The genesis of the Rio Salado Crossing project proposal was a concept for both protecting and developing the Salt River as it flows through the Phoenix metropolitan area that emerged from a design studio at ASU in the mid-1960s. Ultimately the voters rejected a development plan for a 40 mile long corridor in 1987.
In 1997, the East Valley mayors rejected a sports campus concept as the new home for the Arizona Cardinals and recommended that any future concept encompass a broader based redevelopment approach. A year later the Cardinals proposed an ambitious plan that would have transformed the south bank of the Salt River in Mesa. Amazingly the entire site was owned by two parties – the City of Mesa and a local family that still farmed its holdings. At its center was a 2 million square foot convention center fully integrated into a 70,000 seat, retractable roof football stadium. Surrounding this complex were four hotels totaling 3,600 rooms, 750,000 square feet of retail, 2 million SF of office, 3500 housing units and parking for up to 30,000 cars along with 36 holes of championship golf.
Developers were lined up for most of the major components of the first phase including the two largest hotels and the specialty retail. The idea was to create a convention destination that played on the strengths of the Valley of the Sun (i.e., climate and outdoor activities) and replaced the antiquated and undersized convention center in downtown Phoenix. Public funding for the stadium would have come from a sales tax increase applicable only in Mesa which led to its defeat by the voters of that city.
Subsequently Mesa developed a portion of the site for a big box retail center that has played second fiddle to a much more successful project a short distance away in Tempe. its current owner has plans to raze a portion of the center that has never leased up.
The remained of the site is slated to be the new spring training home for the Chicago Cubs meaning it will be largely empty for 46 weeks of the year unless promises of a mixed-use “Wrigleyville” materialize (the latest iteration is a vastly scaled down version of what was trumpeted when the public funding was up for a vote).
Having avoided losing its monopoly on the Valley’s convention business, the City of Phoenix moved ahead with a major renovation and expansion of its downtown facility. In order to create the necessary supporting hotel rooms, the city had to provide all the funding for a 1,000 room Sheraton hotel that is one of the least imaginative designs ever produced by Arquitectonica.
While it is understandable that the voters of Mesa felt that they should not bear all of the cost of a project of Valley-wide significance, the defeat of Rio Salado Crossing was a huge missed opportunity for not only Mesa but the entire Valley.