After decades of big plans followed by bigger disappointments, the foundations of new downtown Mesa are emerging as city leaders and developers look past the COVID-19 pandemic towards a brighter day.
Piece by piece, a new downtown is starting to come into focus, with the ASU@mesacitycenter as the epicenter and a constellation of large and small developments swirling around it.
Eventually, the new, high-tech, trendy downtown may make the present sleepy one virtually unrecognizable.
“The development is happening despite COVID-19,’’ Mesa Mayor John Giles said.
When the pandemic subsides, he added, “I think you will see Mesa at the front of the line and regain momentum.”
Despite the continuing controversy revolving around asu@mesacity center, even during the upcoming election, “I think the wisdom of that project will be evident to everyone’’ once the new campus opens, Giles said.
“It’s not a hole, it’s a ladder out of a hole,’’ he said.
But Councilman Jeremy Whittaker continues to criticize city subsidies for ASU through a favorable lease and Giles’ efforts to repackage the campus into a smaller project with a different funding source than the plan previously rejected by voters.
With the COVID-19 pandemic overshadowing the city’s economic forecasts, Whittaker contends, “I think it’s foolish to continue spending money on this downtown ASU campus.”
But the council approved funding for The Studios@mesacitycenter project, to convert a vacant former Information Technology building into meeting space and conference rooms.
While the ASU project progresses, plans for Site 17, Mesa’s eternal albatross to the northeast part of downtown, are expected to start taking shape as early as August, when the city signs a memorandum of understanding with a developer for the 27-acre site.
Giles said the city believes it needs more people downtown and that’s why Site 17’s master plan is oriented toward residential.
City officials say there are already approvals in place for 1,500 units of housing downtown.
They include The Groves, a project by the development arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and The Grid, a unique development nearby that wraps around the underused Pomeroy Parking Garage.
But Site 17 also will include retail – even a possible grocery store – as well as offices that might contribute to job growth.
“Site 17 is absolutely a big factor’’ in the newly revamped downtown’s future, Giles said. “The easy thing for us to do was to sell off that piece. We want to have some influence over how it’s going to develop.’’
Jeff McVay, Mesa’s manager of downtown transformation, said one key is to connect Site 17 to downtown through walkways and bicycle paths.
“We need a mixture of daytime and nighttime’ attractions to establish downtown as a center of activity built around ASU, he said.
“Even during this time of COVID, we have a lot of things happening. There are a lot of positive things happening,’’ McVay said. “We do expect it to transform, not just evolve.’’
The next step is negotiating a memorandum of understanding with Mira Vista Holdings and Sunbelt Investments, allowing the developer to market Site 17, McVay said. The agreement may come before the council as early as August.
Officials are hoping a zoning change approved by the council will assist in the redevelopment of another large, glaring vacation site downtown, the 10-acre former home of Brown and Brown Chevrolet.
Opus, a major developer based in Minneapolis, would build 340 units in the first phase of the Mesa Arts District Lofts, with room for two additional phases.
Mesa development officials are awaiting a third version of the project after the zoning change reduced commercial space on the ground floor to 50 percent from a 100 percent requirement as an incentive to obtain financing.
The cutting edge, but also highly controversial, ASU building has been under construction for months and should start sprouting from the ground soon behind the Mesa City Council Chambers.
“I feel everything is coming together,’’ said council member Jen Duff, who
represents downtown. “I see an avalanche of successful development along the light rail.’’
“When it’s finished in 2022,’’ Duff said about the ASU building, “we’re going to be on an upswing by then.’’
“The foundation of our economy is fine. We just need to work through this virus. We are all trying to figure out how to become more resilient,’’ Duff said.
Caliber, a Scottsdale-based investment firm that specializes in the use of federal Opportunity Zones, anticipates announcing this week the addition of a national entrepreneurship company that might contribute substantially to Mesa realizing its dream of creating a downtown innovation district.
Chris Loeffler, CEO and co-founder of Caliber, and Rodney Riley, vice president of acquisition and development, believe enough in downtown Mesa to have spent $15 million to acquire 160,000 square feet of property.
Loeffler said the company’s specialty is Opportunity Zones, a long-term deferred tax investment in which capital gains taxes are forgiven if the investor holds the investment for at least 10 years.
This approach allows Caliber to take a big-picture approach, hoping to maximize a building’s beauty and find its best use, he said.
Loeffler and Riley view downtown Mesa as the next downtown Phoenix or Gilbert.
“I think it’s inevitable. I think anyone who doesn’t see it is missing something,’’ Loeffler said. “I think downtown Mesa will surprise people in a meaningful way.’’
Riley said the elements of downtown Mesa that make it perfect for Opportunity Zone investments include the Mesa Arizona Temple, a pro-business government, the light rail and a low census tract that backs up the slum and blighted designation that has been in effect for years.
“We like the authentic past’’ of downtown Mesa, with a 1950s and 1960s vibe, Riley said. “But we want to see tenants that not only take a step forward, but a leap forward.’’
“Pre-COVID, things were incredibly active. COVID changed the world,’’ Riley said.
One of Loeffler’s ideas is for a community market, almost an indoor version of a farmer’s market, featuring locally grown produce and other healthy food, similar to another market in the Kensington neighborhood of San Diego.
“We have to make sure that when you come to downtown Mesa, you experience something unique,’’ Loeffler said.
Also underway downtown is the renovation of the Mormon Temple, its grounds and construction of a new Family Resource Center for genealogy research.
The temple passed the second anniversary of its closing on May 19.
Mesa resident Jeremy Kerrigan has been documenting the project on a Facebook page and has said the “very extensive project” has included replacement of all mechanical systems such as lighting and heating and air-conditioning as well as the roof, windows and doors.
Parts of the temple have been gutted and revamped and the entire exterior is undergoing significant renovation as well as the grounds, Kerrigan noted.
Surrounding streets also are being renovated as 1st Avenue is being turned into a “grand avenue” to the temple. A new memorial sign already has been installed at the First Avenue entrance.
At least four major construction companies and scores of subcontractors have been involved in the overall project – its second major renovation since it opened in 1927.
The Groves is on target for completion late this year or early next year, while the church has not yet set a reopening date despite obvious progress to the newly refurbished grounds and a new memorial sign at the entrance on First Avenue.
“There won’t be any Christmas lights in 2020. We don’t have a final date,’’ said Jennifer Wheeler, a church spokeswoman.
The pandemic presents a major unresolved issue for the church as it formulates a rededication, which will be preceded by grand-opening tours, a practice followed at the much newer Gilbert and Phoenix temples.
“The church proceeds very carefully. Our congregations have not resumed having services,’’ Wheeler said, noting that other temples in the region remain closed, creating a backlog of official church wedding ceremonies.
Whenever the grand reopening happens, perhaps sometime in 2021, it represents a natural hook for Mesa’s new downtown coming out party, with the church project the first of several to open.
Wheeler expects large crowds, with people visiting from out of state, because of the Mesa temple’s historical significance to the church.
“I am thrilled with the amount of progress our contractors and subcontractors have made,’’ said Carl Duke, vice president of City Creek Reserve, the real estate and investment arm of the church.
Duke estimated the large apartment building at the southwest corner of Main Street and Mesa Drive will be finished by the end of October.
“For the average person who walks through the development, it will look complete by Jan. 1. The whole thing should be operational,’’ Duke said.
He said City Creek is happy to serve as one of the bookends to the redevelopment of downtown Mesa.
“ASU’s Mesa campus will be very helpful in driving renters to our property,’’ Duke said.
It’s clear that Duke takes special pride in the Family Discovery Center near Main Street, a steel and concrete building with a stone finish, that will work in tandem with the newly renovated temple.
“The quality of that facility is something that is going to stand out,’’ he said.