In a mostly empty parking lot at Mesa’s Fiesta Mall, a tiny dust devil, fairly rare in Arizona winters, swirled in a small circle on a recent afternoon.
A few dozen small leaves that fell from nearby elm trees danced on the pavement for several seconds, then stopped.
The asphalt expanse, the size of a military parade ground, is marked by rows of white lines that once guided drivers to park. Tens of thousands of vehicles pass the mall daily along Alma School Road and Southern Avenue, but there aren’t as many stores there as in past years.
Changing retail purchasing habits with more shoppers buying online each year have been seen as a major reason many malls are in decline. Some malls, like Fiesta and Metrocenter in northwest Phoenix, are undergoing transformation. Others, like the former Los Arcos Mall in Scottsdale and the former Tri City Mall in Mesa, were demolished for other uses.
Mesa city officials and the head of the local chamber of commerce say Fiesta Mall and the surrounding Fiesta District is in a time of transition. Sears and a Dillard’s clearance center are still open, and several smaller stores inside, but they say there is more on the horizon. A redevelopment plan is to be submitted by late spring, said Mesa city economic development director Bill Jabjiniak.
It’s just a matter of time for the mall’s reinvigoration, they say. But the Great Recession still has lingering signs in some parts of the district, including some empty commercial businesses closed for years.
Mesa Mayor John Giles said there are positive signs. A portion of the mall’s acres of largely empty parking lots may be vacant no longer, he said, replaced by new buildings that could go up on portions of the asphalt.
Giles said there are three reasons to be optimistic about Fiesta Mall: “Location, location, location.”
People from many parts of the East Valley travel into the area, located as it is just north of the Superstition Freeway (U.S. 60) and two miles east of the Price Freeway (Loop 101).
The mayor said a rebirth would give residents weary of passing by one of Mesa’s landmarks, located as it is also near major arterials and two hospitals, something to cheer about.
The mall opened in 1978 and was designed as so many of its fellows were in the 1960s and 1970s to serve the suburban shopper arriving by car. They were islands of concrete and block, connected by climate-controlled interior walkways, surrounded by acres and acres of parking lots, retail castles encircled by asphalt moats.
Today, Sears is the last full-service department store at Fiesta Mall. Dillard’s operates a clearance center there that’s closed on Mondays.
“It has really been the center of a lot of activity,” Giles said of the mall. “It has the potential to be that again.”
Giles said that the Fiesta District is already seeing reanimation as the mall owners decide what’s next, such as a new office complex to its immediate north across Southern Avenue.
“Across the street there was a 100,000-square-foot Service Merchandise and Bed Beth and Beyond that some smart developers bought and renovated and turned it into a large office building with 1,000 workers,” he said. “The plan is to do that at Fiesta Mall. One challenge is that there is not one owner but several owners.”
Scottsdale developer Scott Jackson, whose company owns the former Macy’s and former Best Buy stores as well as much of the interior walkways of the mall, has “great vision to turn it into an employment center,” Giles said.
Jabjiniak agreed: “The vision hasn’t changed. It’s a retail destination, and an office destination.”
Jackson did not return phone messages left by MyNewsMesa.com for this story. Reached by phone on Feb. 3, he said he had “nothing new to report” about Fiesta Mall. He invited the reporter to contact him the following week. A phone call to him Feb. 6 was not returned as of Feb. 8.
Fiesta Mall’s ownership is divided among Jackson’s company and four other entities, Jabjiniak said.
He agreed with Giles about potential freestanding buildings where parking lots are now – that might require that land to be auctioned, he said – but as the mall redevelops the demand for parking is likely to go up, not down.
Ten years ago, the average number of parking spaces required per 1,000 feet of interior building space was four. Today it’s six to seven, Jabjiniak said, for a mall that is likely to transform into a new combination of retail and Class A office space.
He declined to name them, but Jabjiniak said potential investors have shown interest in the mall and the surrounding district, but “they need to see things accomplished before being willing to invest.”
Jabjiniak said he is in the process of writing a redevelopment plan with incentives for the district that is generally along Southern Avenue from Country Club Drive west to the Tempe border. He said he expects to present it to the City Council before June 30.
Other properties in the district still have their long-ago shuttered structures standing. At the northwest corner of Alma School Road and Southern Avenue two former restaurants sit idle.
Jabjiniak said that since the economy has strengthened he’s had discussions with the owner of those properties about “varying ideas,” but nothing solid has emerged.
So far the city has invested heavily in the neighborhood streetscape, Jabjiniak said.
Officials from the Mesa Chamber of Commerce and Mesa Community College said they are looking forward to what’s next.
“The idea of a mall from the 1970s just doesn’t work any more,” said chamber President and CEO Sally Harrison.
Harrison welcomed Jackson’s involvement, saying his participation is significant. “There’s finally some activity in the mall itself,” she said.
Just a few hundred feet west of the mall, Mesa Community College is the mall’s largest neighbor. In a statement to MyNewsMesa, MCC Interim President Sasan Poureetezadi said he is looking forward to hearing more from the city about the “re-purposing” of Fiesta Mall while the college has already benefited from upgrades to the Fiesta District.
– East Valley resident Mark Scarp is a freelance reporter for MyNewsMesa.com.