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Housing Critical to Downtown Mesa

downtown Mesa street

Downtown Mesa is clearly an evolving area.  The hopes and dreams of Mesa rest on creating a focal point for the city.  The downtown is expanding, more shopping and restaurants are attracting millineals.  With light-rail service set to begin this fall, some feel downtown Mesa is finally on the cusp of its big moment, about ready to burst onto the scene. The sleek Valley Metro trains will link historical Mesa with Arizona State University, Tempe’s Mill Avenue and the skyscrapers of central Phoenix.

Mesa’s evolving downtown needs housing to thrive. On that much, the City Council agrees.  But what kind of housing?

But the vision for what that housing should look like — in terms of location, financing and target demographics — is more than a little muddled. Will they provide more ‘affordable housing developments’.  Or will they develop more ‘market rate’ developments.

As light rail is developed in downtown Mesa , some officials argue a series of affordable-housing developments catering to low-income families and young people will be critical. Those populations often use public transportation, they say, and could help foster a more constant hum of activity in the city’s core.

Others support only a fraction of the affordable-housing proposals their colleagues endorse, insisting Mesa must be selective and hold off for more market-rate developments. If downtown becomes an increasingly desirable place to live, the city will regret having approved complexes with rent restrictions.

The clashing perspectives came to a head late last month in a rare split vote.

City staff at a Jan. 22 study session had asked the Council to approve letters of support for four proposed affordable-housing complexes, to give developers an edge as they apply for federal tax credits. The tax breaks, issued through the Arizona Department of Housing, allow developers to charge lower rents and still make a profit.

Council support for providing letters to La Mesita Phase III and El Rancho Apartments Phase II was unanimous — sans Mayor John Giles, who was in Washington, D.C., at the time. La Mesita offers social services through non-profit A New Leaf, while El Rancho focuses on families and the arts.

However when it came to letters for Sycamore Station and the Hub at Mesa Lofts, though, the Council was deadlocked, 3-3, and the motion failed.

Councilmen Dave Richins, Alex Finter and Kevin Thompson voted against providing letters for the developments. They felt these projects did not fit Mesa’s needs.

“The Sycamore Station project is the right project with the wrong financing,” Richins said, adding that the complex would eat up prime real estate next to the Sycamore light-rail station. “I like the urban style… (but) low-income tax-credit financing doesn’t allow for student housing. It doesn’t allow for any market-rate individuals to be in there.” Students bring a younger image to downtown mesa.

He said he might support the project if at least half of its units had market-rate rents.

As for the Hub, which would be located about two-tenths of a mile from the Sycamore Station project and reportedly give preference to entrepreneurs, Richins said he felt the proposal was “not fully baked.”

“I think a good, robust market study will illustrate that there is not an unlimited absorption for low-income tax-credit projects,” he said.

Though Finter represents an east-side district, he said he’d been “feeling the pressure from some of those residents on the west side that are concerned about an overabundance of (low-income) projects.”

Retired attorney and Mesa activist Dea Montague, for instance, has written city officials frequently, most recently saying that “middle-class businesses cannot be expected to be established and thrive (in the light-rail corridor) when additional low-income residents are purposely attracted to an area already saturated with poverty.”

“Once a neighborhood gets out of balance, it is hard to recover, since those with the means to leave often move away instead of staying to lend their leadership to help the community,” Montague wrote in a Jan. 26 e-mail. “They feel overwhelmed and exit. We must take action now, project by project, to attract higher level developments.”

Thompson declined to explain his vote.

Council member Dennis Kavanaugh, whose district includes the proposed sites of the two projects in question, said after the study session that he was caught off guard by Finter’s and Thompson’s opposition.

“I think that some council members did not realize that this (Sycamore Station) developer actually purchased the property several years ago, when it received city approval for the project the first time,” he said. “Often, development purchase agreements are contingent on future government approvals. If this case remains denied, the developer is stuck with property it may have great difficulty selling, as its only real identified use is multifamily housing.”

He highlighted the developer’s recent promise to devote 50 percent of the Sycamore Station units to veterans, a revision he said he hopes will change some minds.

Kavanaugh acknowledged the Hub “does have some more work to do” but said he was intrigued by its emphasis on police officers, teachers and other young professionals. He wanted the development to have the best shot it could when competing for tax credits, he said.

Kavanaugh also denounced claims that additional low-income tax-credit housing would further depress west Mesa. On the contrary, he said, such projects would offer higher-quality options for people who historically have had to “endure squalid, crime-ridden conditions in the area duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes.”

“District 3 has approximately 78,000 residents,” he said in an e-mail. “The only tax-credit project ever built in District 3 is La Mesita.”

Mayor Giles, when asked about the split vote following his return from Washington, D.C., said he was an advocate of both affordable housing and demanding development standards.

A west Mesa native, he said he hadn’t personally identified a critical need for more low-income housing on that side of town.

“As good as (the light rail) is as a transportation system, it is even better as an economic-redevelopment system,” Giles said. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to see really noticeable, significant improvements along that downtown light-rail corridor … We don’t need to say ‘yes’ to everything.”

At the end of the day everyone wants what is best to make downtown Mesa thrive.  No one wants to harm the low-income families and young people.  The desire to attract upscale renters is not evil.  The required balance is tricky and our leaders need to make some very educated decisions.  These decisions will effect downtown Mesa for years to come.

Another downtown Mesa project is —Artspace

Downtown Mesa plans–Mesa

Affordable-housing proposals

The Mesa City Council recently voted on whether to approve letters of support for the following downtown affordable-housing proposals, to give developers an edge as they apply for federal tax credits. The tax breaks, issued through the Arizona Department of Housing, allow developers to charge lower rents and still make a profit.

La Mesita Phase III

Site: 2245 W. Main St.

Size: 1.33 acres

Description: Supportive multifamily housing

Tenant preference: Homeless and low- to moderate-income families

Units: 30

Income-restricted units: All, serving those making less than 50 percent of the area median income

Total development cost: $7.6 million

City-support letter: Yes

The Hub at Mesa Lofts

Site: 1600 W. Main St.

Size: 1.14 acres

Description: Multifamily rental housing

Tenant preference: Entrepreneurs and small-business owners

Units: Approximately 77 to 80

Income-restricted units: All, serving those making less than 60 percent of the area median income

Total development cost: $16 million

City-support letter: No

El Rancho Apartments Phase II

Site: 659 and 701 E. Main St.

Size: 1.36 acres

Description: Multifamily rental housing

Tenant preference: Artists

Units: 47

Income-restricted units: 46, serving those making 60 percent or less of the area median income

Total development cost: $15.1 million

City-support letter: Yes

Sycamore Station

Property: 1830 W. Main St.

Size: 4.05 acres

Description: Multifamily rental housing

Tenant preference: Veterans, for half the units

Units: 82

Income-restricted units: 81, serving those making less than 60 percent of the area median income

Total development cost: $18.6 million

City-support letter: No

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