by Jim Walsh – Jan. 20, 2011
The Arizona Republic
A planned investment fund may help create a taste of urban living similar to that of Boston or New York without leaving the Arizona sunshine.
The $30 million Sustainable Communities Development Fund would create incentives to build affordable housing along the Metro light-rail line in Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix.
Projects funded by the incentives would feature transportation-oriented development, a high-density concept that generally features retail and commercial development on the lower floors with residential units on the upper floors.
“We want to work with our non-profit partners to create a pipeline of projects,” said Teresa Brice, a Mesa native and former mayoral candidate who is among the fund’s chief sponsors as executive director of the Local Initiatives Support Corp.
“We call this inventing a Plan B for the Valley of Sun,” she said, offering residents an alternative to the urban sprawl that has contributed to poor air quality and long commutes on jammed freeways.
The fund would help Mesa capitalize on the extension of Metro’s light-rail line and potentially aid in redevelopment efforts near the city’s only station at Sycamore and Main Street.
With the exception of Mekong Plaza, an Asian-themed shopping center that is barely visible to light-rail riders, redevelopment has lagged near the Mesa station, which still has several boarded-up buildings nearby.
Mesa has only 1 mile of light rail, but a 3.1-mile extension is scheduled to open along Main Street through downtown in 2016. It would end near the Mormon Temple east of Mesa Drive. Other new stops are planned at Alma School Road, Center Street and Country Club Drive.
Brice said such transit-oriented development projects have met with mixed results in Phoenix and Tempe during the two years since Metro opened, with Valley residents, developers and banks adjusting to a new concept featuring high densities, rather than traditional single-family development.
But little housing development has met with success in the Valley during the recession. Traditional single-family housing developments on the Valley’s fringes have been among the hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis and the sharp drop in housing values.
With its close proximity to Arizona State University, Tempe has capitalized well on light rail, with three apartment complexes along the route leased nearly to capacity, one of which includes a parking garage shared with light-rail riders.
The fund’s goal is to entice local developers who are accustomed to building on large parcels of desert to undertake more complicated transit-oriented development projects, which often involve assembling small parcels and dealing with a variety of funding sources, including federal and state programs, Brice said.
When the fund is launched – probably this spring – it may also attract developers from places with a far longer mass-transit history and much more established light-rail lines, like the San Francisco Bay Area or Portland, Ore., she said.
“I think there is a lot of great opportunity,” said John Smith, president and CEO of Housing Our Communities, a Mesa non-profit that helps low-income people buy renovated houses. “This fund could become a catalyst.”
Smith said even the fringes of downtown east of Country Club Drive could become prime potential sites for transit-oriented development projects, with bottom-floor businesses providing services for light-rail riders that are lacking near the Sycamore station.
These businesses would cater to rushed light-rail riders who might patronize them before jumping on trains. They might include drugstores, takeout restaurants or dry cleaners.
“As a city, I think we failed in the early light-rail stages to promote our light-rail station. We have not done much with our mile,” Smith said. “If the city lets downtown stay the way it is with light rail, then shame on them.”
Mesa is developing a marketing campaign to promote light-rail development on privately and publicly-owned parcels. It also is completing a zone code overhaul that will make transit-oriented development easier.
Gordon Sheffield, Mesa’s zoning administrator, said the long-awaited zoning overhaul may go to the City Council for approval in mid-April or early May, with the transportation-oriented development component added a little later.
He said Mesa will learn from the best examples of transit-oriented projects in Tempe and Phoenix.
“There might be an ASU effect that might bleed over to the first stop or even the second stop in Mesa,” Sheffield said.