ASU Downtown Mesa

This rendering reflects people watching movies made by ASU students on a huge screen installed on the exterior wall of one of the buildings on the downtown Mesa campus.

The overall cost of Mesa’s innovative Arizona State University project is now estimated at more than $103 million – with ASU paying an additional $10 million.

Mesa’s share of ASU@Mesa City Center, the 60-foot tall building on the present site of a parking lot and the project’s focal point, remains capped at the $63.5 million price tag approved by the City Council in a 5-2 vote in June 2018.

But two ancillary portions of the ASU project – the Plaza@Mesa City Center and the Studios@Mesa City Center – are each projected to cost city taxpayers another $8 million. 

The remaining costs include a $2 million infrastructure upgrade – mainly on the electrical system along Pepper Place, which separates Mesa City Hall from the new ASU complex.

“I assure you that this is going to be a fantastic thing. It’s going to put us on the world map as far as these types of programs,’’ said Rick Naimark, ASU’s associate vice president for program development and planning told Council last week. “You will see this is a spectacular building.’’

“We’re really excited to be at this point, where we have a design now,’’ Naimark said.

Jeff McVay, Mesa’s downtown transformation manager, said that ASU has committed to investing an additional $10 million in the ASU@Mesa City Center project.

That’s in addition to the $10 million ASU had initially committed to outfitting the interior of the building and the $1.3 million annually it will spend on maintenance and operations.

Although there is great hope that the project will awaken slumbering downtown Mesa and turn it into a more dynamic location, the ASU collaboration has been controversial from the start. 

Mesa has been criticized for subsidizing the project by signing a 99-year-lease for $100,000 a year, but city officials argue the benefits far outweigh the costs.

In 2016, voters turned down a ballot initiative that would have used a sales tax increase to pay for an ASU downtown campus that was 40 percent larger than current project. 

That initial plan would have cost more than $120 million and the ballot measure also included a pay raise for public safety positions.

But McVay said the original project was different because it did not include the Studios@Mesa City Center and noted that construction costs have risen 20 to 30 percent. The original project also never reached the high level of design in the current project, which helps pinpoint the costs.

 Mesa Mayor John Giles, a strong supporter of expanded educational opportunities to boost Mesa economically, resurrected the plan but in a smaller package and with a different funding source, using bonds based upon utility revenues.

City Manager Chris Brady later devised a plan to forestall bond sales by selling off city-owned property, including a water farm that was no longer needed in Pinal County and the site of The Union, a large office complex near Riverview Park.

The plaza@Mesa City Center project comes from a  bond issue approved by voters. 

McVay said the plaza would serve as a gateway to the ASU complex and feature an ice-skating rink during the Christmas holidays that would double as shade structure during other times.

The plaza also would feature a fountain and a large event lawn. Artist renderings show people sitting on lawn, watching a huge movie screen on an exterior mall showing movies produced inside the building.

“Our goal is to blur the lines between ASU and the community’’ by linking them with the plaza, McVay said. 

The study session featured a debate over the unusual ASU@Mesa City Center building’s appearance, with the big screen display and a height equivalent to a five-story building even though it has only three stories. 

“What happens on the inside of the building informs the outside of the building more than you would expect,’’ McVay said, describing the difficulty of accommodating large movie production studios and a 45-foot tall immersive art studio.

 “There has been special attention given to what this building looks like at night,’’ he said.

But Council was split on the ASU@Mesa City Center design, with Councilman Kevin Thompson describing the appearance as mediocre and Councilman Francisco Heredia and Vice Mayor Mark Freeman expressing less vehement reservations.

 “I was looking for more of a wow factor,’ said Thompson, who voted against the project in 2018. “I don’t see this as a ‘wow.’ I see this as mediocre at best.’’

But Naimark said the building’s design is somewhat controlled by its function and that a top-notch architectural team has not completed the design.

Giles and Councilwoman Jen Duff defended the architectural design. 

“It will be an exciting place with a lot of energy,’’ Duff said. “I’m more concerned about what’s going on with it and how it interacts with the public.’’

Duff said she is confident that ASU@Mesa City Center will transform downtown Mesa.

“It’s really a living and breathing building,’’ she said. “It is interactive and not just bricks and mortar. This will give us an edge to be a 21st century city.’’

The Studios@Mesa City Center is located in a historic building to the east of the council’s chambers. 

McVay said a different architect, Gensler, has been hired to design the studios, which are supposed to serve as incubation labs for startup businesses.

Originally proposed by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C think-tank, a city request for proposals describes the renovation of a 26,500 square-foot building into a multi-tenant occupancy, with flexible, multi-functional, collaborative spaces.

Although she has seen no details, Duff envisions the project as turning an empty building into a series of offices where ASU students, faculty and business owners can work on new ideas.

“Our intention is for it to be the front door of the Innovation District,’’ McVay said. “This is going to be highly programmed space,’’ with the flexibility to hold one large event or two or three smaller ones.

The renovations would come in phases and the facility would open at about the same time as the ASU@Mesa City Center building.

“This is intended to have established partnerships’’ with companies, such as Boeing or Baltu, a virtual reality company that could use it for it’s annual Virtual Reality for Good presentation, he said.

Design for ASU@Mesa City Center is scheduled to be completed in November, with construction beginning in February 2020 and concluding in October 2021. The building would open in January 2012.

Construction on Plaza@Mesa City Center would start in winter 2021 and conclude in November 2022. Design on the Studios@Mesa City Center starts in November, with construction beginning late next year and project being completed about a year later.

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