West Congress is Primed for an Urban Apartment Scene

May 10, 2012

By Teya Vitu

Look now and you see the Mercado San Agustín, 30 luxury homes with varying Mexican colonial styles and the six-story senior housing complex now being called Sentinel Plaza in the finishing stages of construction.

A drawing of the West End Station.

Piece by piece, since 2005, the Gadsden Company, at a very measured pace, has given the south edge of West Congress Street just the tiniest sense of what Jerry Dixon and his family have been envisioning for a decade for what they call the Mercado District of Menlo Park and the neighboring Mission District.

These are both roughly 14-acre lots, split by Avenida del Convento, for which Gadsden won the development agreements from the city in 2003 and 2008.

So far, it may be hard to tell the grandiose urban scene they have in mind for the near West Side.

The next 18 months could finally bring West Congress Street the first real taste of the big city urban setting that’s been talked about for a good five years for this near 30 acres of parched desert.

In about a year, Gadsden wants to start building pair of apartment complexes about the height of Sentinel Plaza (formerly called New Armory Apartments). They will be unlike anything in Tucson and more like something you might find in Europe or on the East Coast.

The Monier Apartments and West End Station both will be built around two courtyards, that is, complex in the shape of a figure eight with squared corners.

“We’re trying to make a big city feeling the appropriate way for Tucson,” said Jerry Dixon, Gadsden’s chairman. “We have all fresh air corridors. I never thought you want to be in an enclosed corridor in Arizona. We are preserving the views of the mountains and A Mountain.”

Unlike Mercado District homes, destined for those with six-figure salaries, West End Station and the Monier Apartments will be largely priced for the working class, those within 125 percent of the region’s median income range.

West End Station specs call for a 239-unit apartment complex with 30,000 square feet of street level retail that could include a restaurant, a bank or credit union, and a few other small businesses. One courtyard will be more public in nature, the other courtyard more for residents, with a swimming pool.

West End Station’s height along West Congress Street will be four stories – like Sentinel Plaza a few hundred feet to the east – but will also have five- and six-story sections more away from the street. The complex will sit at the corner of Avenida del Convento, across from Mercado San Agustin, another Gadsden project.

“It’s in proportion with the senior housing (Sentinel Plaza),” said Adam Weinstein, Gadsden’s chief executive. “It’s a larger city mixed-use building.”

Rents in West End Station are expected to range from $502 for a studio and $900 for two bedrooms. The first set of tenants will get a free one-year streetcar pass, Dixon said.

“We are building an urban core that is walkable and enjoyable,” Dixon said. “We have all of the things that you would want to live here and stay there. Every 10 minutes there’s a 90-passenger streetcar right there.”

The streetcar will loop through the Mission District, around three sides of West End Station. The streetcar will reach the Gadsden project via the new Luis G. Gutierrez Bridge that is nearing completion and will carry Cushing Street across the Santa Cruz River.

Concurrent with West End, Gadsden will also start building the Monier Apartments behind the Mercado San Agustín in about a year. Dixon and Weinstein hope to have them both online within six months of each other at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014 at latest. Consistent with all the other Gadsden projects, these will be masonry buildings, not wood frame structures.

The Monier Apartments have been in the works since 2005 and Gadsden Company has renewed and updated its building permits for Monier since 2007. Back then, it was knows as Monier Brickyard Building with offices and commercial projected for the lower levels.

“Ultimately, it turned out the highest and best use is the apartments,” Weinstein said. “The ground floor will be built with commercial infrastructure so it can be converted to commercial.”

Monier will be built with 169 units with rents ranging from $695 for pied-à-terre studios to $1,025 for two-bedroom apartments, Weinstein said.

Gadsden is forming a joint venture for Monier with Holualoa Companies, which owns the Pioneer building Downtown.

“It brings a whole lot of bodies,” said Weinstein, adding that neither Monier nor West End are designed for families, in keeping with the growing trend of single households nearly matching married households across America. “The home owners (at Mercado District) have been waiting for the next density housing to come.”

The West End, Monier and Sentinel projects are a sneak peak for the housing density in store for the Mission District. Three eight- to 10-story housing towers are planned for the back acreage alongside the Santa Cruz River. Timelines for building these towers will be determined once the streetcar is in service, Dixon said.

The 14.3-acre Mission District is in seven blocks designated with the letters A through G. Block G was sold to Senior Housing Group for the 143-unit Sentinel Plaza, which should be ready for the residents of the Armory Park Apartments in fall. West End Station fills Block A, while Monier Apartments are across Avenida del Convento and are part of the Mercado District.

A parking garage is slated for Block B, directly behind West End Station, and Dixon wants to build a boutique hotel on Block C – on the other side of the garage.

The hotel is not immediately penciling out so Dixon and Weinstein have short-term ideas for Block C for the next five years for a possible beer garden or steakhouse.

The Mercado and Mission projects fell victim to the economic collapse and financing freeze, which added years to their projections for each phase of these projects. West End and Monier finally launches Gadsden’s larger scale vision for the Menlo Park Neighborhood.

“It’s just the start,” Dixon said.