by Gary Nelson – Jun. 24, 2011
The Arizona Republic
In a city bloated by rootless newcomers, a city where just a few decades of existence can qualify a neighborhood as “historic,” the Wongs are an anomaly.
The family has been doing business at Main Street and Mesa Drive since before Arizona was a state. Supplies from Frank Wong’s tiny grocery store traveled by buckboard to crews building Roosevelt Dam. The legendary movie cowboy Tom Mix is said to have busted broncs in a corral behind the store.
But now it seems certain the day is coming when a Wong will no longer turn the key at 410 E. Main St.
That probably was going to happen anyway, said former Mayor Willie Wong and his brother, Wilky, who inherited the family property in 1972.
They operate Wilky’s Performance Center by themselves, with the exception of one employee. Their children are established in other careers, unlikely to take over the auto-parts store and machine shop. And frankly the Wongs are not getting any younger.
The end of the line, however, may come somewhat sooner than the Wongs had anticipated because of another end of the line.
That would be the eastern terminus of the light-rail extension that will muscle its way through downtown Mesa over the next five years.
Construction is to begin in 2013.
A public project that big will inevitably step on a few toes – or land parcels. The approximately $200 million line will require about 40 land acquisitions – some big, some small – to accommodate traffic right-of-way, tracks, stations and other infrastructure. Most would be for only small slivers of land.
Final decisions have yet to be made. “This is a very dynamic process,” Metro spokeswoman Hillary Foose said.
And Jodi Sorrell, outreach coordinator for Mesa’s transit department, said, “It’s real important to the city to minimize property impacts, especially for long-term businesses.”
The worst-case scenario, from the standpoint of property owners, was outlined in May when Metro released a thick environmental assessment.
That report listed the Wongs’ property and three others on the north side of East Main Street’s 400 block as likely targets for full acquisition for a park-and-ride lot. Two small houses just north of the Wongs’ shop also would be demolished.
Farther west, two tire shops on the northeastern corner of Main and Alma School Road also were listed for full acquisition, as was the Mesa Muffler shop at 555 W. Main St.
But Harvey Estrada, who is managing the design process, said at least some of those properties may escape full demolition.
Estrada has a large map showing green right-of-way lines eating into the buildings at Alma School and Main. An architect and assessor will examine the sites, and if the buildings can be saved and remodeled, Metro will pay for that, Estrada said.
“If it costs more to do that than the cost of the property, we’ll just procure the entire property,” he said.
The same is true of Mesa Muffler. If only partial demolition is feasible, the business will remain in place.
At the present stage of design, that also would be the scenario for the 400 block on East Main Street, possibly allowing Wilky’s and the other businesses to reconfigure their lots and stay.
Metro views that area, however, as the most likely location for a park-and-ride lot, which would be sketched out in future drawings. A site farther west had been considered, but “it’s very important to have a park-and-ride at the end of the line,” Estrada said.
If the park-and-ride goes there, Wilky’s, Gunnell’s Tire & Auto, and Sentinel Mini Storage will have to make way. A vacant lot at Main and Lesueur also would be purchased, permanently ending its owners’ aspirations, as outlined on a fading sign, to see high-rise condos built there.
Gunnell’s has operated in the neighborhood since 1942 and opened its existing shop at 420 E. Main St. in 1953.
Jeff Duren, part owner and manager, said he hasn’t been told one way or another whether Mesa will buy his shop, which employs 15 people.
If that happened, he said, “We’ll probably end up moving, but it’s just a matter of where you get to be located and what it costs us to do it.”
As for the Wongs, an air of resignation hangs as thick as a century’s memories in the shop, which still has the evident footprint of their grandfather’s original store.
They dodged a similar bullet in 1987 when the city considered and then abandoned the idea of turning Mesa Drive into a six-lane “superstreet.”
If light rail claims their store, they said, it’s unlikely they’ll rebuild elsewhere, and 100 years of history will pass into the realm of Tom Mix and the buckboard drivers who took their grandfather’s goods to Roosevelt Dam.
In line of fire
An environmental assessment for Mesa’s light-rail extension lists numerous properties along Main Street that may be either fully or partially acquired for the project.
The exact amount of property needed is undetermined. More will be known when Metro reaches the 60 percent design milestone this fall. That design, Metro said, probably will show the anticipated location and dimensions of a park-and-ride lot near Main Street and Mesa Drive, which could affect three businesses and two homes.
“We’re trying to save property as much as we can,” said Harvey Estrada, design manager for Metro.
The environmental report contemplated full acquisitions for:
– MCJ’s Tires & Wheels, 1130 and 1144 W. Main St.
– Del Valle Motors, 1126 W. Main St.
– Mesa Muffler, 555 W. Main St.
– Wilky’s Performance Center, 410 E. Main St.
– Gunnell’s Tire & Auto, 420 E. Main St.
– Sentinel Mini Storage, 440 E. Main St.
– A vacant lot at 456 E. Main St. and two adjacent plots that have no street addresses.
– Homes at 29 and 37 N. Mesa Drive.
Whether all those properties will be needed is still to be determined. The original 20-mile leg of light rail involved 765 full and partial acquisitions, according to Metro spokeswoman Hillary Foose. Of those, 28 were in Mesa.
The process involves several steps, beginning with a letter of intent to buy all or part of a parcel. The property is assessed, an offer made and negotiations are conducted if necessary.
As a last resort, Mesa can use eminent domain, which allows governments to acquire land for public projects. Mesa also will offer to help people find new homes or business locations.