Can Mesa’s West Main Street, long known for shabby buildings and crime, be transformed into turf for the hip and urbane?
Residents and city planners throwing their support behind a new development plan for the struggling area believe it’s possible. Especially with commuter rail lines coming to link Mesa’s downtown with hot spots across the Valley.
But it’s a long road to success, and requires the support of top decision-makers and residents who are resistant to change. And it’s going to take a mix of private investment and public money to make it happen, both of which are in short supply in Mesa.
“As light rail inches into our borders, the question is, ‘How do we want to define ourselves?’” said Gabe Saia, managing member of Integrated Real Estate Services and a member of the advisory committee for the plan.
The plan for West Main Street, from the Mesa-Tempe border to Country Club Drive, has been in the works for more than a year.
“The high point is having a vision for our community,” said Carmen Guerrero, of Mesa Comite de Familias en Accion and a member of the planning committee. “It’s about coming together as neighbors from different walks of life, property owners, residents, coming together to develop a vision.”
It touches the industrial area along Broadway Road and the mature neighborhoods between Main and University, but is fueled primarily by the impending arrival of the light rail tracks, currently planned to go as far east as Sycamore Street. The segment of light rail is expected to be finished by December 2008.
An extension being considered could stretch light rail farther east to Mesa Drive, but the city has not figured out a way to pay for the project, which is estimated to cost $30 million.
Broadway Road is expected to remain an industrial area, and homes and free-standing retail would be discouraged, according to the plan.
Instead, more employment hubs and business parks would likely move in.
The neighborhood areas between University Drive and Main Street would be preserved, with sensitivity to changing families.
The plan calls for changes to the city’s zoning ordinance to make it easier for homeowners to remodel or add structures like “granny flats,” or small detached homes.
The West Main Street plan will be presented in a public meeting on Sept. 11, then go before the planning and zoning board and eventually to the City Council.
THE MAIN DRAG
In the 1930s and 1940s, Main Street was a major corridor for westward travelers, marked by lodges, motels and RV parks.
Now, with more freeways to speed travel, Main Street has fallen into ill repute, a poster for the Broken Window Theory, which purports that a broken window left unrepaired leads to more broken windows.
“We do see prostitution up on West Main, drug activity, property crimes and person crimes — assault, things of that nature,” said Mesa Detective Chris Arvayo. “One place gets run down, it could be a hotel it could be a number of things, that place increases in crime, then the place next door loses business and gets run down.
“The whole area is just not the safest.”
This is the place city planners and residents are hoping to transform.
The first step would be to create special zoning that will allow new kinds of developments near the light rail stations.
The developments would be taller, denser and used as a mix of residential units and retail shops. That would create more pedestrian-friendly areas linked to the light rail stops.
“The reality is that market forces are not letting developers come in and buy all the land,” said city planner John Wesley. “Maybe light rail will make them more attractive.”
Guerrero said she hates to see empty lots and wants to see more small shops, with places for people to live on top.
“I want Mesa to be this really hip place, an artisan village,” she said. “The (light rail) station is the first thing. Then we can have all these hip places to live and work and walk to promenades, and little plazas for people to come together with lots of greens and parks.”
Main Street does not lend itself to a traditional neighborhood park, which are usually 3 to 15 acres. However, the plan calls for pocket parks and unconventional alternatives — like plazas, arcades and private parks — to work around the constraints.
Saia said Main Street has a lot of under-used property, such as old mobile home parks, that “clearly are not the highest and best use” and would be ripe for redevelopment.
Most of these improvements, including a plan to redo the streets, will require public dollars.
Mesa does not currently have facade improvement program to help businesses on Main Street pay for remodeling — it doesn’t have the money, said Town Center Development Specialist Patrick Murphy.
Instead, the city refers businesses to the West Mesa Community Development Corporation, headed by Dave Richins.
Richins has secured more than $100,000 in grants from sources like State Farm Insurance and has started working with eight businesses.
“We’re not a long way off from making this a neat community,” Richins said.
Saia said there are a handful of funding mechanisms, including a bond measure, to pay for the public improvements.
“The taxpayers will have to pony up to see the evolution of our city,” Saia said.
Arvayo said the Riverview development already has increased the number of service calls to the police, and light rail will only bring more.
“More officers come into play, and funding for certain programs come into play,” he said. “Those are considerations that have to be dealt with now.”
Vice Mayor Claudia Walters said the revenue sources to pay for the improvements are not identifiable right now, but that changes could be made as money frees up.
“You are not going to see the plan shelved, but it’s one of those things that’s going to happen incrementally,” she said.
One of the biggest challenges is that Mesa lacks an “It” factor, Saia said.
“Mesa has an image problem. If you want to change that image, there’s going to have to be more aggressive zoning laws, building forms and accepting that you have to pony up to it,” he said. “We demand to have a little lifestyle.”
Taller buildings, at least three stories high Dense mix of commercial and residential buildings Pocket parks and public squares Pedestrian and bike-friendly paths Awnings and shade Parking off the streetscape, behind buildings Date palm trees
Keeps its industrial character Discourages new neighborhoods or freestanding retail Business parks encouraged
Make it easier to remodel Accommodate more family structures by encouraging detached “granny flats” Enhance passageways from the light-rail stations