Downtown Mesa summit to tackle urban development along light rail - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Downtown Mesa summit to tackle urban development along light rail

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Posted: Thursday, February 16, 2012 9:44 am | Updated: 12:00 pm, Fri Feb 17, 2012.

Mesa has invited 171 developers from across the West to a March summit that will focus on building urban-style projects along the future Metro light rail line in its downtown.

The city has targeted developers with a track record of building the kinds of urban projects Mesa wants in its downtown and along Main Street. The March 6 event kicks off what will be a years-long campaign to develop the area's many vacant lots or underdeveloped sites.

Mayor Scott Smith said the downtown Metro line will serve as a magnet for urban development, and that Mesa's downtown has a different character than segments going through Phoenix's sprawling downtown or the section that skirts downtown Tempe. But he's found the city isn't on the radar of many builders who do urban projects.

"It just really hasn't occurred to them that the 3-mile extension in Mesa is now in play," Smith said. "It's a unique opportunity and people aren't aware of it until you sit down and spell it out."

The summit is happening as Metro will begin construction this spring on a $200 million, 3.1-mile light rail extension on Main Street to Mesa Drive. Service is expected to begin in late 2015 or early 2016.

The Mesa summit will focus on promoting about 10 city-owned and privately-owned properties that are actively being marketed. But Mesa will also call attention to the entire area and offer to introduce potential developers to property owners.

The summit will include economic development specialists, the Mesa Chamber of Commerce, elected officials, property owners and other players in the area and development, said Melissa Woodall, downtown project manager. That's an unusually coordinated approach to spurring development, she said.

"Development is not always an easy process, but rarely do you have a city taking an aggressive approach to say not only are we going to be here, but you've got the partners at the table," Woodall said.

Mesa recently sent invitations and isn't sure yet how many developers will attend, said Bill Jabjiniak, economic development director. They include companies from the West and Chicago who have built projects along transit lines.

The approach is similar to an initiative that invited colleges from around the nation to consider branch campuses in Mesa, he said. That has attracted Illinois-based Benedictine University, and the city is in advanced negotiations with several other institutions, hoping lively college campuses will create more energy downtown.

The summit will illustrate new things to Mesa like Benedictine as well as more flexible zoning rules the city has put in place to lure developers.

"We're looking for quality developers to look at these opportunities but there's no specifics other than you have to have transit-oriented development," Jabjiniak said.

Smith said if a developer began work on a project now, it would likely open about the time Metro service debuts downtown, given typical timelines for real estate acquisition, developing plans, seeking city approval and construction.

Smith said Mesa isn't planning incentives because it considers the Metro extension a catalyst for redevelopment.

The new downtown push is hardly Mesa's first attempt to give downtown a jolt. The city cleared 30 acres of homes at the southwest corner of Mesa and University drives in the early 1990s for a timeshare resort that was never built. The land remains vacant. A Main Street beautification more than a decade ago also was supposed to spur private investment, but nothing dramatic materialized.

Smith said the long history of redevelopment has helped position the city for opportunities now that light rail is coming, even if past projects weren't immediate successes. He noted downtown Phoenix's U.S. Airways Center just turned 20, but that it took many other projects before that city's core saw so much progress in just the last few years.

Mesa also will need more than just one key project to see its downtown revived, he said.

"I know people call the streetscape a failure," he said. "The problem with some of our development activities is people measure success in months or even a few short years. Real estate development is not a short process. It's a 5-, 10-, 15-year process."

The summit requires registration. For information, call (480) 644-3961.

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