This appeared in today’s Scottsdale Republic. I think the headline editor missed the point that Mesa’s ‘success story’–which forms most of the basis for Mayor Scott Smith’s bid for the governor’s seat–is a lie. Whatever ‘success’ Mesa has had appears to be due only to tax credits for low-income, high-density housing projects. It has nothing to do with light rail or good city planning. In fact, quite the opposite on the latter.
“Innovative planning and zoning documents to promote urban development and flexibility for builders,” is cited first on the list of things Mesa has done to “prime the pump” of development. Scottsdale is working on the same playbook, and “flexibility” is the opposite of what the whole concept of zoning is about.
Scottsdale, Mesa downtowns present a study in contrasts
By Gary Nelson, The Republic | azcentral.com
Mesa has hoped for years that its light-rail corridor would sprout rows of classy condo and apartment buildings generating a hip urban vibe.
So far, those hopes have produced only a symphony of chirping crickets.
For downtown Scottsdale, meanwhile, light rail isn’t even on the drawing board. Yet construction cranes in Mesa’s neighbor to the north are proliferating like springtime weeds.
What’s up with that?
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Mesa’s efforts to activate downtown, experts who spoke with the Mesa Republic said. It’s just that Scottsdale had a decades-long head start on creating a downtown capable of attracting well-heeled residents.
Early start in Scottsdale
Scottsdale developed its Western-themed arts and tourism district decades ago, added Scottsdale Fashion Square in the early 1960s, and in recent years has aggressively promoted the area as a go-to place to live and work.
The result is a residential-construction boom expected to add nearly 9,000 residents to Scottsdale’s downtown by 2030.
Mike D’Andrea, chairman of Scottsdale’s Planning Commission, said the neighborhood has a lot going for it.
“The demographic in this area are either young professionals or relocating people who are downsizing,” he said. “And the walkability of the area, the shopping and the mall are really bringing people back here to this area to live. They want to be where the action is.”
As Scottsdale’s downtown grew all that muscle, Mesa’s atrophied. All the big new shopping destinations were built elsewhere in the city, and many residents saw no reason to go downtown anymore.
The only large-scale action along and near Mesa’s light-rail line since the first leg opened in 2008 has been low-income housing projects financed by tax credits.
Three of them have hosted grand openings over the past couple of months. Work progresses on two more as well as an expansion of the now-open Escobedo at Verde Vista just north of downtown.
The non-profit groups behind those projects say they wouldn’t be built if they weren’t needed.
Too much low income?
But some are concerned about the number of such developments when coupled with downtown Mesa’s lack of high-end multifamily housing.
Dea Montague, a longtime Mesa resident, civic activist and lawyer, is among several people who have traded recent emails with City Council members on the topic.
“We’re not against low-income housing,” Montague told The Republic . “We think it’s very important that there be adequate housing for all sets of residents. What we’re opposed to is massing it all in one area.”
He added, “We think that over the years, there has been a disproportionate number of low-income, tax-credit housing in west Mesa.”
Montague said the Mesa Grande Community Alliance, one of Mesa’s most powerful grass-roots groups, has adopted the issue as one of its “points of emphasis” for city policymakers.
Although Montague would like to see low-income projects scattered across the city, that’s unlikely as long as the Arizona Department of Housing sticks with its current policy of putting them near bus and rail corridors. The idea is that the residents can use transit for work, shopping and medical appointments.
But light rail, in theory, is supposed to also draw affluent people who want to live next to the tracks in an urban environment rich with shopping and cultural opportunities.
David Short, executive director of the Downtown Mesa Association, thinks that will happen in time.
“Light rail is definitely going to be a game-changer down here,” he said.
Both he and Chris Glover, who represents downtown on the City Council, said they have talked with developers interested in downtown multifamily projects, but nobody has been willing to go first.
“People always like to see what the guy before them does and some of the successes,” Short said.
Last year’s opening of Encore on First, a tax-credit project for low-income seniors near the Mesa Arts Center, might not have been enough of a real-world precedent to show what the market can bear, he said.
“Right now, because of the way the tax-credit system is working, we get the low-income tax-credit developments,” Glover said. “But I do think that will pave the way for more developers to come in and look at the area.”
“We can’t tell the market what to do,” Glover added. “When the market is ready, I think they’ll come.”
Mesa has worked for years to prime the pump. Among its efforts:
- Innovative planning and zoning documents to promote urban development and flexibility for builders.
- Opening the Mesa Arts Center in 2005.
- Keeping its city-owned museums alive through the city’s worst-ever budget crisis.
- Upgrading infrastructure in the alleyways behind downtown Main Street businesses.
- Approving the light-rail extension through downtown and another that will take the tracks to Gilbert Road.
- Retrofitting two city buildings to accommodate starter campuses for three private colleges and universities.
Big plans in the works
There are other plans, not all specifically of the city’s making, in various stages of development that could transform downtown. They include:
- The Barry and Peggy Goldwater Center for Democracy, which expects to break ground this year at First Avenue and Macdonald.
- A world-class concert hall proposed by Christi Worsley, wife of state Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa.
- An urban events plaza just north of the city’s main office tower at Main and Center streets. Arizona State University students who brainstormed ideas for the plaza said high-rise housing would be a key component.
- A housing project for artists to be developed by a Minneapolis non-profit called Artspace. Although this, too, would be a tax-credit project, it would aim to bolster downtown’s image as a haven for creative people.
John Wesley, Mesa’s planning director, said that over the long term, downtown will need a mix of housing options, including high-end products.
Alex Finter, who will become mayor in April when Scott Smith resigns to run for governor, said the downtown colleges will play a big role in developing housing stock.
Finter believes tight credit is one factor in downtown Mesa’s lack of housing projects and that lenders do not yet see the area as a safe bet.
“Somebody is not going to build an $8 million or $10 million project if they don’t think they have the customers to actually support it,” Finter said.
Different downtowns need different catalysts for development, the Downtown Mesa Association’s Short said.
In Scottsdale, it was shopping and a tourism cachet. In Tempe, an artificial lake and Arizona State University.
In Mesa, Short thinks it will be light rail.
Over time, downtown Mesa’s mixture of amenities and opportunities — fed by the railroad tracks — is likely to bring in the construction cranes, he said.
Republic reporter Edward Gately contributed to this article.