Light-rail expansion will claim former Mesa mayor's land, possibly business - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Light-rail expansion will claim former Mesa mayor's land, possibly business

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Posted: Thursday, October 27, 2011 4:53 pm | Updated: 8:09 am, Fri Oct 28, 2011.

When the Wong family emigrated from China to Mesa and established a small grocery, they began a century-long tradition of family businesses at Main Street and Mesa Drive.

The former Sun Valley Market eventually became an auto parts shop, where Willie Wong worked even as he was elected Arizona’s first Asian-American mayor.

But Willie and his brother Wilky are facing an unwanted separation from what the family has owned since about 1910.

The property and neighboring lots have been identified as the site for a park-and-ride lot for a new segment of the Metro light-rail line.

Willie Wong said he’s known for a year that Metro was eyeing his family’s land but also considering other nearby properties. He said he found out from the Tribune this week that the agency had decided to take his land.

At age 63, he can’t imagine having to move Wilky’s Performance Center and working for years to rebuild a customer base at a different location.

“It would mean the end of this business, I know that,” Wong said.

Mesa will handle property acquisition for the parking lot, which could put the city in the awkward position of forcing its former mayor to hand over his land.

Wong said he opposed the city using eminent domain while he was at City Hall. He believes the issue came up two or three times during his time in office, and he voted against it each time. He was mayor for four years starting in 1992 and previously was on the City Council.

No offer has been made yet. Wong said he doesn’t know yet whether he’ll willingly sell or force the city to use eminent domain.

“It’s up to the owner what they want, not what the city is going to offer,” Wong said.

The land is owned by Willie’s 85-year-old father, Joe.

Metro spokeswoman Hillary Foose said the agency attempted to meet with or did meet with the property owners who will be displaced by the parking lot. Metro is further along on identifying the property for the parking lot than for the rest of the 3.1-mile, $200 million extension, she said.

The agency will have a clearer picture of other property acquisitions next year, when a designer is hired and develops more specific plans.

Metro could buy slivers of property or entire sites.

“It’s something very dynamic,” she said. “We don’t have a final list of acquisitions because the design is only at 30 percent.”

Metro has held meetings to show what properties might be affected to prevent surprises, Foose said. It plans more meetings to get feedback as the design work progresses, she said.

Metro’s park-and-ride lot would also involve buying Gunnell’s Tire & Auto, Sentinel Storage and an empty lot where a developer proposed luxury condos at the height of the real-estate bubble.

The 516-space lot is on the northwest corner of Main and Mesa, where the Metro line will end in 2016.

Metro had considered several commercial parcels south of Main for the lot. The agency rejected that smaller southern area because it couldn’t build a large enough lot without buying homes in a historic neighborhood.

Construction is scheduled to begin next year.

At Gunnell’s, general manager Jeff Duren said the repair shop would take a big hit if it had to move. Any road construction project scares off customers and a move would be worse, he said.

“People wonder if they should get tires here because they want to know you’re going to be here,” Duren said.

Gunnell’s dates to 1942. Its original location was on the Wong property.

Wong said his family bought the land in about 1910. The original store underwent several expansions to create the nearly 5,000-square-foot gray stuccoed building that sits directly on the corner.

Metro has said it would help search for a new location, but Wong said he’d never find a place as visible.

“They said ‘We have other properties’ but none are like this at Main Street and Mesa Drive,” Wong said.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6548 or ggroff@evtrib.com

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