Giselle Walker pointed toward a desolate parking lot with rows of empty spaces that once were filled with Wal-Mart shoppers. Ever since the store closed, that part of the Mesa strip mall near Main Street and Longmore looks like it could do with some "life," said Walker, a longtime Mesa resident, as she piled up her black Chevy Tahoe with groceries from a Fry's east of the lot.
"Life" is what's being planned for that and other parts of west Mesa close to the light rail, which opens for service Dec. 27. City officials are weaving a legal framework to help create an urban environment in this older side of Mesa.
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Urban as in shops on the first floor, homes on the second, third and more. Less parking sprawl, more walkable spaces close to Main Street. A community where people can walk to a coffee shop or the dry cleaners from their home, buy groceries, or pick up some flowers and hop on the light rail to get to Tempe or Phoenix and back.
At least that's the hope.
Last December, Mesa adopted a 2.5-square-mile sub-area plan called the West Main Street Area Plan, which covers the light-rail corridor. The focus here is on getting more population density and increasing the height of buildings to stay away from a suburban sprawl.
Based on this developmental philosophy for west Mesa, city staff members are now working to outline a new land-use category called Mixed Use/Transit Oriented Development, for Mesa's general plan.
Wahid Alam, senior planner with the city, explained that because some general land-use plans are restrictive, the idea is to introduce flexibility, so that housing and commercial development can come up on the same site.
That means things like relaxing the number of parking spaces that would usually be required, if it's clear that a project will enhance mass-transit use.
Councilman Dave Richins, who was involved in development concepts for the West Main Street plan, believes the move is "the right direction to go."
The mixed-use design is also being seen as a way to promote a safer environment in the area by bringing desirable businesses.
"We believe there's going to be a renaissance along Main Street," said Tanya Collins, co-chair of Mesa Grande Alliance, an organization representing west Mesa neighborhoods.
Collins said for the most part, people are embracing the concept.
"We hope to create an urban environment, some excitement and frankly, some night life," Collins said.
Romon Nabarrete, who had walked to the Safeway on Main Street with his three children, liked the idea. He plans to use the light rail often.
"It would be nice to see more families walking to stores and not getting in their cars all the time," Nabarrete said.
Colin Dentan, who lives near the Mesa-Tempe border, said if it comes to fruition, it would help Mesa's "image." "It seems like the perception of Mesa is not so good, so this sounds really neat," Dentan said.
Mesa's share of light rail is about a mile on Main Street. A rapid bus service also is starting in December to help connect residents to the east up to Superstition Springs Center with the light rail. So while the focus right now for transit-oriented development is along the light-rail corridor, it could be extended along the rapid bus route.
The West Main Street Area Plan extends from University Drive to Broadway Road, Country Club Drive and the Mesa/Tempe city limits.
According to the American Public Transportation Association, transit-oriented development encourages residents and workers to drive their cars less and ride mass transit more.
Patrick Murphy, project manager for the city's economic development department, said the intent of the plan is to create an urban feel, with mixed-use buildings about five to six stories high.
"Right now, the market is down the tank, but when it changes, we hope to see these types of structures along the light rail," Murphy said.
Light rail has helped attract $6 billion worth of housing and business projects to Phoenix and Tempe, according to Valley Metro estimates.
Mesa is not the first in line to plan such development along the light-rail line. Transit-oriented projects are already being developed in Tempe and Phoenix, especially some new projects that include housing near Apache Boulevard and McClintock Drive, and in Phoenix's central corridor.
Maria Choca Urban, transportation director at the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago, a national think tank that develops policies and tools to promote sustainable communities, said that density is key to the success of transit systems. It creates ridership for the service, in this case light rail, and it's also critical for the success of the retail outlets.
Twenty percent of the anticipated 26,000 daily riders along the 20-mile initial light-rail route are expected to catch the train in Mesa.
Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh, who represents the district, recalls talks about such plans when he was on the council back in 2003-04.
"It's been a long time coming," Kavanaugh said.
Kavanaugh added that ideally, the sub-area plan and this general plan component should have been implemented two to three years ago to coincide with the light-rail construction, so that prospective developers and property owners could use that vision as a guideline.
"I won't say I'm giddy, but I'm pleased that the work has been completed," Kavanaugh said.
The West Main Street plan has guided city leaders to tell landowners what use is compatible with the city's vision.
Proposals such as a charter school and a plasma donation center are being steered to other parts of Mesa because these would not be compatible to the "vibrant, urban, destination retail and office uses the city hopes to see develop," Kavanaugh said.
"You don't want to see businesses that need council use permits, such as tattoo parlors and pawn shops in the area," Kavanaugh said.
Planners envision buildings at least three stories along the light-rail stations and two stories along the transit corridor, parking lots kept away from the front of buildings, and walking distance between buildings and mass-transit stops.
For now, these plans are tempered with the reality that financing is not going to be easy and city resources are limited.
But examples such as the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor in Arlington, Va., as cited on the Center for Transit-Oriented Development's Web site, are proof that transit-oriented uses can benefit new and existing residents.
That area was a "declining low-density commercial corridor" that has been transformed, and property values have jumped 81 percent in 10 years, while preserving the character of single-family neighborhoods, according to the center.
The general plan amendment, which recently got the planning board's approval, is expected to go before the Mesa City Council Jan. 12. A special zoning category will be the next step.