City planners fight

Arizona Health and Technology Park. (David Minton/Staff Photographer)

City of Mesa planning staff issued a rare “denial” recommendation for a rezoning case that went before the Planning and Zoning Board this month, arguing that vacant land in the Arizona Health and Technology Park just south of State Route 60 at Baseline and Recker roads should remain zoned for a medical campus.

In the face of staff opposition, the board split down the middle on whether to allow the 10-acre parcel in question to be rezoned for a 394-unit multifamily residential complex.

The site is part of a 254-acre district that city officials envisioned in 2004 as an employment hub anchored by a hospital with a medical, technology and education focus.

The A.T. Still University medical school and several medical facilities are active in the park, but a contemplated hospital by Tenet Healthcare never broke ground.

In 2007, competitor Banner Health opened the Banner Gateway Medical Center on the other side of Higley to the west, and an attorney for VHS Acquisition Subsidiary, a holding company for Tenet, told the board that Tenet is no longer interested in building the hospital, leaving the company with 65 acres of undeveloped land in a prime location in Mesa.

“Tenet Healthcare is not in the business of competing against a business that’s already serving its patient base. There isn’t room for another (hospital) campus,” attorney Charles Huellmantel told the board.

To dispose of its 65 acres of land, the company has submitted applications for two of the most marketable projects in Mesa right now: Multifamily housing and logistics warehouses.

But the land is zoned as a “Specialty Character Area,” which is “designed to provide for large areas with a single use such as an educational campus, airport or medical facility.”

For the larger of the two parcels, Tenet proposes a 50-acre logistics warehouse complex totaling 675,000 square feet spread across eight buildings.

The so-called Baseline Logistics park was first placed on an agenda in July, but the applicant has requested continuances on the hearing three times, making the 10-acre Millennium Superstition Springs apartment project the first of the health park’s rezoning cases to go before the board.

The logistics park is slated for a Sept. 28 hearing.

Neighboring A.T. Still University opened in Mesa in 2001 and includes a medical school, a dental school and graduate colleges in health studies and health sciences.

A.T. Still supports the Millenium Superstition Springs apartment project, seeing it as student housing, but they otherwise want to keep the vision of the specialty medical campus zoning intact.

“Academic health care communities best thrive when there are proximal places to learn (places of clinical care), share and create ideas (places of interaction), develop supporting technologies, exercise, live, dare community children to dream (schools, field trips, YMCA, etc.), eat and practice,” Dr. Gary Cloud, vice president of strategic partnerships for A.T. Still said in a statement.

“A trucking center, while important for a community and society, does not support the vision of a proximal academic community,” he wrote.

City staff has not weighed in on the warehouse complex yet. But where the apartment complex is concerned, city staff is fighting to maintain the specialty campus zoning at Arizona Health and Technology Park. 

“One of the major issues here is, this is one of the primary areas in the city that is actually left for such a large area to be developed for employment uses,” Development Services Director Nana Appiah said in defending the city’s denial recommendation.

“We do recognize the need (for housing), however, there are several other locations in the city that can be developed for residential,” he said.

Appiah said the city is constantly asked by developers to rezone commercial or industrial land for residential use, and Mesa often allows it.

But, Appiah said, “this is one of the areas that we believe that actually taking that employment land for residential is not the right, appropriate use of the location, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t promote the goal of economic development for the city.”

A resident who goes frequently to the Arizona Health and Technology Park for business, AnnElise Makin, has been watching the vacant 65 acres in the area like a hawk since she discovered the sign posted about the rezoning case for the logistics park.

She supports the apartments, since they could serve as student housing for A.T. Still, but she sees the larger warehouse project as completely wrong for the area.

“That’s the last thing that Mesa would need, another big warehouse complex. … Give (the vacant land) time,” Makin said.

The attorney representing the apartment complex project argued that the specialty campus concept has had enough time to materialize; if there was more demand from high-end medical and tech users for that area, they would have showed up by now.

Some planning board members were sympathetic to that argument.

Board member Troy Peterson said, “It would seem like, especially over the last 10 years of hyper-growth and development, if there was a demand for the things that we’re talking about for it here, why hasn’t that occurred over the last 10 years?” 

Board member Jessica Sarkissian speculated that the success of the city’s other tech hubs may be drawing away interest in the Baseline and Recker site.

“I think at this point that some of the stuff is getting cannibalized by the insanity that is going on Elliott (Road Tech) Corridor, being it’s somewhat in close proximity in mileage drive-wise,” Sarkissian said.

Others pushed back on the idea that the city should alter the health and tech zoning because of the long vacancy of the land.

Appiah said if the city relented every time a developer wanted to rezone industrial land on the basis of being idle, then Mesa would be “rezoning the majority of land uses … to residential.”

“This is one of the sites that we believe there is more demand, and there are other potential uses that we should preserve if we can obtain those uses,” Appiah said.

Board member Jeffrey Pitcher pointed out that as the owner of the land, Tenet has “control over who goes in there, so the fact that it’s vacant is somewhat their own choosing.”

“The other thing I’m concerned about,” Pitcher said, “is there between Higley and Greenfield from Baseline north, there’s 2,100 apartments just there, and I don’t know if there’s really a need that this (project) would solve.”

Pitcher joined board chair Jeffrey Crockett and board member Shelly Allen in voting for a motion to deny VHS Aquisition’s rezone request.

Sarkissian, Peterson and Genessee Montes voted against the motion to deny. 

With the seventh board member who could break a tie absent, the motion failed.

An attorney for the city said when the case goes on to City Council, the agenda would report the board’s 3-3 vote.

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