Article originally posted on AZCentral on February 17, 2018.
A proposed Arizona State University development could bring programs in film, media, gaming, virtual reality and more to downtown Mesa.
Mesa City Council will consider entering into an intergovernmental agreement with the Arizona Board of Regents on Feb. 26, according to city documents.
While the project is in the early stages of discussion, officials outlined a proposal showing that the first phase of the project could include a five-story building on the northwest corner of Pepper Place and Centennial Way. That city-owned land is currently a parking lot, next door to Mesa’s City Council chambers.
The project’s cost, its burden on public-safety resources and what potential tax breaks ASU would receive, are unclear. The Arizona Republic has requested the intergovernmental agreement, which would detail development plans and pave the way for budgeting discussions.
The university development is the linchpin in Mesa Mayor John Giles’ plan to transform downtown.
“Absent an anchor like ASU, we will continue to tread water in downtown and won’t make any meaningful progress,” Giles told The Arizona Republic.
What will the agreement include?
This isn’t the first time Mesa has considered bringing ASU downtown. In 2016, voters turned down a sales tax hike that would have created a satellite campus. At the time, the ASU development was projected to cost $102 million.
At Mesa’s Feb. 15 City Council study session, Jeff McVay, downtown transformation manager, said this proposal is about half the size of the development laid out in the 2016 proposal.
In the proposed plan, the initial building, at 100,000 to 125,000-square-feet, would host a minimum of 750 students and 40 staff members, including faculty, within the first five years. An “innovation studio,” would also re-purpose the city’s existing IT building on East First Street and Centennial Way.
Mesa would be responsible for constructing the “shell” of the building, Giles said. Then, it would be up to ASU to outfit the building with design elements and technology.
Under a 99-year lease, ASU would rent the space for $100,000 a year and reimburse Mesa for the salary of a city facilities manager.
“They want to duplicate the success that they saw in downtown Phoenix in downtown Mesa,” Giles said.
The proposed project, laid out in a recent presentation to City Council, encompasses optional, future phases:
- A second 60,000 to 75,000-square foot building on Main Street on the Mesa Arts Center property, with a minimum of 1,500 students.
- Another five-story building on Pepper Place with a minimum capacity for 2,000 students, which would either expand existing academic programs or create new programs.
What programs will ASU offer?
The agreement signals what could be a significant expansion of the university’s film, media and gaming programs.
The university could also bring new programs focused on technology, entrepreneurship and innovation. In those programs, students would explore virtual reality, advanced data visualization, 3D animation and more.
One program would focus on user-experience design — sometimes called UX design. It’s a growing field concentrated on how people interact with products, Rick Naimark, the university’s associate vice president for program-development planning, told the council.
City officials are insistent on transforming the once-sleepy downtown into a thriving urban core for startups and technology.
Giles said there are both altruistic and financial motivations in bringing ASU downtown. It could help generate sales-tax revenue for the city, while also cultivating “a more successful community.” He thinks businesses will naturally grow out of the university’s proposed technology programs.
“This is going to create a buzz and a lot of people coming to engaging with your community like never before,” Naimark told council.
The financial footprint
Mesa and ASU still have to crunch some numbers.
The city hasn’t calculated construction costs of the first building, according to Giles. The mayor wants to assure residents that the money won’t come from raising taxes.
ASU will be a “meaningful financial partner,” he said, and other money will come from existing revenue sources like utilities and economic development fund bonds.
During the Feb. 15 City Council study session, Councilman Jeremy Whittaker raised public-safety concerns.
“Nowhere do we talk about public safety and the need for an increase in police officers and firefighters to support something like this,” he said.McVay, the city’s downtown transformation manager, responded that ASU is responsible for security in the building, while the city would be responsible for public safety outside. City Manager Chris Brady added that Mesa has already added officers downtown.
Brady also tried to quell fears that the plan would turn into a financial quagmire for a traditionally financially-conservative city.
“We’re only talking about one building,” Brady said during the study session. “Right now our hard commitment is a very modest start to what we hope will be something grand.”
Councilman Kevin Thompson also expressed concerns at the meeting about footing the bill to bring ASU downtown.
“I really need a fire station, probably more so than I need an ASU campus downtown in Eastmark,” he said.
What comes next
The council is considering the intergovernmental agreement at its Feb. 26 meeting.
If approved, city officials will work on a construction budget then a lease agreement requiring council approval.
The Imagine Mesa initiative revived the idea for ASU downtown, Giles said Saturday in an interview with The Republic. Residents were encouraged to crowdsource ideas for changes in the city.
The suggestion to bring ASU downtown without raising taxes rallied hundreds of supporters on the online platform.
“This is a bottom-up generated proposal,” Giles said.
Bringing the plan to fruition will be a years-long process.
Two years ago, Giles stood next to ASU mascot Sparky at his 2016 State of the City address. The university and Mesa were “made for each other,” he said at the time.
But by the end of the year, voters had made it apparent that they weren’t on board with a tax increase.
This time, he says, the agreement will reflect more of what voters wants. If it doesn’t, then officials will continue refining the plan.
“We’re going to debate this until people are sick and tired of talking about it,” he said.