woman using VR-headset glasses of virtual reality

"The long-sought Arizona State University campus will be devoted exclusively to students pursuing careers in “transdisciplinary digital expertise” such as virtual reality."

A 30x50-foot Jumbotron facing toward a pedestrian-friendly plaza and Main Street.  Three complete movie production studios large enough to fit a car. An “enhanced immersion studio’’ allowing visitors to interact with 3D artwork. 

With such a unique list of features and components, it’s not hard to understand the ASU@ Mesa City Center project is not just another office building – and designing it would be a challenge.

The long-sought Arizona State University campus will be devoted exclusively to students pursuing careers in “transdisciplinary digital expertise” such as virtual reality.

And it seems like a safe bet the controversial, yet much-anticipated facility likely will wake up historically sleepy downtown Mesa and inject life into the area – a goal set by Mayor John Giles and several city council members.

But other issues remain unsettled as the three-story, 65-foot tall, 110,000 square foot building heads toward the first steps of construction early next year – including what it ultimately will look like, the final price tag and what will happen to some wavy concrete canopies that have jutted off the back of a city building for decades.

Despite some concerns that the future landmark doesn’t look like one so far, the project’s site plan won a 4-1 vote for approval last week from Mesa’s Planning and Zoning Commission. The vote serves as a recommendation for approval by Mesa City Council, which has final authority. 

But the next step is scheduled for Oct. 8, when more detailed renderings are expected to be presented before Mesa’s Design Review Board, another advisory panel that focuses on issues such as architecture and landscaping.

In an exclusive interview with the Tribune, Chaitlow detailed the stunning architectural goals he, Jacobs and their team are working to achieve.

There’s not only nothing like this around here. There’s almost nothing like this anywhere,’’ said Steven Chaitow, principal architect at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson in San Francisco, who is working on the design with Diane Jacobs of Holly Street Studios in Phoenix.

“This is putting Mesa on the map,’’ he said.

Even the back of the building will have some unique features beyond serving as necessary site for deliveries and garbage collection.

The architects promised a good neighbor program to minimize disturbing neighbors of a nearby apartment complex. 

“It will be like a studio backlot. It will engage the community,’’ Chaitow said. “We want to make it playful and interesting.’’

Jacobs said the architects have been working mainly on accommodating the unique studios. She said it’s important for studios to be on the ground floor, so that large props, such as cars, can be easily installed and removed. Acoustics and vibration also are important considerations.

In theory, “we can have three movie premieres at once,’’ Jacobs said, with the movies shown on the Jumbotron – similar to those in professional sports arenas – while people hang out in the plaza. There also will be two theaters, one seating 250, as well as a cafe and, of course, classrooms.

“We have spent a lot of time on the inside so far,’’ Jacobs said, when board member Tim Boyle criticized the exterior appearance as lacking a “wow factor’’ that is necessary for a landmark project.

“It’s uncooked so far,’’ Jacobs said, referring to the exterior. “We feel good about making the pieces click and fit.’’

City council member Jen Duff, who represents downtown, said she is confident the design team will produce a building that will make Mesa proud.

“I think we will be very impressed,’’ Duff said. “I’m very excited about it. I think it will set the tone.’’

She said that many people are curious about the building and what it will look like, but eventually, “I think the other cities will have this Mesa-envy thing.’’

Jeff McVay, Mesa’s downtown transformation manager, said five stories originally were planned, but it became clear early in the design stage that tall studios were required and there was no need for the upper floors.

He said the building will be slightly shorter at 65 feet tall and slightly smaller at 110,000 square feet, but that it still will be very large. He said that some of the studios have 45 feet of clear space. 

“It’s driven by the programming’’ instead of cost, McVay said about the alterations in the building. “It’s a high-rise laying on its side.’’

If the completed building was vertical instead of horizontal, it would be the equivalent of a six-story tall building, he said.

No matter what changes are made in the building’s design, the city’s cost is capped at $63.5 million, McVay said, but the ASU’s share will be more than the $10 million originally envisioned.

Opponents objected to the city granting ASU a subsidized lease to bring the campus downtown and to increase the area’s vitality. ASU received a 99-year lease at $100,000, committing to a $10 million investment in furnishings and $1.3 million a year for operation and maintenance.

“It’s going to be well above that,’’ McVay said. The city is acting as the developer, and the city will own the building and the land.

The first phase of construction is scheduled for February 2020, with an opening planned for spring 2022. 

The five-acre site is the parking lot behind the council’s chambers, south of First Street, east of Center Street, west of Centennial and north of City Hall. The project will straddle both sides of Pepper Place.

 Parking will be moved to other city-owned properties, but a detailed parking plan has not been announced.

The plaza will lead from Main Street to the new ASU Futures Lab complex, which will include renovation of the city’s Information Technology building into design studios.

McVay said he is hoping that the design studios will serve as a place where ASU students and professors share their ideas with the community at large, helping to spawn the innovation district that the plan envisions.

“This is really the anchor and the energy for the innovation district,’’ he said. With the plaza connecting the project to the Metro light rail and downtown, “you are not going to feel like you are on an ASU campus.’’

The plaza is expected to include grassy, shady areas, a water feature and skating rink that will be used for Mesa’s annual Merry Main Street Christmas event.