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.

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