Mesa’s downtown district, neighborhoods seek identity, viability - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Mesa’s downtown district, neighborhoods seek identity, viability

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Posted: Sunday, September 23, 2012 8:15 am | Updated: 4:40 pm, Wed Dec 3, 2014.

For several years now, the neighborhoods along the north side of Mesa’s Main Street in the city’s downtown district have had an identity within a serene setting of historic districts.

Now, residents on the south side of Main Street’s business district are becoming more involved, and the area is seeking an identity of its own as part of the city’s Building Strong Neighborhoods program.

With the Mesa Arts Center already nearby, the area is being envisioned as a future “cultural corridor.”

Mesa’s Urban Garden is becoming a staple on the northeast corner of West First Avenue and Hibbert, Benedictine University is opening a liberal arts campus downtown, and next door to the urban garden, Marco Meraz and his parents, who immigrated to the United States in the mid-1960s and have lived in Mesa ever since, plan to open a Mexican, Latin and Caribbean cuisine restaurant in November.

About 60 people gathered for a meeting last week involving the eclectic but densely-populated business and residential district bordered by North Country Club Drive to the west, Mesa Drive to the east, University Drive to the north and Broadway Road to the south.

Those in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting were responding to a survey the city’s Neighborhood Outreach Department sent out to about 400 homes last month of which just 26 percent of households responded, a pretty good amount for the surveys which have been mailed out to various areas of the city in recent years.

Next, a meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 27 at the Inside The Bungalow coffee shop and cafe at 48 N. Robson to discuss strategies and wanted improvements for the neighborhood. So far, 20 people have signed up to attend.

Bringing neighbors together

Mesa Arts Academy, 221 W. 6th Ave., has been located just south of the targeted area at the Boys and Girls Clubs of the East Valley, since 1995. In that time, Sue Douglas, administrator of the charter school, has witnessed much change in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Her school worked with police and neighbors to clean up the area and make it safer. The establishment of a “drug-free zone” translated into mandatory jail time for anyone caught with narcotics.

Despite the improvements, Douglas said she “lost heart” about five years ago when budgets were getting cut and there was less of a police presence. But now, she is again seeing more people becoming involved and is noticing more children playing outside along Grand Avenue and Macdonald.

Douglas said she arrives at the charter school at 6:45 a.m., and by 7 p.m., there are still kids on the campus participating in activities, a good sign that the school is still doing what it hoped to do from the beginning: Save the neighborhood.

She is aware of the grassroots effort gaining momentum for renovating the downtown neighborhood from the “inside out,” citing the importance of its residents to stay involved.

“I know there is an interest in continuing to improve the area,” Douglas said. “The city is contacting us, and I believe there’s more resources becoming available. There’s definitely a rejuvenation. It’s coming back. I’m excited. Our kids deserve it.”

Residents south of Main Street are also interested in seeking historic designations for some neighborhoods. And, they’d like to become more active in neighborhood watch programs, establish an outdoor movie night, and host a community yard sale, according to Lindsey Balinkie, neighborhood outreach coordinator for the City of Mesa.

The Building a Stronger Neighborhood meetings, which are hosted by the city’s Neighborhood Community Outreach Department in a different portion of the city every year, help to educate residents on the services available and who to call about street maintenance, code complaints, and getting assistance to remove graffiti — issues that are being dealt with by both the residents and City Hall.

“Our goals are to bring the neighborhood together,” Balinkie said. “Now, we’re trying to have more activities to get better communication and really strengthen the neighborhood. It’s important for residents to get involved in these meetings, and to communicate. This gives us a baseline of where to start with the neighborhood and gather information.”

Why invest here?

The topics discussed at last week’s meeting ranged from whether residents felt welcome and included in their neighborhood (58 percent of them do), whether they feel comfortable walking or biking in the neighborhood (59 percent of them do), and whether they believe block watch captains are keeping a close eye out for suspicious behavior (65 percent think they are).

However, just 36 percent of the residents believe that the neighborhood is free of drug activity, 38 percent think code compliance is responsive and addressing the conditions of deteriorated homes, and 39 percent say residents are working together to address the issues they believe are hurting the area in which they live.

But in the last five years, there have been signs of promise and progress, according to those who have been involved in the neighborhood.

On the northeast corner of West First Avenue and Hibbert, is an urban garden with a mural where more than 50 “garden spots” have been rented by residents seeking to grow vegetables on what was formerly an empty lot. Next door is the Republica Empenada, a forthcoming Mexican, Latin and Caribbean cuisine restaurant owned by Marco Meraz and his parents, Edmundo and Jinette Meraz of Mesa. Edmundo immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and Jinette immigrated to the U.S. from Costa Rica.

With the area south of Main being more transient and seeing businesses come and go, one might wonder: Why invest in it?

“I wanted to invest in Mesa because it’s been exciting to see the changes in the time we’ve been there,” Marco Meraz, 33, said. “We were attracted to central and east Phoenix to open the restaurant, but we were pretty passionate about staying in Mesa. We like the idea of keeping the restaurant local.”

Marco Meraz also is part of the I Believe in Mesa downtown group, and is on the Mesa Urban Garden advisory board. He is very interested in seeing the area south of downtown have more of an identity. He currently calls that area “Southside Heights.”

“I’ve reconnected with a couple friends from high school who have bought homes in the neighborhood. I hope the trend continues,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting to be part of the beginning of the changes.”

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