Land Grab

Written by Maria Baer Category: Valley News Issue: November 2015
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A real estate developer, a landowner and city officials tangle over the fate of coveted vacant space in Mesa.

The illuminated signs of a prosperous retail community shine brightly in an urban planner’s dreams. The cafeteria lights at an assisted living facility, not so much.

It’s arguably not as fun as New Mexico’s Area 51, but a swath of land known as “Parcel 51” in Mesa is in the middle of a tug-of-war as developers, city planners and the land’s owner wrestle over what to put there.

“They’ve all got their plans for my land and they don’t own it,” says Chris Arnold, who acquired 51 acres in east Mesa near the Las Sendas community in 1997. The disputed land is among the last of the parcel he hasn’t  flipped to developers.  

Recently, Arnold has been talking with commercial real estate developer The Hampton Group about building a senior living facility on 15 of the remaining 18 unpurchased acres of the parcel. The project would have three facilities – one for independent senior living, one for assisted living and one commonly referred to as a “memory care” facility – a place for Alzheimer’s patients to live and receive round-the-clock care.

Arnold favors the proposal, and says he thinks it would be great for the East Mesa economy. Ultimately, though, “I’d just like to sell the property,” he says. “I’ve been trying to for 15 to 17 years, but the city doesn’t seem to want to let us.”

Nearly 10 years ago, the City of Mesa earmarked Parcel 51 for a business and retail park –  zoning out Arnold’s chances of selling to residential developers – but no offices or storeowners have bitten. In 2008, the city reached a compromise with residents: Half the land could become residential and half could be held for the elusive business park development. Houses were built on half, and the business zoning agreement held for five years on the notional retail park – which never came to fruition. The agreement expired. Nevertheless, officials remain stalwart.

Mesa City Councilman David Luna (District 5), who represents the area, thinks a senior living facility on the property would “upset the vision of what the city had planned several years ago... it’s a prime piece of property so we want to make sure that we put something in there that the whole community benefits from.” He says the recession in 2008 precluded would-be hotel, retail or office developers from applying to build on the land, but he’s “hopeful” that something will happen soon.

The Hampton Group says their facility would benefit the economy more than a hotel. “There is no high quality assisted living project in East Mesa,” Hampton CEO John Berry says. “It’s a $40 million project that will start 100 new jobs for Mesa,” which doesn’t include construction jobs.

Luna says despite not having hard numbers in front of him, he won’t support the project, based on advice from the Department of Economic Development: “I certainly don’t want to put something there that I might regret.”

Bill Jabjiniak, Mesa’s Director of Economic Development, also opposes The Hampton Group’s proposal because he said it “upsets the vision” the city originally had. But Jabjiniak also sits on the board of the Mountain Vista Medical Center, a subsidiary of IASIS Healthcare, which bought another portion of Parcel 51 a few years ago. The company hasn’t broken ground yet, but Jabjiniak says they’re looking to do so soon. Specific plans aren’t public, but it could become doctor’s offices, a freestanding emergency clinic, or another type of medical facility.

Still, “medical facility” wasn’t spelled out in the original “vision” for the city Jabjiniak is concerned with protecting – yet he supports IASIS and not The Hampton Group. He says that’s because they’re “two totally different things. One is residential-based and one is not.” IASIS’ facility, he said, would be used more like an office or retail space.   

Luna says Parcel 51 is a great property with very easy freeway access; therefore, it should be held for retail or a hotel. Lawyer Ralph Pew, of Pew & Lake, who is representing The Hampton Group, says “they call it good freeway access but it’s not” – it’s off the freeway, he says, and is a whole different ball game than a popular street corner or real estate on Mesa’s busy Power Road.

Luna says residents at the proposed senior living facility wouldn’t help the economy because they wouldn’t be mobile. But Berry says an immobile population is a death sentence for a senior living facility. “The secret to keeping assisted living residents happy is to get them out of their rooms,” he says. “We do a lot of activities.” Alzheimer’s patients would largely be immobile, but he says they’re the smallest population in the housing plan.

At press time, The Hampton Group planned to submit their official request to city planners in early October. After that, the matter will go to the city council, where Luna says he will still “probably” oppose it. If he is outnumbered and the plan moves ahead, The Hampton Group hopes to open their facilities in 2017.

Even if that happens, Arnold says he’s still losing, thanks to city officials. “I am probably selling the land for half of what I could’ve sold it for 15 years ago.”