Something is happening in Mesa. Light rail is being extended three miles along Main Street from Sycamore to Mesa Drive, reaching downtown and putting it within walking distance, on a decent day, of the Arizona Temple. A brewery is coming to Main Street. Pioneer Park might get a botanical garden, pushed by a citizens committee that also proposes extending light-rail to Gateway airport. (Building an inspiring city hall would be nice, too). Officials brought in 50 developers to show off potential downtown sites. Council members actually expressed hesitation about some senior housing projects, worried they would get in the way of efforts to attract market-rate, transit-oriented residential development downtown.
The "city with wide streets and narrow minds" is actually attracting higher education: the A.T. Still University branch offers osteopathic medicine, dentistry and health care; Benedictine University is expected to open a campus downtown. This is on top of the downtown branch of Mesa Community College and ASU Polytechnic. When metro Phoenix saw itself in the running for a new Apple campus, which not surprisingly went to Austin instead, it's no secret the company was looking most at Mesa. The Mesa Arts Center has stopped trying to compete with Phoenix and is doing well with, among other things, community festivals.
Could this be Mesa, Arizona? A city more populous than Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Minneapolis, etc. with nothing to show for it? Something seems to have changed.
To be sure, Mesa faces plenty of problems. Many of its older, car-centric tract subdivisions are turning into linear slums. Some 11.9 percent of its residents are below the poverty level, better than the state's 15.3 percent and Phoenix's 19 percent, but still a concern. The city's resources to help the poor and working poor are meager. More than 14 percent of its residents are over 65, higher than the state average, a source of Social Security income but also a big veto elite to stand against progressive policies.
Mesa's 136 square miles are totally car dependent and most of its working population must commute to jobs outside the city. Mesa is also continuing to play the sprawl game, including with a so-called master planned community and the big Eastmark development by DMB on the old GM Proving Grounds in the southeast. These are far from the city center and will likely never be linked by transit or commuter trains. They have the approving eye of the real estate boyz, but their externalities are not priced into this heavily subsidized sprawl. "Master planned communities" by their nature stand apart from a city, and they have been a pox on civic connection in Mesa. Moreover, the mixture of housing and the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport may prove fatal to the aspirations of the latter. "Aerotopolis" sounds good. In practice, it's doubtful. The Growth Machine elites still dream of Superstition Vistas, whether it is attached to Mesa or not, but this, too is a dead end.
Mesa must prove that it can keep its focus on the hard stuff, such as recovering the square mile of the original city, which would make for a very walkable, shady urban center. Some members of the Resistance have worked for years to preserve historic neighborhoods. One terrible loss was the old Southern Pacific depot (you can rebuild it). It will also require an economic-development toolbox lacking in Arizona (the new Commerce Authority didn't cover itself in glory in the competition for Apple). The First Solar plant may not work out. So the city can't merely rely on abundant land and the momentum, such as it is, from the spec-and-leasing boyz. As with Phoenix, Mesa faces a Legislature that is hostile to the urban solutions so necessary to make the metro area competitive and livable.
But for the moment, it's a change for the better. Few things could better help metro Phoenix than for Mesa to act like the big city it actually is, rather than the nation's most populous bedroom community. This will be cemented if it becomes its own thing, not attempt to be "the next Scottsdale," or just steal assets from Phoenix. And if all this leads Scott Smith to the govenor's office, it will be a far better outcome than the present embarrassment and a Democratic Party that's worse than ineffectual.