Development Explodes Along Light Rail Line

Article originally posted on HERE on March 5, 2017

It was one of the most legendary roads in America.

Winding from Virginia to downtown Los Angeles, old U.S. 60 carried generations of families across the country and right through the neon-lit hearts of Tempe and Mesa.

The remains of that highway are now called Apache Boulevard in Tempe, and Main Street in Mesa. Aging motels, trailer parks, car-sales lots and auto repair shops are reminders of its heyday.

But from Mesa’s venerable Mormon temple, westward through Tempe’s towering downtown, there is something new, something those bygone motorists might never have expected: Railroad tracks.

The sleek trains that ride those tracks deliver passengers, to be sure. Far more, however, they are delivering a tide of urban redevelopment that promises new residents, jobs and a vertical, futuristic new streetscape.

The first leg of light rail opened in late 2008, traversing Tempe and poking only a mile or so into Mesa’s west side.

One of the very earliest rail-oriented projects, Papago Gateway Center, was completed in April 2008, even before the trains began rolling. But by the time rail service began, the Great Recession had rendered Arizona’s construction industry all but comatose.

For a while, most of the rail-oriented projects came in the form of low-income housing, financed in large part by tax credits that enable developers to charge minimal rents. The Arizona Housing Department gave priority to such projects near mass-transit routes, and because of that policy some low-income housing came to downtown Mesa even before train service began there in 2015.

Tempe developer Charles Huellmantel spearheaded several such projects. Encore on Farmer, a 56-unit senior complex near Fifth Street and Farmer Avenue in Tempe, is an example.

In downtown Mesa, two phases of Encore on First, another senior complex a block away from the rail line, already have opened. They total 144 units, and Huellmantel is seeking tax-credit approval to build Phase 3.

But an added feature of Huellmantel’s next Mesa project signals a maturation of rail-oriented development in that city.

While he awaits tax-credit approval for Phase 3 of Encore, Huellmantel is moving ahead with plans for an adjacent 24-unit market-rate apartment complex. It will be the first new market-rate multifamily housing in downtown Mesa since at least the 1980s.

“It’s being built because of the proximity to the rail,” Huellmantel said.

While Huellmantel’s project establishes a light-rail beachhead in downtown Mesa, its scope is modest compared with others in the two cities. Huellmantel himself is working on plans for a 202-apartment, mixed-use project at the southwest corner of Apache Boulevard and Loop 101.

Farther west, construction has been under way for more than a year at Dorsey Lane and Apache Boulevard in Tempe. There, several aging structures were demolished to make way for the Motley, a block-long, seven-story complex by Lennar Multifamily Communities with 399 luxury apartments.

Even that, however, may pale in comparison with plans by Scottsdale-based DMB Associates for what it calls Eastline Village. Donna Kennedy, Tempe’s economic development director, said Eastline will straddle both sides of Apache Boulevard east of Smith Road.

The first phase alone, according to Tempe planning documents, will cover nearly 14 acres on the south side of Apache. The 1.3 million square feet of building space will include nearly 700 apartments.

That kind of urban living appeals to folks like Hassan Salem Almousa, 28, a student from Saudi Arabia.

Taking a break from a solitary game of pool, he spoke in the rec room of Tempe Metro, a 408-unit complex that opened in 2009 at McClintock Drive and Apache Boulevard. The trains stop right outside his front door, and he uses them a lot.

For school, he rides the rail to Dobson Road in Mesa, and from there takes the bus to study accounting at Mesa Community College. For food, he takes the train to Mill Avenue restaurants.

He can’t find that kind of transit in his home country, and he likes it. It’s a cheap way to get around, and, in his view, a smart way to build a city.

“It’s the best way if you’re going to reduce traffic and keep it cleaner,” Almousa said.

Kennedy said that even taking the recession into account, “Development along the light rail has exceeded expectations. We have businesses here because of the workforce that can easily get to downtown Tempe by light rail.”

According to Kennedy’s office, the total valuation of new development along the rail line between 2010 and 2015 was nearly $336 million. The 1,552 units of multifamily housing were valued at $247 million, and five new commercial buildings totaled $23 million.

While most of Tempe’s redevelopment has been in or near downtown, Kennedy expects the downtrodden eastward stretches of Apache Boulevard to see an urban revival. Looking eastward, she said, “I see jobs, jobs and jobs” as the corridor develops.

In Mesa, city planner Jeff McVay became the city’s first manager of downtown transformation in 2015. His area of oversight stretches along the rail line from Tempe to its future terminus at Gilbert Road.

“I have been in conversations with many developers,” McVay said. “We probably have 1,200 to 1,500 residential units that are in some stage of development” in the rail corridor, although many discussions are still preliminary.

The biggest rail-oriented project on the books in Mesa will transform the northeast corner of Dobson and Main, site of the bygone Tri-City Mall.

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The Safeway-anchored strip center that occupies much of the old mall site will remain, but to its east and north a project called Sycamore Station will offer apartments, town homes and commercial facilities in several buildings over nearly 21 acres.

The project is possible because the Sycamore Street station is no longer the rail line’s eastern terminus; the large park-and-ride there can be replaced with a smaller parking facility.

In contrast with a previous low-income housing proposal for that corner, McVay said “every bit” of the housing at Sycamore Station will go for market-based rents.

The light rail extension to downtown, and the end of the recession, helped revive one of the earliest rail-oriented projects planned in Mesa. The first of 42 town homes in Main Street Station west of Dobson are under construction; the units facing Main Street will offer ground-floor commercial space.

Other downtown projects that will benefit from rail, McVay said, are the proposed concert hall and music academy on the old Brown & Brown Chevrolet site, a 50-unit low-income housing project for artists near the Mesa Arts Center, and a proposed mixed-use complex that would displace Bailey’s Brake Service at Country Club Drive and Main Street.

Altogether, it appears that the days when Mesa struggled to generate interest in its historic Main Street corridor may be over.

“If there are headwinds,” McVay said, “it’s the fact that there’s a lot going on. We’ll always have a capacity issue in terms of being able to keep up with all the demand that’s going to be coming our way.”

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