Fiesta District: Concerns grow over its future - East Valley Tribune: News

Fiesta District: Concerns grow over its future

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Posted: Saturday, April 12, 2008 10:00 pm | Updated: 10:28 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Jared Langkilde has a lot of anxiety these days about the community in which he works.

GRAPHIC: Strips malls in area surrounding Fiesta Mall

Jared Langkilde has a lot of anxiety these days about the community in which he works.

GRAPHIC: Strips malls in area surrounding Fiesta Mall

Man stabbed to death at Mesa’s Fiesta Mall

Mall suspect has history of mental illness

A member of a committee that's leading the effort to revitalize Mesa's Fiesta Mall area, Langkilde said he fears two stabbings there in late March will increase perceptions that the neighborhood is in a state of urban decay.

"There are some serious issues that are going to take some serious partnership and some serious cash to fix, and we're all going to have to work together," he said. "If we don't do something about it, who knows what else is lying down the road. We seem pretty bad already."

The crimes were the latest public relations problem for the area, once one of the East Valley's most exclusive shopping and entertainment hubs. It has faced an exodus of retailers, general blight in surrounding neighborhoods and frustration among major stakeholders and residents.

"We're no longer the destination place we used to be," said Langkilde, a member of the Fiesta Mall RevitalizationCommittee. "We're kind of left out in the cold."

But Cathy Ji, a city economic development specialist working with the area's major businesses and employers, insists the negative feelings largely stem from the fact that the mall and surrounding shopping centers are getting older.

"A lot of it is perception," she said. "When you drive by something that's not new ... you feel like it's run down."

Howard Faber, a merchant who has operated his Bubbles of Joy store near the mall for about 25 years, is so frustrated by what he sees as a lack of progress in the area that he's considering moving to Tempe when his lease expires in December.

"We've been there so long," he said. "It makes us sad knowing we may have to move out. We don't necessarily want to, but we may have to."

Faber blames two factors for escalating what he calls "disarray" in the area - the shuttering of Fiesta Village shopping center at the northwest corner of Alma School Road and Southern Avenue, and the opening of Mesa Riverview at Dobson Road and Loop 202.

Faber blames Riverview for sucking away many of the retailers that once operated around Fiesta Mall, and he called Fiesta Village - where he once operated his store - "the biggest eyesore in that area."

A decade of work

It's been about 10 years since officials from the area's major employers - including Banner Desert Medical Center, Mesa Community College and the mall - began earnestly examining the challenges to the neighborhood bordered by the Tempe Canal, U.S. 60, and Broadway and Extension roads.

They had their work cut out for them. Crime was a problem, newer shopping centers in the area began peeling away customers from the mall and home resale values were lower than in other parts of the city.

In 2003, city officials jumped into the fray by hiring two consultants - The International Economic Development Council and The International Council of Shopping Centers - and paying them about $300,000 to suggest changes. But four years after the "Revitalization Strategy for the Fiesta Mall Super-Regional Retail District" report was issued, many of the recommendations have yet to be put in place by Mesa.

"There is no leadership from the city being provided on this," said Langkilde, who works at MCC. "They've just handed it off to staff and have kept things afloat. At some point in time, we need genuine leadership or they need to give us the tools to be at the helm and accomplish what we need to have accomplished."

Ji points to numerous improvements, including falling crime rates and major capital improvement projects at Banner Desert, MCC and the mall.

Even though there are vacancies in many surrounding shopping centers, including the empty and dilapidated Fiesta Village, the 2004 report criticized the Fiesta District for having a glut of retail offerings and not enough office and residential space, Ji said.

Since the study, the area has made great strides in attracting more residential and office space, including the hotly anticipated AquaTerra hotel and condominium project proposed for an area southeast of Alma School Road and Southern Avenue.

Ji says the city has not been remiss in its responsibilities to Fiesta businesses. It has worked to lobby the state Legislature for a change in the law that would allow officials to form a designated economic redevelopment district, she said. Right now, the designation is used only to spruce up downtown areas.

That change is a key wish among businesses in the Fiesta District, Langkilde said. Among other benefits, a redevelopment district would allow the implementation of a sales tax in the area that would directly benefit the district rather than going into the city's coffers.

BEHIND THE CURVE

City Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh, who represents the area, said efforts to put the 2004 report's suggestions into place are about two years behind.

Kavanaugh partly blames a revolving door of city staff members who were put in charge of coordinating efforts between the district's advisory group and the city.

He said the economic development department has been constrained by a tiny budget and small staff. Also, the city manager in charge when the report was released has retired and the Fiesta District had no champion on the council.

"Nobody really had custody or ownership," he said.

Kavanaugh and Langkilde also said the city shifted emphasis away from the Fiesta District to other development areas like Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport and Mesa Riverview.

Picking up

Still, Kavanaugh is optimistic about the future of the Fiesta District and said the city is again turning its attention to the challenges there.

"Fortunately, about a year ago, things picked back up again in terms of the city ... renew(ing) the effort with the stakeholders," he said.

Mesa has since hired consulting firm PMC and paid it $250,000 to plan the implementation of certain aspects of the 2004 revitalization report, including new branding for the area, a uniform design strategy in landscaping and building colors, and safer pedestrian access.

In the private sector, Phoenix-based Westcor, Fiesta Mall's owner, began major renovations to the mall and has made strides by replacing the vacant Macy's building with a planned Dick's Sporting Goods and Best Buy.

Mark Roady, a broker with the firm handling leasing for the Bed, Bath & Beyond-anchored strip mall at Longmore and Southern, said the situation is far from dire.

"Yeah, some retailers have left and gone to Tempe Marketplace and Mesa Riverview, but there's a lot of activity," he said.

Roady pointed out that although Best Buy will soon vacate the Mesa Fiesta center near Alma School and Southern, it will remain within the vicinityby simply moving across the street. Circuit City recently considered a similar move from Longmore and Southern to the now-vacant CompUSA store near Best Buy.

He added that businesses aren't fleeing the area, but rather trying to find better locations there.

"What we're seeing is really more of a repositioning," he said.

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