Mesa Sees Public Design Through a New Lens

Triggered by a grassroots citizen investment and improvement initiative called iMesa, the voters of Mesa, Arizona approved a $70 million park bond in 2012. To generate excitement for a design effort and to maximize the funds available for further design work, City staff chose to conduct a design competition.

ARTICLE | Nov 3, 2014

Triggered by a grassroots citizen investment and improvement initiative called iMesa, the voters of Mesa, Arizona approved a $70 million park bond in 2012. Also as a result of the iMesa initiative, the park bond included a $750,000 line item for the design of a signature urban park space in the heart of downtown Mesa. To generate excitement for the design effort and to maximize the funds available for further design work, City staff chose to conduct a design competition. In the traditional model for a design competition, the City would have established entry rules and guidelines for design submissions, openly publicized the competition and the desired outcomes, received design submissions that would be objectively rated against the published guidelines, and subjectively rated for design solution by a jury, with the top design solutions awarded prize money.

Even as the 38th largest city in the United States (larger than Atlanta, Miami, Minneapolis, and Pittsburgh), Mesa, Arizona experiences a lack of name recognition that staff feared would result in subpar responses to a traditional design competition. This concern arose from an understanding that preparing and submitting a design to a competition is a time-consuming and often very costly undertaking for design firms, to the point that top firms will be very selective in the competitions they enter. A different approach was needed to address this concern and make the City Center Design Competition more attractive to design firms. 

For this project, City staff developed an innovative approach to conducting a design competition. Following the traditional design competition format; entry rules, design scope, general design parameters, and desired outcomes were established. Breaking from the traditional model, these rules, scope, parameters, and outcomes were released as a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) that was widely distributed through mediums such as the American Society of Landscape Architects, the American Institute of Architects, the American Planning Association, Planetizen, as well as directly distributed to top design firms. The selection process was also unique, as it guaranteed that from the responses to the RFQ (which are relatively easy and inexpensive for design firms to prepare), three finalists would be selected and awarded a $25,000 contract for their design work. Not only did this approach provide a contract that would help defray the high costs associated with preparing a design for the competition, it also included the incentive that the finalists had a one-in-three chance of being awarded an approximately $650,000 contract for the next phase of design for City Center.

By defraying costs, and vastly improving the odds of being awarded a significant design contract, the City received 18 responses to the RFQ from locally, nationally and internationally recognized design firms. From these 18 responses, a nine member selection committee of City staff representing a cross-section of City Departments (Parks, Planning and Development, Arts and Culture, Economic Development, Engineering, and Transportation) and one member from the Downtown Mesa Association rated each response based on pre-established criteria that were both objective and subjective. The five highest rated design firms were invited to an interview in which the design teams were rated on a 30 minute presentation that addressed four pre-established topics of interest and responses to 25 minutes of unscripted questions from the committee. Based on the selection committee interview ratings, three finalists were awarded the $25,000 contract to prepare a conceptual design and design concept report.

Continuing Mesa’s innovative approach to the design competition, the contracts required the design teams to engage the public at two workshops that were coordinated, advertised, and hosted by the City. The first workshop can be best described as “speed-dating” for engaging the public in design before any design work had been completed. The workshop consisted of dividing the public participants into three groups, each of which spent one hour with a design team before the buzzer sounded and the groups moved to another design team. Each design team benefited from equal time with the participant groups and was given a private space in which to conduct their engagement, during which the methods of engagement were as unique as each design team. The second workshop took place four weeks later and followed the same “speed-dating” format. However, the purpose of this workshop was for the design teams to test their design interpretation of the public input received during the first workshop (each design team determined how much of their design they revealed). Both workshops consisted of an afternoon and evening session to best accommodate the public. This method of engagement was extremely well received by the public and the three conceptual designs for City Center that resulted from this engagement were unique to each team’s interpretations of the input they received.

Two months after the second workshop the design teams revealed their final design concepts to the public at an event held at the Mesa Arts Center. The design reveal version of a TED Talk, each design team was given 30-45 minutes to present their concepts, and see the concepts of the other teams for the first time. As a result of the engagement during the workshops, the public was energized, the reveal event was well attended, and the bar for public engagement in design efforts has risen. As of the writing of this article, the City’s selection committee is finalizing their analysis of each design team and their final concepts, with a final recommendation for awarding the next phase of the design of City Center anticipated to be announced mid-November. 

A short video tour of each concept prepared by the design teams, video of each design team presenting their concepts at the reveal event, and the request for qualifications can be found on the project’s webpage. And you connect with the City Center design project on Facebook.

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