Sept. 18, 2008
(Writer’s note: Downtown Phoenix rules the school these days, with the headlines dominated by the new Metro light rail, a new convention center, Arizona State University’s expansion, a new hotel and other new redevelopment. But there is more to the Valley than Phoenix. So over the next few weeks and months, I plan to talk with mayors and business owners in the region’s other cities. If you have ideas about the Valley’s suburbs, please send me a note. Thanks.)
Two new policies could bring more redevelopment and people into Mesa’s downtown, which for years has been overshadowed by chrome-plated growth on the city’s fringes.
The economic cloud over downtown is evident during morning rush hour. While other major streets are filled with commuters in their rush to work, there is little traffic on Main Street. Mayor Scott Smith plans to change that trend.
He says one of the city’s new efforts to lure commuters and others back downtown is expanding the list of events at the Mesa Arts Center. Another is encouraging mixed-use development in the downtown core by loosening the city’s planning and zoning policies.
Those new strategies by Mesa could be boosted by other issues – the rising cost of gasoline, which is causing commuters to rethink living a long and costly drive from work; and the December 2008 opening of the light rail system called Metro, which will link west Mesa with Tempe and Phoenix.
As commuters re-evaluate the time and money they spend traveling between home and work, Smith anticipates a growing interest in commuting by light rail and in central-city developments of all types, including office, retail and residential.
“More people are interested in moving into an urban environment,” Smith says. “They’re moving out of suburbia. They’re moving out of the 4,000-square-foot house and into maybe a condo or something like that.”
Smith, elected in May 2008 to his first political office, is familiar with demographics. He was in the residential construction business from 1994 to 2006. About four years ago, he and his company proposed a condominium building just east of downtown. The site is a vacant lot one block east of Mesa Drive, west of Pioneer Park and north across Main Street from the Arizona Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The proposed condo building’s view of the park and its location within a short walk of downtown Mesa would make it attractive to a variety of buyers.
The proposal was a six-story building with about 180 condos. The price range was from the low $200,000s to about $500,000. The idea was tabled when the Valley real estate market weakened. But eventually, “I think that’s how that will develop,” Smith adds. “It’s a great location.”
Mesa Arts Center
Smith offered his thoughts about downtown Mesa’s future during an interview on the plaza at the Mesa Arts Center, which is at Main and Center streets, across from city hall. The 212,755-square-foot center, with several performing arts theaters and other entertainment venues, is said to be the largest of its type in Arizona.
“Whenever you have an asset and resource like this,” Smith says, motioning to the arts center, “you figure out ways to use it.”
When it opened in the spring of 2005, the new arts center’s focus was dominated by musical presentations. Smith says that is too restrictive. He says a new goal of the city council is to add “community” to the arts center.
“I think it’s extremely under utilized,” he says, raising his voice over the drone of workers’ leaf blowers on the plaza. “Officially, it’s known as the Mesa Arts Center. Within city hall, at least on the seventh floor, its official name is the Mesa Community Arts Center. One of the things we have failed to realize is that this is truly a community asset. It’s not a concert venue. It’s not a place to come see plays. It’s a community asset.”
As such, the city’s goal is shifting from concerts to adding a variety of other events that will attract larger numbers of visitors.
“We’re going to open it up more to community groups,” Smith says. “The idea is to create a community arts center that will include concerts, and it will also include local groups and local organizations.”
Smith, among others, says the housing developments that have helped the Valley grow, are now a thing of the past. The future residential developments will be smaller, they will be on smaller lots, and swimming pools are losing their panache among younger buyers.
Those demographics, along with fuel prices in the $3 and $4 range, and the start of the light rail system, called Metro, “will change lifestyle decisions and discussions,” Smith said.
Late December is the scheduled start of Metro. The 20-mile system stretches from Sycamore and Main streets in west Mesa through Tempe and Phoenix to 19th Avenue and Bethany Home Road. There are funds to extend the light rail line in Mesa east on Main or First Avenue. A final report recommending a route is expected in February 2009, Smith says.
“I’m hoping that light rail will be the final piece of the puzzle that will be the catalyst for some quality urban-type development here in the downtown area,” he says.
Developers reworking concepts
The new light rail system, the shifting demographics and the growing list of vacant lots and under-utilized properties in Mesa and other parts of the Valley are on the minds of developers and investors today. That’s because those factors are changing formulas used for decades to determine when and where to launch new projects.
“Five years ago, if you talked about people actually living in downtown Mesa, you’d get a blank stare,” he said. “If you said the same thing now, even investors would say, ‘Yeah, I can see that happening.’ That’s a huge shift in thinking.”
Smith and the council are having more discussions about residential components as part of downtown. At the city’s recent council retreat, the council agreed to create a redevelopment environment that would bring more people downtown.
“We’re changing our philosophy on zoning,” he continues.
In the past, if a property had retail zoning, the owner was restricted only to retail development. For the future, Mesa has decided to be more flexible in approving the property owner’s request for other uses, such as offices, restaurants or even residential or entertainment, depending on the mix of uses on nearby properties, Smith says.
Mixed-use plans versatile
“In reality, whether it’s retail, office, residential or whatever, you have some of the same issues – traffic flow, people in and out, parking – so let’s focus on the form of the building and how it blends with the community, rather than how it’s used,” he says.
“Do I care whether someone has an office there, or whether they live there, as long as the building works and the parking works? No, I shouldn’t.
“We’re shifting our focus. It’s a major shift in philosophy. The idea being, if you have a vacant property in downtown, let’s talk about what you want to do there.
“In downtown, there is a wide variety of uses, and we as government should not be dictating that use, but we should be facilitating any use, as long as it blends and fits in with the neighbors.”
Smith adds that height of a building is important only in that it should be a positive influence on the total design.
“I may think that a six-story building fits in better than a two-story (building), as far as form goes,” he says. “But whether it’s two-story or six-story or eight-story, I want the form to work. And that’s what we focus on. We focus on the building working, not the use of the building.”
If property owners are willing to work with the city, “we’ll make the zoning changes and we’ll make the general plan changes they need to work within this more flexible framework,” he says.
“The overriding objective of the council is to bring people downtown,” he says.