ASU and Mesa continue to make progress on downtown Mesa campus

Ten years ago, Arizona State University opened its downtown Phoenix campus, attracting students with programs and majors integrated into the downtown professional landscape and accelerating to the area's shift from a sleepy business district to a vibrant cultural center.

Now, it appears the same could happen in downtown Mesa. 

In early February, Mesa Mayor John Giles confirmed that ASU would be establishing some sort of presence in the downtown area of his city, though the extent of that presence was not initially clear. 

The announcement came on the heels of last year's opening of the Valley Metro light rail in central Mesa, as well as the installation of Grid bike share stations in the city. 

The campus would be situated on a square block known as Mesa City Center between Centennial Way and and Main, Center and First streets, as well as on the northeastern corner of the Mesa Arts Center a block to the south. 

For the campus to be approved, Mesa City Council and the Arizona Board of Regents needs to enter into an intergovernmental agreement, on which the council voted in unanimous agreement on Thursday. Next, the agreement will go to the Regents until the proposition will likely appear on the ballot later in the year to raise sales tax to pay for the campus, among other infrastructural improvements. 

The proximity of the potential campus to Mesa's arts and culture centers is not incidental, as the programs at the campus would in many ways reflect its surroundings, said Rick Naimark, the associate vice president for program development planning at ASU. 

The ASU presence would focus on arts, media and innovation, Naimark said. Programs could include an art and performance center with an emphasis on dance and film, as well as a gaming and sensory technology program, in which students would create games for education and rehabilitation. 

Naimark said there would also be focus placed on education, with interest in the potential inclusion of an early childhood education program, an ASU Preparatory Academy K-12 program and even a possible physical location for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a program that provides short, non-credit courses to adults already out of college. 

If the demand is there, the University is not ruling out some kind of student housing in the area, though that isn't included in any current proposal, he said. 

The buildout of the plan projects that within five years, there will be 1,500 students, and within 10 years, there will be 2,000. 

The first phase of development is expected to encompass around 180,000 square feet of facilities and space and to cost around $102 to $120 million, he said. The second phase will encompass around 80,000 square feet and will cost around $32 million, he said.

Naimark placed a strong emphasis on having these programs integrated with the preexisting downtown landscape — making performances open to the public, for example, supporting local businesses and entrepreneurs, or a research center where childhood education graduate students could work with children.

"When Mesa talked to us about the possibility of bringing some of our programs there, we thought it was a fantastic opportunity to be part of Mesa's story," he said. "When you bring higher education to various places, it creates great access, it creates a tremendous amount of activity." 

Naimark said this means the downtown corridor may become more of a 24-hour community, with a more vibrant nightlife and more varied age mix. 

This is all fine and good to Jeff McVay, the manager of the downtown transformation in Mesa.

He said the city is making an effort to shift outside perception of Mesa from that of a quiet, sprawling suburb to a vibrant cultural center. 

When ASU comes, he said, new business, people and opportunities come shortly thereafter. 

"We want that image change," he said. "Our visions for downtown are pretty significant in change and intensity."

However, the University can only do so much. 

"ASU is going to bring the programs, the classes and students," McVay said. "It's Mesa's job to create a downtown students want to spend time in."

This is something of a tall order, McVay said. Parking is a major concern, and the plan estimates that the buildings will eliminate about 500 spots currently intended for city employees. 

He said there are thoughts of building vertical and below-ground parking structures, as well as using existing lots. However, he will have to ensure that spots intended for city and business employees are not all taken up by students. 

Altogether, McVay is optimistic.

"ASU is a single component in a much broader revitalization effort," he said. 

That said, he has his concerns.

"My biggest concern is that we go through all this effort and we don't get the multiplier benefits that we anticipate," he said. "My next biggest is, what if a program outgrows the infrastructure we have in place?" 

However, Mesa Mayor John Giles said McVay needn't worry. 

The city conducted a study to examine the possible economic benefits of an ASU presence, and the results were staggeringly auspicious, Giles said. 

So much so, in fact, that he said he is hesitant to release the results to the public because the benefits almost seem unbelievably great.

"It's very exciting," Giles said. "Downtown Mesa, we're in need of some redevelopment and we're in need of some people. There's a lot of Sun Devil enthusiasm in Mesa."

Giles is not without concerns: His city has a reputation for being conservative and affordable, and increased taxes and development might affect those reputations and be tough to sell with some voters, he said. 

But, all in all, Giles said the campus would be a great fit for Mesa, especially considering the light rail, the Mesa Arts Center, and the city's prior commitment to higher education with the ASU Polytechnic campus, and Wiles and Benedictine universities. 

"It really addresses the needs of our community and is a great opportunity for ASU."


Reach the reporter at Arren.Kimbel-Sannit@asu.edu or follow @akimbelsannit on Twitter.

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