by Southeast Valley editorial board – Oct. 26, 2011
Courtesy of the Arizona Republic
[Editor’s Note: Light Rail Advisors fully supports the 3.1 mile light rail extension into downtown and to Mesa Drive. The company started LightRailConnect.com and the LightRainConnect Magazine to support business and economic growth in the light rail corridor]
Mesa has a rare light-rail mulligan. And, thankfully, it knows it.
The city dithered on advance planning for its initial, half-mile leg. It didn’t do enough to encourage and integrate development at its initial station. By the time it finally offered some much-needed direction for the area, the economy was in freefall.
Not surprisingly, where Phoenix and Tempe have reaped billions of dollars in investment along light rail, Mesa has yet to see any appreciable economic benefit.
But that’s not likely to be the case this time, now that the city is preparing for its next 3 miles of track. Mesa began studying options for redevelopment as soon as it approved the route through downtown to Mesa Drive and, eventually, Gilbert Road.
Two years later, the city has created its Central Main Street Plan, a detailed yet flexible set of guidelines to help manage the change it knows is coming. Mesa also is nearly finished with a form-based zoning code for the area, which would focus less on segregating uses and more on ensuring buildings are well-designed.
Those documents should be in place long before light rail opens in 2016, offering the clarity and predictability investors need to make serious infill and redevelopment proposals.
And that’s important, even if the market for condominiums and high-rise buildings remains weak, because Mesa is making the most of this down time to plan for its future.
Granted, this isn’t the first time the city has created documents that promised to revitalize downtown. But those plans never gained traction because they never fully addressed the barriers that were holding the area back.
This time is different.
The city finally updated its zoning code to allow for mixed use, a tool it didn’t have when light rail debuted. It also is studying ideas to encourage the dense, pedestrian-friendly development it wants downtown, including speeding plan reviews or offering zoning incentives for projects that meet certain criteria.
The city is investing in infrastructure, spending $12.6 million to fix crumbling utilities along Main Street, and $325,000 to expand its chilled-water system, creating an efficient way to cool downtown buildings.
It also is looking at ways to bring down the cost and complexity of preserving and updating historical buildings.
Mesa is aggressively marketing downtown to colleges and universities, 11 of which have said they’re interested in offering classes or building a freestanding campus in the city. But it’s not just showing college officials empty plots of land.
Mesa is leveraging the area’s newfound buzz, playing up how much students would be attracted to the eclectic restaurants and quirky shops that have recently opened.
All of these efforts should ensure that downtown’s new planning documents don’t just collect dust on a shelf. Officials are setting the foundation for investment years ahead of time, and then they’re getting out of the way so the free market can decide what’s best to build on it.
Lesson learned. Mesa wants redemption for what happened – or, more accurately, what didn’t – in 2008 when the first light-rail leg opened, and we’re all poised to reap the rewards.