Mesa’s Answer to Urban Sprawl: The Major Redesign of a City Center


by Stanley Collyer

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Winning Entry – Image courtesy Colwell Shelor
Designing a city plaza as a “people place” is no small challenge. One only has to recall the various redesigns that Pershing Square in Los Angeles went through, or Seattle’s Pioneer Square, to recognize how intent and reality were often in conflict. In both of these temperate climate municipalities, the image of an otherwise welcoming destination was tarnished by an unforeseen presence of the homeless. The City of Mesa, in sunny Arizona, believes that a new plaza, well connected to the surrounding urban environment, can present “a signature public space” that will not only serve as a destination for public activities, but also as a catalyst for downtown revitalization. It would appear that a number of favorable conditions already exist: city administration buildings are located directly within the two block site area; Arizona’s largest art center borders the area to the south; and the city library is in the block immediately facing the site to the north. With this kind of built-in pedestrian activity, the site should be well positioned to attract a higher-than-average number of locals and visitors. To flesh out the best design for the 18.3-acre site, the City decided to stage an invited design competition. The first step was a call for expressions of interest, to which 18 firms responded. Of these, three were shortlisted to compete in the subsequent design competition. The competing teams were undoubtedly aware of the passage of a $70M City bond issue, which is allowing Mesa to allot $750,000 for design of the plaza site. Because this was a real project, each firm was to receive $25,000 upon completion of their entry. Under the supervision of Jeffrey McVay, a planner and the Manager of Downtown Transformation, a committee made up of principals from the City administration with only one exception—the Director of the Downtown Mesa Association—convened to arrive at a shortlist for the competition. It consisted of:
  1. Jeffrey McVay, AICP – Manager of Downtown Transformation
  2. Christine Zielonka – Director, Development and Sustainability Department
  3. John Wesley, AICP – Planning Director, Mesa
  4. Marc Heirshberg, CPRE – Director, Parks, Recreation, and Commercial Facilities
  5. Cindy Ornstein – Director, Arts and Culture
  6. Zac Koceja, RLA – Landscape Architect, Engineering Department
  7. Vincent Bruno – Engineering Designer, Engineering Department (At time of competition, he represented the Transportation Department)
  8. Lori Gary, CEcD – Project Manager, Office of Economic Development
  9. David Short – Executive Director, Downtown Mesa Association

The selected finalists were:ÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂ
• Woods Bagot, Sydney/Portland (lead) with Surface Design, INC., San FranciscoÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂ
• Colwell Shelor, Phoenix (lead) with West 8 urban design & landscape architecture, Rotterdam/New York and Weddle Gilmore, Scottsdale, Arizona
• Otak, San Francisco (lead) with Mayer Reed, Portland, Oregon ÂÂ

This initial phase of the competition was replete with site visits and public forums and left no stone unturned when it came to interaction between the competing firms and the client and public. The City thought this phase of the process worked well, and the Colwell Shelor team was especially active in fielding public input during this phase. Each team then had to translate those public priorities into a feasible design concept. As they say, this is where the rubber hits the road.

The Finalists Otak / Mayer Reed

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Image courtesy Otak
The primary strategy of the Otak / Mayer Reed team was a “Living Room Plaza,” featuring a great lawn, significant pool as water feature, and generous structural shading providing outside seating for leisure and café-style areas. A performance area featured a “Digital Light Bar” for viewing and enough paved area to accommodate outdoor market activity. Minimizing the paved area was one of the strong features of this proposal, and generous tree plantings were extended to the main thoroughfares bordering the site. On the other hand, there was the suggestion that a number of additional buildings be added to the site, configured in a way to form several courtyards. At first glance, the presence of a great lawn suggested high water usage in a climate noted for its short supply of this essential source. But according to McVay, sustainability was a high priority, and the irrigation issue could be solved by recycling rainwater and by using filtered grey water. This proposal appeared to be somewhat generic in that the features presented were exactly what one might anticipate in a large public plaza. Although this team’s plan was a straightforward approach, the addition of numerous structures to the site would have suggested some long-term planning.
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Images courtesy Otak (click to enlarge)

    Woods Bagot / Surface Design

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Image courtesy Surface Design
Navigating through this scheme could only be characterized as adventure. To attract a younger crowd, a large shed (“The Hanger”) as dominating site feature was placed on the original Pepper Street site, as a performance and exhibition area and also containing sports facilities for below-grade soccer, etc.—a facility that any YMCA could only dream about. A series of winding pathways and “Hydro Rooms” as connectors were the primary landscape features, designed to lead people from the perimeter to their interior destinations. Due to the complexity and significant new structures to be added to the site, this proposal undoubtedly had to be realized in phases.
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Images courtesy Surface Design (click to enlarge)



The Winning Entry Colwell Shelor / West 8 / Weddle Gilmore

Image courtesy Colwell Shelor (click to enlarge)

The winning design’s main feature, “Wind Dancer,” is a sculptural iconic element, which can accommodate festivals, performances and forms of recreation. As a central iconic structure, it is intended, much as Millennium Park in Chicago, to visually attract people to the center of the site. Thus, the focus of the landscape plan, replete with generous plantings of trees for shade, is to draw people to the center of the site. Then there are those gathering places within the site—plazas within the plaza—such as Neon Plaza and the Beer Garden. This approach is very simple and direct with no overreach, and with the iconic feature says, ‘we are the City Center.’ Because of its simplicity, there is little doubt that the design can be accomplished in a single phase. Aside from those important forums with the public, Principal Michele Shelor mentioned that bringing West 8 onto the team was essential in opening up the discussion to some new ideas, which hadn’t been considered initially. Although Shelor did not credit West 8 specifically with the major design features, she did suggest that the input provided by West 8 was a major contribution in tipping the balance in their favor. Below is an excerpt the memo to City Management stating the Selection Committee’s reasoning for choosing Colwell-Shelor/West 8/Weddle Gilmore as the competition winner and as the winner of a design contract to further refine and detail their design.

  • The method of public engagement during the design workshops was creative, engaging, and fun for the participants, and public engagement will continue to play a key role in further design.
  • Interaction with City officials and staff has been professional, engaging, and thorough.
  • The design concept was an exciting, innovative, and iconic reflection of the feedback received during the design workshops.
  • The design concept reflects a solid understanding of Mesa’s culture, heritage, and vision for the future.
  • The design concept has been well received by the general public as evidenced by the results of surveys completed by attendees of the design reveal event.
  • The design concept report is extremely thorough, even including an estimate of maintenance costs and a discussion of alternatives to fund maintenance to be explored with further design.
  • City staff has confidence that a positive and effective working relationship will be cultivated with the design team during further design efforts.

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Images courtesy Colwell Shelor (click to enlarge)
At this writing, of the $750,000 allotted for this project by the City, the administration of the competition cost $150,000, leaving $600,000 toward construction of the site. As this will only cover 30% of the anticipated budget, the City intends “to use the results of the competition as a basis of the funding campaign.”