Thursday, May 31, 2012

Light Rail is Coming!

Yesterday, Metro threw a big shindig for the City and its citizens to celebrate the groundbreaking of the Light Rail Extension that will finally bring light rail to Mesa’s downtown. There was a great turnout from the community, as well as city staff, who came to listen to live music, enjoy coffee and breakfast from local businesses and listen to valley leaders and Mesa elected officials talk about the imminent light rail extension. (As an aside, you’d be interested to know that it was Sam (of Lo-Fi Coffee)’s first full roast for his shop -- he’s apprenticing with his roaster, Randy -- absolutely delicious coffee, Sam: Thank you).
Local dignitaries, including Steve Banta, Councilmember Dennis Kavanaugh, and Mayor Scott Smith ceremonially break ground on the light rail extension into Downtown Mesa. Photo by David Crummey.
Standing on the eve of utility-relocation and construction of the extension, it’s good to think about what Light Rail can bring to West Mesa. The permanence of light rail gives assurance to developers and lenders that routes aren’t going to change overnight and that the City and community has made a significant investment in infrastructure for the long-run and will continue to fund its operation.

One of the most important aspects of light rail is how it affects the walkability of a neighborhood. Walkable communities are more convenient, reduce time spent in the car and increase the amount of time available for community activities. In fact, a recent study showed that walkable communities are more desirable to residents and have higher land values. By increasing connectivity and by building high-quality Transit Oriented Development, we can make our neighborhoods more walkable -- which is especially important here in West Mesa -- in the so-called “First Suburbs” that have missed out on redevelopment opportunities and the hubbub of the last few decades.

More important, though, is the connection of neighbors and neighborhoods. Of the increased sense of community found in walkable neighborhoods. This is the real benefit of transit and walkable communities. There have also been studies that correlate increased time commuting with loss of a person’s availability to volunteer -- Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, pegged this at 10% loss of community involvement for every 10 minutes of daily commute.
Is light rail the final answer? The cure for all that ails West Mesa? Absolutely not. Even Portland, that oh-so-magical wonderland that everyone points to as the end-all be-all of transit has under-performing transit stations. Light rail is no more and no less than an opportunity. An opportunity for us as a community to guide the development we want; development with the clear purpose of improving our neighborhoods and our way of life. To do this, we need clear, unequivocal -- and mandatory -- development standards (much like those in the soon-to-be approved as optional Form Based Code and other regulations that mandate a walkable form and require enough residents and ground-floor activity to bring light rail to its greatest potential.

Mesa has all the right tools at her disposal. Form Based Code that can easily be adapted to all the station areas, a council and mayor that seem to understand what it will take to create a vibrant and sustainable economy, and $200 million in public investment, right down Main Street.
As a side note, I’d like to give a shout-out to Metro and their thoughtful staff in making sure that they utilize local vendors for these events so that we’re not just paying lip-service to the idea of buying local. All of the food and drinks for the event were provided by local businesses, including Lo-Fi Coffee, Pedrito’s Mexican Cafe, Inside the Bungalow and Grandma’s Kitchen. The chairs, tables and tent were also provided by a business in the future light rail corridor.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Jane Jacobs Walk

This weekend we bring Jane Jacobs Walk back to the valley and especially back to Mesa. Jane Jacobs Walk celebrates our neighborhoods and communities by taking a walk to look at our cities through Jane Jacobs' eyes.

Jane Jacobs (1916 - 2006) was a writer and activist who came to be considered by many as one of the most important urban thinkers of the past century. She was not a trained planner or architect, in fact, she never received a college degree. Instead, she garnered her insight on urban economies and urban form by watching how people use the city from her walk-up in the West Village of New York. Her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), fundamentally changed the way we think about cities. Her voice continues to reverberate across the country and globe. In fact, her insights in Death and Life still ring true today. Jacobs called for walkable communities, a mix of uses (and time of use) on the street, short blocks, and diversity of building ages and types to increase the economic viability and safety of neighborhoods. What were, at the time, radical ideas, are now almost considered common sense today.

Last year we had our first walk in Mesa, moving through neighborhoods and down Main street, walking, talking, sharing, connecting with neighbors and looking at the downtown area in a different light. This weekend we do it again.

There are two Jane Jacobs Walks scheduled for Mesa. The first, on Saturday, is hosted by Metro and will take participants by bus and walking along the coming light rail route, to the Mesa Arts Center. The walk will include artists, city and Metro officials to answer your questions about the station designs, transit-oriented development and more. Afterward, participants will return to the Sycamore & Main station to head to Tempe to take a look at their imminent modern streetcar project.

Sunday, I will host a walk starting at Lo-Fi Coffee. We will make a "walking audit" -- take a look at the connections, strengths, opportunities and possibilities both north and south of Main street and about the opportunities that are coming with the imminent Light Rail.
When we return at the end of the walk, we will discuss, draw and write our ideas down to share.

But before that, on Friday night around 7pm, come socialize at Il Vinaio, talk about the Downtown, Jane Jacobs, or whatever other urban topic comes about. Enjoy a great glass of wine, beer or root beer and excellent, compelling and provocative conversation as we kick off the Jane Jacobs Walk weekend. 

Remember, Jane Jacobs Walks are, more than anything, walking conversations. Bring your hats, your water and your minds. Come to share, come to listen, come to see Mesa . . . and Stringtown, rise.

For specific details about these or other Jane Jacobs Walks in the Valley or around the country, please check out

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Stringtown is rising.

Mesa has been sheltered for two long. Hiding behind garage doors, stereotypes and bad policy. But now, over the past years, Mesa is coming to the forefront and deservedly so. Tell people that Mesa is larger than Atlanta, Miami or Oakland, and you get a strange look; but they’ll also tell you they’ve heard good things, that Mesa is changing. Mesa is opening up. Mesa, will rise.

Stringtown was the name of an early settlement founded by the Rogers, Standage, and Pew families along what is now Alma School Road. I think that name is appropriate for west Mesa and downtown. Mesa has stretched out so far east that the original city and suburbs have not had the interest or intensity of thought that it should. That all has changed.

We have the opportunity now to envision and build the Mesa that we want. One built on community, health and safety. A Mesa that is built for all people and all ages. A Mesa that is more than just a single bottom line. We understand now that in order to build the community we want, we have to look more broadly and think more deeply than we have before.

The Mesa we build will have a strong, vibrant economy and an educated, passionate, connected and involved community. This Mesa will sustain us long into the future, yet still be respectful of those who have come before us. This site ventures to create a venue to share provocative ideas and opinions, as well as pertinent links that will inspire us all to think critically.

In that light, we’ll be talking about all the possibilities that become us. The articles you’ll find here will be positive, informative, provocative and thoughtful. Guest writers are invited to share their ideas and dreams.

So join with us as we explore the ideas, thoughts and hopes that will make Stringtown rise. The dreams that will inspire and reinvigorate west Mesa. The ideas that will make Downtown Mesa into Mesa’s downtown. We’re about to embark on an exciting adventure, and everyone’s invited.