On a pleasant Saturday afternoon during what experts call the tail end of the pandemic, downtown Mesa shows signs of vibrancy.
The “restaurant row” strip of Main Street between Center and Robson is percolating, with locals hitting the coffee shops or having lunch-and-drinks at places like Mangos, Tacos Chiwas and Margaritas Mexican restaurants and 12 West Brewing.
A half-dozen blocks east, groups gather for picnics at Pioneer Park. Next door, more folks chow down on the patio at Haven Burgers.
Others chat through their masks while waiting for the light rail stop in the middle of Main Street. The mass-transit users’ eyes likely gazed at the “Now leasing” announcement of a building on the corner of Main and Mesa Drive.
More than just a sign that The Grove on Main is open, it’s a sign of things to come in a renovated, walking-friendly downtown that city officials feel is perfectly positioned for post-pandemic pedestrians.
A recent Mesa City Council study session provided updates on several long-discussed projects.
The ritzy Grove on Main apartments — where monthly rents range from $1,200 for studios up to $2,000 for two bedrooms – leads a surge of apartment complexes planned to revitalize downtown, the historic and cultural center of Mesa.
“We’re seeing a lot of development coming downtown,” Councilman David Luna said.
And maybe, he added, too much going on downtown.
Luna and others suggested it might be time to tap the brakes on the racing developments.
The Grid, Eco Mesa, Transform 17 and Mesa Arts District Lofts are other downtown apartment buildings in varying stages of development.
Together, they are expected to bring thousands of residents who are expected to walk around and join the rail crowd in frequenting restaurants and shops.
New to the planning party is Mesa Arts District Lofts, five buildings totaling 334 apartments at the long-vacant Brown and Brown Chevrolet dealership.
Details of the project on Main Street between Sirrine and Hibbert streets, including electric vehicle charging stations, dog washing areas and tax breaks were unveiled at the study session, where some pondered if the city is tossing the keys to downtown’s future too easily.
“I think it’s the obligation of the developer for this to be a spectacular over-the-top type of project,” Councilwoman Jen Duff said, of the new project at the old Main Street dealership.
“Something that brings a lot of interest and pride to our downtown,” she mused.
Duff added that the potential doubling of downtown’s residential population is not to be taken lightly.
“I’m concerned we entertain what developers line up at our door and we’re not taking the fortitude to define what our downtown looks like,” she said.
“We need to start (taking) a more proactive position instead of absorption.”
Luna agreed with that.
He noted the ASU at Mesa City Center project, a $75 million collaboration 85 percent funded by the city that is scheduled to finish in early 2022.
“We’re going to have to take a little pause after ASU is completed,” Luna said. “Let’s give it some time and see what happens.”
Mayor John Giles swiftly and vigorously pushed back on that idea.
“I don’t want the headlines to be the city is pausing,” Giles said. “This is the challenge we hoped to have.”
Giles noted the light-rail expansion and other improvements have made the area enticing for developers.
“We are now the cutest girl at the dance and people are lining up to come downtown,” Giles said.
Several on the council said they toured the new apartment building and were impressed, hoping subsequent developments will be as attractive.
“The Grove is just a beautiful development,” said Councilman Mark Freeman. “It will be a gemstone.”
According to a presentation by Jeff McVay, Mesa’s manager of downtown transformation, another 2,000 apartments and condos are planned downtown.
And more might be on the way.
“With all of that development activity, it’s exciting to know we still have a significant amount of interest from developers,” McVay said.
The Grove leads the wave of apartment buildings coming downtown, where the “Field of Dreams”-like mantra of developers is, “If we build it, they will come.”
Next up is a far-reaching project called The GRID.
On Main Street between Benedictine University – a partner in the development, along with the city and Palladium Enterprises – The GRID, blends large and small living spaces and businesses.
It promises to be a league of its own.
“From micro units to luxury market-rate apartments to contemporary row homes, The GRID will be the place to live downtown,” the project’s website crows. “Ground floor restaurants will spill onto the sidewalks and will create an electric vibe.”
The GRID’s price tag, like the ASU project, is right around $75 million. McVay said the first part of The GRID should be done next spring and the entire project finished by the fall of 2022.
A few blocks north on Mesa Drive, Transform 17, formerly known as Site 17, is underway – in theory, at least.
Another mixed-use development blending homes and businesses, Transform 17 was an idea even before a 2018 community workshop. McVay doesn’t expect the 27-acre project to be complete before 2024.
A memorandum of understanding with the developer will be presented to Council in April.
Eco Mesa, to take over the “Purple Parking Lot” on West Pepper Lane, is planned to be at least 85 percent sustainable.
A tax-incentivized agreement calls for it to begin building by June and be complete by January 2023. The plan at this green-living apartment complex is for a solar array on the roof and a system to use stored rainwater to nourish landscaping.
A short walk away, the Residences on Main are planned on Country Club Drive. But, McVay said, the project is on hold “while the developer assesses finances.”
Courtyards on Second, on Second Avenue at Macdonald, hopes to bring another 144 apartments downtown sometime next year.
McVay said other projects are in negotiations.
Noting there are multiple projects in progress downtown, Giles said, “We don’t need to encourage unsolicited bids.”
Even so, he stressed, the city still owns chunks of land downtown totaling 140 acres.
“I’m uncomfortable with saying we’re adopting a moratorium on disposing of downtown properties,” Giles said.
“I’m not afraid of bringing more businesses and more people downtown.”
On first meeting, Cindy Fitch calls people “honey,” serves them homemade meatloaf and mashed potatoes and cracks an endless stream of humorous sarcasm.
Since she owns the Downtown Rendezvous, one might think she would welcome new places like The Grove to drive people to her cafe.
Not so much.
“How do I feel about all the new stuff? I was born and raised in Mesa and I’m 66 years old. I miss the old Louie Bar where The Grove took over,” she said, with a nostalgic sigh.
She shrugs off all the new-and-improved development.
“It’s just progress. I’d rather have horse and buggies going up and down Main Street,” Fitch said.
Then again, she is quick to add, “I’m kind of weird.” The Rendezvous is only open during the week for lunch. Though she has a crew of regular customers, she is not against the new folks coming to downtown.
“Yeah, I hope I get ‘em,” she said. “If they want homemade food they’ll come here ... If they want to, they can come in and sit down and have a laugh.”
Across Main Street, the Nile Coffee Shop has heard about the new apartments headed downtown.
“We’re excited,” said Hayley Rippy, a manager at the cafe. “The more business the better. Downtown’s been pretty slow, lately.”
But things could be picking up in the coming months, as more people are lured to Main Street’s “apartments of dreams.”