Mesa struggles between filling vacancies, sticking to vision for downtown - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Mesa struggles between filling vacancies, sticking to vision for downtown

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Posted: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 4:08 pm | Updated: 6:22 pm, Wed Nov 26, 2014.

For Mesa's elected leaders, it's been a no-brainer to offer incentives for a Chicago Cubs stadium, a First Solar manufacturing plant and other employers if that's what it takes to keep them from leaving the state.

In fact, the city was so intent on keeping the Cubs from moving to Florida that it's putting up $99 million for a new complex.

Then a seemingly simple request came in for cut-rate parking fees in exchange for reviving a vacant downtown building with up to 400 workers. The incentive was arguably $1 million over 22 years.

The proposal resulted in one of the most narrowly-decided issues the City Council has acted on in several years, while sparking a dispute over how to best manage the long-struggling effort to revive downtown.

The issue revolves around whether the city should encourage up to 400 state of Arizona employees to bring life to an empty building, or whether it's best to leave it vacant while waiting for a more lively development to come along.

On Monday, the council decided 4-3 for the incentive, which will result in the state of Arizona consolidating agency offices from across the East Valley into a downtown Mesa location.

Councilwoman Dina Higgins objected to the incentive for 100 parking spaces surrounding the former location of the East Valley Tribune, 120 W. First Ave. The newspaper now has offices in downtown Mesa and Tempe.

The lease will last 12 years, with a 10-year renewal option. Higgins said the parking incentive exceeded $1 million.

Downtown plans call for college campuses and more housing, not more government offices, Higgins said.

"We need to have that intestinal fortitude to stick to that vision," she said.

But Mayor Scott Smith argued the building could stand idle for years if the council didn't act on a proposal by Phoenix-based Harrison Properties to lease 70,000 square feet of office space to the state. The building will house the Attorney General's Office, Child Protective Services, job assistance training, employment benefits and more.

The mostly windowless building's odd configuration makes it one of downtown's most difficult properties to redevelop, Smith said.

The number of vacant properties downtown is proof the city has stifled redevelopment by rejecting what it doesn't judge as the perfect project, Smith said.

"Downtown, I think, in the past has been defined by this city as something that can be micromanaged and can be forced into different holes and different pegs," he said. "And I think we've been pretty successful in proving that is a failed approach."

Mesa Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh said the state programs offered in the building aren't a good fit for the area and could deter other redevelopment. Smith said downtowns have room for all kinds of uses.

"The one thing that kills a downtown is emptiness, is the lack of activity, is boarded-up buildings," Smith said. "People don't come to invest where there is failure."

The council's motion was supported by Smith, and councilmen Dave Richins, Alex Finter and Christopher Glover. Higgins, Kavanaugh and Vice Mayor Scott Somers opposed it.

Between 300 and 400 employees will work at the site. Harrison, which is the top landlord providing office space to the state, expects to invest $1.5 million in renovations.

The building has been vacant since March 2011. Harrison bought the building from the Tribune's former owner, California-based Freedom Communications, which retained property ownership when selling the newspaper in 2010.

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