commercial and multi-family uses.

Baugh anticipates that the redevelopment project could gain City Council approval by May or June, at which time the company would begin demolition on the existing buildings.

In a show of cooperation with the city, Baugh said that prior to demolition, W.M. Grace will make the site available to Mesa for Police and Fire Department training.

“If the city wants to do police or fire training on the site in current condition, we are open to that,” he said.

If all goes according to that plan, he said the construction team could begin prepping the site for construction in the fall.

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