If this was a movie shoot, it might be “take 17.”
Back in the mid-1980s, the City of Mesa was so eager to flip a single-family neighborhood into a commercial development that it used eminent domain to forcefully purchase the properties, clearing the way for an eagerly-anticipated resort, conference and water park project.
Thirty-five years later … nada.
Near the busy corner of Mesa and University drives, a chunk of ugly, dirt lots sit behind the office of Maricopa Adult Probation as the land patiently waits for someone to take it out of development jail.
The water park was dunked, other ideas ranged from pop flies to strikeouts. So, 25 acres of prime, city-owned land remain a blank canvas waiting for an idea.
But now, city officials pledge, something is about to happen. Something big. Something “splashy.” Something “transformational.”
The project has a name that sounds about as humble as a belt-hoisting wrestler: Transform 17.
At its last meeting, Mesa City Council approved a memorandum of understanding with Miravista/SIHI Holdings for a multi-use community building “focused on healthcare and wellness.”
Potential uses for the area, according to the agreement, include innovation and technology, healthcare research and development, medical office, multi-generational residential (rental and for-sale), retail and restaurant.
Before Council approved the MOU, which contains few specifics, it hashed the issue out during a study session.
Councilwoman Jen Duff, who lives and represents the downtown area, was adamant she wants a “superstar” project.
“We have a wonderful downtown,” she said. “I don’t want to see it diluted by something that is very corporate.”
She said she wants “a spectacular development we can all be proud of.”
Councilman Kevin Thompson seconded Duff’s comments: “That’s something residents continue to say over and over, there has to be a ‘wow’ factor.”
Mayor John Giles, who has heard many developer pitches for the area since he took office in 2014, took a down-to-earth approach, using the site’s previous name.
“All of us are a little frustrated with the glacial pace at Site 17,” he said. “I support this MOU … but we need to see from (the developers) this is a priority.”
The Transform 17 developer has a neighboring project in the works, the Sycamore Station on Main Street and Sycamore Road.
According to Miravista’s presentation on Sycamore Station, it plans multi-family housing (“to ensure a vibrant and lively urban experience”), retail and parking structures.
Construction on the L-shaped land between Sycamore and Dobson Road is scheduled to begin later this year. Sycamore Station’s preliminary plan for “a mixed-use, transit-oriented development” is to be heard by the Planning and Zoning Board April 28.
Mesa Economic Development Director William Jabjiniak told the Tribune he is confident the developer will land its plans at both locations.
“They have strong capital partners,” Jabjiniak said. “They’re willing to listen to the neighborhood about what they want, they’re willing to listen to the city and one of the great things there is the city owns all the utilities: water, sewer, gas and electric.”
But don’t expect anything new on this corner of downtown right away.
The MOU charts a “multi-phased” plan, with a master plan due in nine months and construction anticipated by 2024.
“I think you’ll see something moving forward in that three-year window,” Jabjiniak said.
The MOU is “non-binding,” meaning the developer has no financial obligation and can back out at any time.
Jeff McVay, manager of Downtown Transformation, acknowledged the dismal past of Site 17/Transform 17: “For the past 30-plus years, a number of proposals have been made to the city. However, most proposals were for small portions of the site that didn’t consider the broader context and/or were not viable.”
Duff can give you 17 reasons why she wants this land developed with an exclamation point rather than a question mark.
“I’m a downtowner. I love downtown. I believe in its community. I certainly want to see development that embraces that,” she said.
“We want an extension of our community here … Also providing a community benefit. Offering those who need jobs and that first home or a great place to live. We really need to respect the community.”
Would she like to see a grocery store as part of Transform 17 or Sycamore Station?
Duff gave a rueful chuckle and shook her head, saying, “Every time we talk about what we need downtown a grocery store is on the top of the list. Hopefully we’ll finally have enough population to support a grocery store. It’s on my wish list as well as other people’s.”
Though a born-and-raised Mesan, Duff has only lived downtown for a decade, so she wasn’t here for the original splashy idea.
“I remember the water park was big in the media. It was a residential neighborhood that was struggling,” she said.
“I feel like we need some healing there with some of the residents.”
Duff was elected to Council in 2018.
“When I was campaigning,” she said, “it was big on the radar: ‘What’s happening with Site 17?’”
With so many other downtown developments either finished or completed, one has to wonder: Will Transform 17 finally get off the ground?
Is this the real deal?
“I’m all hopes,” Duff said. “But it’s very early.”