Pandemic slows Mesa’s central district rebirth The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Pandemic slows Mesa’s central district rebirth

Pandemic slows Mesa’s central district rebirth

By Jim Walsh
Tribune Staff Writer

Despite a setback from the COVID-19 recession, Mesa will continue its war on blight in the Central Business District one parcel at a time after renewing the six-square-mile area’s blighted designation for another 10 years.

The designation, approved by City Council earlier this month, qualifies properties in the district for tax incentives designed to spur redevelopment.

Despite the new cloud created by the pandemic-fueled recession, City Economic Development Director Bill Jabjiniak believes the three projects will get completed – when the economy recovers.

“The uncertainty is probably the biggest issue. That causes people to hit pause,’’ he said. “All indications are that the economy hit ‘pause’ and there will be a slow, steady comeback.’’

The Central Business District started with the Mesa Town Center in 1999 and gradually was expanded to the west, east and southwest in 2016 and 2017. It includes Main Street from the Tempe border to Gilbert Road, the length of the Metro Light Rail in Mesa.

The redevelopment area also includes Fiesta Mall, a once thriving shopping mall that is now closed.

A change in state law forced cities to re-examine redevelopment districts and decide if they wanted to continue them.

In a study commissioned by the city, Matrix Consulting examined the 8,260 parcels in the area and found at least one indication of blight in 4,567 of them, or 55 percent.

In addition, the area with some form of blight covered 68.7 percent of the acreage in an area with an estimated population of 109,673.

In this instance, finding some evidence of deterioration was considered a plus because it was critical in justifying the “blighted” designation.

Numerous conditions qualified as blight under the study, including the deterioration of structures in need of more maintenance; unsanitary and unsafe conditions, which include trash and the storage of junk; a crime rate higher than other parts of Mesa; and small, oddly shaped parcels with no access to roads.

“We did, in our investigation, determine there was a predominance of blighted conditions in the Central Mesa Business District,’’ consultant Martin Scribner said.

Council member Kevin Thompson, who represents southeast Mesa, noted the district has existed for 21 years and questioned whether the city was making much progress.

“What exactly are we doing to move
the needle and eliminate blight?’’ Thompson said.

City Manager Chris Brady said the area looks better than it did 20 years ago but acknowledged that the effort is far from complete.

“While it still might be considered blighted, I think there has been significant improvement,’’ Brady said. “Millions of dollars have been invested downtown. I think you can look at the glass as being half full or half empty.’’

Jabjiniak said his department needs to have tools available to encourage redevelopment.

“You need the tools to work with the private sector to invest in an area that has not seen a lot of activity in the past,’’ he said.

While large industrial projects probably will continue in other parts of Mesa, the Central Business District depends more on small businesses that have been heavily impacted from COVID-19, he said.

Small businesses are still in shock by the economy’s shutdown caused by the pandemic, Jabjiniak said.

He added said that small businesses need the area to return to a normal work cycle to create a market for restaurants and shops.

He believes the momentum that was created downtown prior to the pandemic can eventually be revived, because of factors such as Arizona State University’s expansion downtown and the availability of Metro Light Rail.

“I think the ASU project is something like a kick-start overall,’’ Jabjiniak said.

On three previous occasions, the city granted incentives to developers to address three major eyesores in the district.

But nothing so far has occurred at
the sites.

They include:

Fiesta Village at Southern Avenue and Alma School Road, a 17-acre site owned by the WM Grace Development Co. whose deteriorated state over the 10 years prompted legal action by the city that was dropped as part of the redevelopment agreement;

Bailey’s Brakes at Main Street and Country Club, which at one time was the subject of a long-running court case that ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court;

The dilapidated Mesa Royale mobile home park at West Main Street and Date.

After years of legal wrangling, the city and Grace reached an agreement last August for construction of The Landing at Fiesta Village, a retail-apartment complex.

The Nuevas Vistas project at Mesa Royale and Bailey’s Brakes redevelopment effort were approved in October 2018.

Although delays are likely on the Fiesta Village project, the tax incentives offered by the city were vital in encouraging the property owner to eventually remove blight and build a new apartment complex, Jabjiniak said.

“That was one of the most blighted corners, not only in Mesa, but in the entire Valley,’’ Jabjiniak said.

Mesa City Councilman Francisco Heredia said he would like to see Fiesta Village advance as quickly as possible, but conceded delays caused by the recession seem inevitable.

“I think we have to cautiously work with people to make sure things get done,’’ Heredia said. “Given the circumstances, we have to be flexible.’’

Brady cited the city’s development agreements for Fiesta Village and with Chicanos por la Causa as hopeful signs.

“We have agreements in place and we’re working with them on a variety of financing and funding,’’ Brady said. “We know we have two sites on Main where we have some agreements and we are hoping to see some changes there.’’

Chicanos por la Causa reiterated its commitment to both projects in a statement released to the Tribune by spokeswoman Maria Jesus Cervantes.

But she acknowledged that the recession might cause additional delays.

She said Chicanos por la Causa has expanded its investment in the redevelopment area by purchasing The Knights Inn motel next to Mesa Royale.

“This was a blighted area of the community with longstanding issues that will not be solved overnight, but we are not going away,’’ the statement said. “CPLC is strongly committed to ensuring that we provide a solution that best encompasses the needs of the local community, the city and park residents.’’

Chicanos por la Causa still plans to redevelop Bailey’s Brakes into a mixed-use development that combines multi-family housing units with commercial space, but the timing is under reconsideration because of the recession.

“We have a firm commitment on funding sources,’’ the statement said. “However, due to the recent and untimely economic challenges brought upon by the COVID crisis, we are intently reassessing this project’’ to maximize the odds of success.

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