For years, Mesa has waited for the time when developers would get so excited about downtown that they would come knocking on the city’s door with plans to invest in major projects.
That day has finally arrived, but it has put Mesa and the business community in the awkward position of not having everybody on board to roll out the red carpet.
The conflict involves a $16.5-million, five-story building that sports modern architecture and stands on Main Street. That’s exactly what Mesa has wanted downtown for years.
The catch is that it’s an apartment building for low-income seniors. And it’s at one of downtown’s prime locations, across Main from the Mesa Arts Center and a future Metro light rail station.
Critics say the site deserves a more exciting project that will help make the area a destination.
Vice Mayor Scott Somers said he’s concerned the senior housing project will send the wrong message to the community about what downtown is.
“I think they see a future in Mesa that is new and fresh and bright, and this falls back on the same old, same old,” Somers said.
Somers and other opponents say they like the project and that downtown needs more housing. Their only concern is the location.
The 85-unit project would be east of City Hall, on what is now a Mesa-owned parking lot. Mesa’s City Council approved the concept by a 4-3 vote in February, but the plan still needs to survive a lengthy review by the Arizona Department of Housing. City officials emphasize the project is far from certain.
The Mesa Chamber of Commerce has raised objections, also. Chamber board President Otto Shill said a housing development on Main Street doesn’t promote the area as a business district.
“The project is the right kind of project for the downtown corridor, we just don’t think it should be on Main Street,” Shill said.
The future light rail station will create opportunities for better concepts at the site, he said.
Opponents also note the location and surrounding city-owned land is being considered for an urban plaza that would be a major gathering spot. They want to hold off on any development until the plaza plan is fully developed.
A decision on the housing project’s financing is due in July. If approved, construction would start in November and the building would open in late 2013.
If the project’s funding is approved, Somers said he understands it’s possible to still consider a different location. Somers said he would consider other city-owned parcels or private property — as long as it’s off Main Street.
The same concerns would apply to student housing for colleges that Mesa is recruiting as it tries to create a college-town vibe downtown. Somers said housing — especially if it’s subsidized — should stay off Main Street.
Another concern is the project will require a subsidy from the city, but the amount hasn’t been determined. Somers said the city should hold onto the land until the area can sell itself without assistance from the city. He supports a taller, mixed-use building.
“We need to let the light rail come through and once that’s up and running, that’s when I think the market can take hold and I think that’s when we’ll see something special,” he said.
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