Back in the day when Mesa first appointed a citizens advisory panel to evaluate the appearance of new buildings in the city, they named it the Design Review Advisory Board.
The acronym – DRAB – may have been unfortunate, but city officials admit it could describe a lot of the architecture passing muster at City Hall over the years.
DRAB is now just the Design Review Board, but body and the city’s professional planning staff still don’t believe they have the tools they need to begin giving the city a facelift.
But it’s about to change.
The City Council has informally signed off on a series of guidelines and ordinance changes will put the city among Valley leaders in requiring high-quality development.
It’s not as if Mesa is entirely new to the concept. In 2007, for example, the city adopted design guidelines for the Fiesta District resulting in modern, close-to-the-street commercial and apartment buildings.
Other parts of the city, such as the light-rail corridor and the Eastmark/Cadence areas to the southeast, also are covered by more stringent design rules.
But vast swaths of the city lie outside those special areas, and it’s what council members and city staffers were worried about.
The new proposals emerged from a year-long series of workshops and forums involving more than 500 developers, builders and private citizens.
The process actually began long before today, said Councilman Kevin Thompson, whose southeast Mesa district includes some of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in the city.
It’s about time, Thompson said, Mesa got pickier about its building design.
“I’m tired of taking the things all the other cities are throwing away just because it’s easier to build it in Mesa,” Thompson said. “The other cities should take the stuff we throw away.”
Nana Appiah, Mesa’s planning director, said voters in 2014 approved a general plan calling for “a recognizable city with a strong sense of place.”
But, he said, “The existing tools have been insufficient in producing the level of quality we want to see.”
Other cities, meanwhile, have codified numerous requirements aimed at improving the appearance of their neighborhoods and streetscapes. Queen Creek, for example, has 26 such specifications. Phoenix has 25, and Gilbert has 17.
Mesa has seven.
But by the time the changes are enacted, Mesa’s total of 21 codified requirements will exceed even Scottsdale, which has 20.
The new regulations will cover every type of building in the city.
For residential properties, it no longer will be allowed to build a house with a “snout garage” juts in front of the rest of the building. And new developments must offer architectural variety, with houses of the same design not being allowed next to each other.
Small-lot developments, in particular, will be held to higher standards, possibly with enhanced requirements for open-space areas and amenities.
Commercial buildings now must “engage the street,” with parking hidden from passing traffic, and offer pedestrian-friendly environments. Drive-throughs no longer will be allowed to parallel busy arterial streets – they must be at the back or side of the building.
Even large industrial buildings are covered, with provisions that, again, limit the amount of parking visible from nearby streets and requirements for a variety of building materials to create a pleasing palette.
Planners said the development community is on board with the proposals as long as the city is willing to consider a variety of design options and maintain consistency in design review while still offering a measure of flexibility.
Thompson said the regulations actually should work to builders’ advantage.
“We are allowing the developers and builders to have some confidence they can come into Mesa and they can try something that’s working maybe on the East Coast or somewhere outside of Arizona,” he said.
And, he said, the new regulations will help Mesa distinguish itself from its neighbors.
“Forever we have been doing things the same,” Thompson said. If you started driving westward from the Pinal County line all the way to the West Valley, he said, “You can’t tell what city you’re entering and which city you’re leaving because every house is stucco and tile.”
Councilwoman Jen Duff said she wished the design guidelines went farther in eliminating confusing street patterns sometimes force people to drive when, with a different layout, they could walk to visit a neighbor or store. She also pushed for more stringent shade requirements and said planners should encourage more density, both to provide affordable housing and to curb sprawl.
Density, Duff said, is not a bad word. “We have to think about density as a chosen way to live. It doesn’t necessarily mean lower quality,” she said.
The council is expected to approve the new design guidelines on Dec. 2, and the associated ordinance changes on Dec. 9.
Normally a new ordinance takes effect in 30 days, but developers asked for an extra month to gear up and the city agreed to have the new rules take effect on Feb. 10. Building plans submitted before then can still adhere to current guidelines.