Cracking the code to smart growth in Mesa, AZ

A vision for creating complete neighborhoods in downtown Mesa, AZ. Image from “Form-Based Code: Workshop Summary Presentation” via the City of Mesa.

Downtown Mesa, Arizona is already great a destination to go out to lunch or to shop. Now, the Mesa City Council is working to make downtown not just a destination but a neighborhood – and they’re using innovative zoning strategies to help make it happen.

“Walkable neighborhoods don’t just happen by chance,” said Mesa Councilmember Dave Richins. “Your design standards need enable people to build using smart growth principles.”

Richins, a board member of Smart Growth America’s coalition partner The Sonoran Institute, is part of the team working to make Mesa’s neighborhoods walkable and economically resilient by improving zoning codes. Their approach, called “form-based code,” focuses on how buildings function and interact with the street and community, rather than their use.

“Form-based code regulates how buildings look within a hierarchy of uses,” Richins explained. “If you want more activity, your regulating plan empowers more density or use. As you move away, you start allowing for less and less intensive uses.”

These zoning changes will allow developers to build a wider variety of homes and buildings in downtown Mesa, turning an already thriving daytime shopping district into a bonafide neighborhood.

“Smart growth is about choice, and we need to provide smart growth choices in the market,” he says, noting the influx of demand for more walkable and transit-oriented housing options. “With retail at about 85 percent capacity, downtown Mesa is in pretty good shape. But we need additional housing units to promote density to make sure the vibe is sustainable. That’s when you get your barber shops, breakfast places, lunch places filled up throughout the day.”

Mesa’s first discussion on form-based code came up during the development of the Mesa Gateway Strategic Plan for southeast Mesa and planning for the Eastmark project at the corner of Elliot and Ellsworth Roads. Through these projects the City Council learned about the benefits form-based zoning can provide for development and redevelopment. When the City began preparing a plan for downtown Mesa to capture the benefits of new light rail stations, the City Council included form-based code as a tool that could help implement that plan.

Form-based code has already found success in helping to revitalize an aging commercial corridor in Duncanville, Texas. In this southern suburb of Dallas, the two most recent projects in the area have increased in value from $130,000 to $1.8 million. Retail rents have increased from $6 per square foot to $16, and market rate rents, which did not previously exist, are $1.20 per square foot.

Richins sees similar economic benefits for a form-based code in Mesa. “The code will enable existing property owners to recognize the full value and potential of their property,” he says.

The changes come at a great time for Mesa. The City’s first light rail extension is already underway, and code changes make shopping and working downtown even easier. The final draft for form-based coding in Mesa is complete; the Mesa City Council will vote on the issue in the coming months.

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