The Metro light-rail system has triggered $1.5 billion of development in Phoenix — and now the development spurt is moving, selectively, to the east. It recently lured the first proposed rail-related project to Tempe and has sparked a frenzy of land deals that could lead to other projects soon on Apache Boulevard.
But so far, Mesa has nothing to show for one of the largest transportation projects in Valley history.
The progress in Tempe and Phoenix means passengers should have easy access to new condos, coffee shops and shopping centers when the first trains run in December 2008. But unless developers move quickly in Mesa, passengers at the city’s only light-rail station will be greeted by a massive parking lot devoid of any amenities.
Other sections of the 20-mile line also will be slow to develop, but officials said the hot spots are more than making up for sluggish development elsewhere.
“I really think everything we’re seeing along the lightrail line is exceeding our expectations,” said Bo Martinez, the program manager of transit-oriented development in Phoenix.
Political and business leaders fought to bring light rail to the Valley by touting its transportation benefits. But they also heralded the prospects of massive development along the route, predicting dense, urban-style housing and commerce.
Rail-related development — usually condos and lofts above, with small stores and restaurants below — typically looks much different than sprawling suburban designs and creates a place where people can walk from home to various services.
Planners call this transitoriented development.
Phoenix has the most deals because it has the most track miles and because of a demand for urban living in central Phoenix. Still, about half of the $1.5 billion in construction in Phoenix is paid for by taxpayers, including the Phoenix Civic Center and an ASU campus funded with Phoenix city bonds. Phoenix has seen modest building improvements west of downtown, Martinez said, adding that more projects will likely come later.
Tempe’s first transitoriented project, a 100-unit high-rise condo complex called Campus Edge, will replace a gas station on Apache Boulevard east of Rural Road. Developer Nelson Phoenix LLC is a month from getting financing on the $40 million to $45 million project, company vice president Tim Becker said. He hopes to break ground in April and open when the light rail starts.
The city has spent more than $20 million since 1995 to improve Apache. The Campus Edge project shows the city’s efforts are now being replaced by private developers, said Neil Calfee, a redevelopment manager.
Calfee said he can’t predict the pace of development in the Valley, but said light rail typically spurs major redevelopment within five to 10 years of its construction.
Mesa has less than a mile of light rail and one stop at Main Street and Sycamore. No developer has gone to the city with plans for the type of development light rail usually triggers, city officials said.
Mesa’s history has probably frightened developers, said Dave Richins, executive director of the nonprofit West Mesa Community Development Corporation. Richins blames frequent legal challenges to developments as a factor, as well as what he considers a lukewarm commitment by city officials for light rail.
“If I didn’t live here, I would be scared off,” Richins said. “Shame on the people who are fighting against everything. If they really care about Mesa, then they should be trying to attract investment.”
Still, he was optimistic that developers will build multiple projects in Mesa.
Mesa Vice Mayor Claudia Walters said she doesn’t see a political climate slowing development. Rather, Tempe and Phoenix were ahead of Mesa on new development policies for projects along the light-rail line. Also, Tempe has worked for years to redevelop Apache Boulevard and is more prepared for these types of projects, she said.
Walters wasn’t concerned that Mesa is falling behind, saying she expects development will come. The city’s small piece of rail is the biggest reason Mesa can’t claim anything yet, she said.
“The fact that there is only one light-rail station does make a difference,” Walters said.
Development could lag a few years behind the system’s startup in many places, Becker said. He’d prefer a faster pace, though, because he sees new development as a key to attracting passengers.
“You want to have these facilities and amenities available Day One to make it a more successful system,” Becker said.