Mesa council struggles with downtown site near light rail

by Gary Nelson – Oct. 22, 2011
Courtesy of The Arizona Republic

[Editor’s Note: Light Rail Advisors, the owner of the popular website, endorses smart use of city land and building resources for the development of the Downtown Mesa area]

Two decades ago it was the retail centerpiece of a development that was going to transform downtown Mesa.

Now, however, it has become such an albatross that some on the City Council think bulldozers might be the only option.

The funky building at 51-55 E. Main St. was part of the “Park Place” project in the late 1980s that also included the adjacent midrise office tower and a movie theater.

Mesa bought the theater and the 51-55 building as it assembled land for the Mesa Arts Center. The theater was leveled, but Mesa kept 51-55 in hopes it could become a restaurant or some other complement to the arts center.

No such luck.

Over the past five years, Mesa has had at least three offers to buy and develop the building as a restaurant, but all the deals died.

Bill Jabjiniak, Mesa’s economic development director, said interest remains high. Over the past year, 10 interested parties have inspected the building. Five were considering restaurant uses, and the others were looking at retail or arts-related businesses.

There also have been numerous phone calls about the property, Jabjiniak said.

But the only tenant at present is the Southwest Shakespeare Company, which uses part of the building for rehearsals.

Most potential buyers shy away because of parking issues, the cost of redoing the building and uncertainties over light-rail construction, Jabjiniak said.

The building’s future is on the table because city engineers have proposed hooking it up to the chilled-water cooling system that serves several downtown buildings. As long as the lines are going to be extended across the street to Mesa’s principal office building at 20 E. Main St., the 51-55 building could be included for about $36,000.

During two recent discussions on the issue, Councilman Dave Richins objected.

Saying Mesa would be “throwing good money after bad,” Richins said 51-55 no longer fits Mesa’s vision for downtown.

Richins noted the site is adjacent to a future light-rail station at Main and Center streets. “That building has nothing to do with the Main Street area plan,” Richins said. “It is a single-story density at a key site in this city and we want to see, I think, something way more spectacular in our Main Street corridor.”

Not so fast, Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh said.

There is talk, he said, of 51-55 becoming at least the temporary home for the Mesa Historical Museum’s Play Ball! exhibit, which now is split among several venues in the Valley.

Further, Kavanaugh said, Mesa has dangled 51-55 as bait for about a dozen colleges and universities that have expressed interest in setting up shop here. Jabjiniak said some of those schools are very interested in the site.

“Anyone who has looked at the building understands the challenges of reusing that building,” Mayor Scott Smith said.

“You can look at everything from a reuse and trying to shoehorn something in there, or literally to scape it (tear it down), and now you’ve got a pad that you can get creative on,” Smith said.

On Thursday, after City Engineer Beth Huning said extending chilled water to the building is a better option than replacing its 22-year-old air-conditioning system, Richins relented, and the rest of the council agreed to a partial extension.

Extending chilled water to Mesa City Plaza will cost nearly $300,000. Huning said replacing its worn-out air-conditioning system would cost about $700,000.

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