When he was a young boy, Mesa Mayor and native Scott Smith remembers what it was like being a child growing up in the fun-filled environment of downtown Mesa. He now looks to the future as he and the city plan for the new urban environment he knows downtown Mesa can eventually become.
As part of the City of Mesa’s strategic initiatives, the Economic Development Department, along with Smith and the Mesa City Council, have created a plan focused on the redevelopment and revitalizing of the downtown Mesa community.
The “Downtown Mesa Focus” plan was designed to provide city officials a standard vision to guide them in their efforts to continually improve the Downtown area through careful construction of custom form based codes.
“I know we have a vision as to where we want downtown to be because we view it as an asset. In economic development, it’s not that you develop an area or an industry, you look where your opportunities are and you look at what your best assets are,” Smith said, “downtown Mesa is an asset for us, we believe we have potential, we believe we have opportunity, and that’s why we’re focusing on it.”
The square mile district is home to over 3,000 residents and more than 450 businesses and organizations that all have a stake in the new downtown developments. One development in particular that is anticipated to have a huge impact, according to city officials, is the extending of the Valley Metro light rail into the downtown area.
“There is an extremely large market of people who want to live in close proximity to the light rail, want that level of accessibility and live in the downtown area that just isn’t being met in today’s market,” said City Planner Jeff McVay.
While current downtown residents and visitors must access the light rail at its final stop on Sycamore Drive and Main Street, by 2016 the light rail will travel along Main Street all the way to Mesa Drive. It is estimated that when completed, the extension will average close to “9,742 weekday riders,” according to the City of Mesa website.
The extension will also bring a number of challenges anticipated by the city, mainly the impact of its construction on local business.
“Light rail construction is always a challenge. There are always going to be businesses that have negative impacts,” McVay said, “we have been trying much harder with our business outreach efforts and to help lessen the blow that these business take.”
The overall economic impact of Mesa’s downtown district is around $2 billion annually, according to the Downtown Mesa Association. Downtown businesses could, however, take a serious blow if customers can no longer easily reach businesses along Main Street. The Downtown Mesa Association and city council have been working with local businesses to create a schedule of when they believe construction should best occur. Construction of the extension along Main Street is set to begin in May of 2014.
“A lot more business happens in the winter and spring versus summer so we have purposely scheduled construction downtown to occur only during those summer months,” McVay said.
Barricades will block Main Street from being accessed until August. One effort the city plans to push is providing information and signage showing citizens how they can navigate around construction, as well as provide information on alternative parking.
Construction is inevitable and must be completed if the city wants to benefit from the people it can bring into the downtown area. Smith sees the real challenge of the light rail involving how to actually utilize it to its fullest potential.
“Once you have an investment of that size that has the ability to bring people in and change people’s lifestyles, you need to take full advantage of it,” he said.
To aid their efforts in taking advantage of these economic opportunities, the city created the “Central Main Plan” within the “Downtown Mesa Focus.” This plan for form based code and zoning guidelines will provide city officials and planners another vision for the types of businesses, developments, and structures the city would ultimately like to see along Main Street.
The “urban plaza” the city plans to build is one addition to Main Street within the “Central Main Plan.” The one block, owned by the city and located to the east of city hall, will eventually become downtown Mesa’s community gathering place.
McVay said the “urban plaza” will serve as venue for local events, as well as being a unique location members of the community can utilize to a number of degrees. City planners are currently working with outside design firms to provide ideas for the new plaza.
Students at Arizona State University’s school of Geographic Sciences and Urban Planning have also been working along side the City of Mesa to come up with student inspired designs.
Over the course of three semesters, students worked to compare other plazas in major cities around the country and create custom designs to give Mesa its own unique town square type of structure. These designs will be submitted at the end of this year along side the designs of other firms from around the country, all competing to have their “urban plaza” designs constructed on Main Street.
“We are trying very hard to get [the students] on board so we can engage them with some consultant expertise and back and forth discussion the students can benefit from, as well as give them professional feedback on their concepts,” McVay said.
Every downtown is unique, and the City of Mesa will continue to utilize its current plans to make downtown Mesa a destination for visitors from all over, as well as a great environment for its residents.
“I hope Main Street becomes a place where people want to be, whether that’s to shop, to play or to work,” Smith said. “Great cities have places where people want to be.”