In March, downtown residents took a beautiful stroll through downtown Mesa with a critical eye towards what makes downtown such a wonderful place to walk – and where improvements might be made. Our route took us through about 1.75 miles of downtown, including 1st Avenue, the Mesa Arts Center, Main Street, 1st Street, Site 17, Mesa Public Library, Mesa Convention Center, and more.
Along Macdonald, we documented a number of physical hazards that have gone unnoticed or unrepaired for years and had received a number of complaints from members of the sight-impaired community. We reported these to our partners at the Downtown Mesa Association and the City of Mesa and fortunately appear to have been quickly taken care of.
It was important not only that these potential dangerous situations were remedied quickly, but were fixed in the right way. In this case, just covering the tree grate would solve the safety issue, but not solve the problems of lack of shade. The wise course would be to solve the problem of a missing tree with a new tree, and moving the electric box, rather than removing it.
1) Immediately plant trees in the two dangerous spaces. (Update: As of 4/7/17 trees are being planted in four empty tree wells).
2) Move the electrical boxes or shield them in such a way that they are not a hazard – it is important to retain the electrical boxes in this area.
3) Transportation should review sidewalks and paths in their jurisdiction to ensure issues like these are taken care of in a pro-active manner. According to participants, these issues have been present for years.
A Tree Used to Grow in Mesa
Throughout our walk, we noticed a number of trees missing along the streets – and noted that it’s been many years (perhaps a decade) that they’ve been gone. It’s important that these trees be replaced as soon as possible, because mature street trees that provide important shade and cooling services take many years of quality care and growth to become true amenities. While the Palo Brea that currently line the streets are beautiful and make a strong statement of place with downtown Mesa, other quality street trees can be considered as well. The Palo Brea has proven to be a great street tree, providing dappled shade and stunning yellow blossoms. Unfortunately, improper maintenance has led to a number of issues with the trees, including fragile trunks and limbs – but this is true of all street trees. Proper maintenance is essential.
Some discussion was made about trees blocking signage of businesses, the idea of replacing all the trees at once, or of using palm trees. Street trees need to be broad enough to provide shade to people in the area – and the service they provide of shade, beauty and cooling increase the number of people that will linger in a space, greatly outweighing any inconvenience of signage being blocked. Signage can easily be moved to a more visible space. Care should be taken to replace trees when they die or are damaged and not leave ‘missing teeth’ in our urban shade canopy. Replacing all the trees with the same type or all at the same time means greater chances for failure, and a lack of shade for years. Palm trees are high-water use plants, do not provide shade, are dangerous and expensive to maintain – and should be avoided at all costs.
In other areas that are outside of the pedestrian overlay, encourage private businesses or homeowners to plant trees – especially along 1st Ave and 1st Street.
1) Immediately replace missing street trees with new trees that will match or complement the existing tree palette, providing a quality canopy of shade in the summer. (Update (4/7/17): At least four new trees have been planted in empty tree wells.
2) Encourage property owners to plant and care for street trees outside of the pedestrian overlay district.
Begging to Cross
As we continued on our walk, we noticed that at many intersections a person must request to cross the street if they’re walking, but not if they’re driving. At all intersections, people should not have to request to cross the street. These so-called ‘beg-buttons’ are often ignored, leading to potential problems, or create a disincentive to walk. This encourages so called ‘jay-walking,’ which has its own sordid history in America’s cities, taking away streets from people.
Recommendation: Immediately reprogram pedestrian signals to automatically allow crossings, without a beg button – especially across Main Street in the business district/pedestrian overlay area and at other intersections.
Lauding Quality Design
Along First Avenue, we noticed that the new sidewalk in front of the Encore buildings was very attractive and felt inviting to walk along. Lessons from this area of streetscape should be utilized for all future streetscape design.
Use the Encore on 1st streetscape as an example of quality design for new development.
Is the Answer Always a Sidewalk?
Walking along Drew St, we noticed the sidewalks weren’t complete and were missing in some places (even dead-ending directly into a telephone pole). As the conversation continued, it shifted from the idea of just adding a sidewalk to one of recasting this low-volume street into a ‘shared space’ or ‘shared street’ – a street that is usable by all people using all modes of transportation. Drew is a perfect potential street that could have many uses. Already used to great success, increased safety and economic return, Drew may be the perfect place for this – meeting the needs of the students at Heritage Academy, local businesses and more. Drew could be a perfect connection from 1st Ave to Main Street, but is currently unattractive to many users.
Investigate converting Drew Street between Main Street and 1st Avenue into a true shared space.
A Pedestrian Corridor
Between City Hall and the Jimmy’ Johns, there’s a walking path that travels from 1st Avenue, through the Arts Center, past light rail, the Library, all the way to the Convention Center and Mesa Amphitheater.
Because the path meanders a little, sightlines don’t tell you where the path leads, even though it could be an important pedestrian connector. Consider adding signage at the light rail station and at various waypoints to show people where this pathway leads.
Also, it was noticed how attractive and pleasant it was along the path between the library and the post office, as well as the green open space on the north side of the library – and how this is a truly underutilized space for events and activities.
Add signage to the pathway at meaningful areas denoting what’s ahead. Consider programming the pathway adjacent to the Library with library /literary events.
Issue RFP for an experienced, quality master developer that understands housing in a downtown setting near transit (transit-oriented development), requiring a net density of 20 du/acre or higher.
A Welcoming Downtown
Walking south from Pepper, we noticed one of the colonnades along the CenturyLink CoLo could have a simple sign painted or installed to show that it’s an easy connection from the Pepper Garage to Main Street businesses. In addition, moving the DO NOT ENTER sign so it’s more visible for vehicles and less visible for pedestrians would be an easy change to make the pathway more attractive.
When opportunities arise to use simple signage to create a more welcoming downtown, take them.
Where do I Put My Bike?
We noticed in a number of places that there were not bike racks near businesses, leading people who ride their bikes to attach to other convenient structures.
Increase the number of bike racks available within a visible and convenient distance of businesses.
1st Avenue Streetscape
After our walk, we retired to a downtown business and discussed our walk and other ideas. Discussion included the proposed 1st Avenue street redesign and how much we enjoyed the Encore on 1st streetscape, as well as that of the Mesa Urban Garden. The wildflowers and gentle desert landscaping, if replicated along the street, could make 1st Ave into an iconic corridor in the valley.
Use the LID project in front of the Mesa Urban Garden as a guideline for the 1st Avenue Streetscape design.
What’s Going On?
Another topic was that there is no good place to find out what’s happening downtown. Each organization hosts their own calendar, and community events are ‘hit or miss’ in getting them added – there also isn’t a physical place to see all that’s happening. A suggestion was made to create a community bulletin board of some type and find a business on Main Street that would adopt it.
Find a location or business that would host a community bulletin board in front of their building.
What is a Walking Audit?
Walking Audits are an assessment of the accessibility and ‘walkability’ of a particular area. These walks allow people of all ages and abilities to directly experience and observe what’s working and what’s not along a particular route. These audits are important because they let community members understand our shared values in the community – we want our communities to be safe, we want them to be healthy, and connected.
Popularized by Dan Burden of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, walking audits have been used many tens thousands of times across the US and North America to show the opportunities and limitations we have placed on our own community by our built environment. They can be led by engineers, teachers, planners, architects, moms, dads, CEOs, kids, and more – anyone who cares about building strong, safe communities for our future.
You can find out more about walking audits and why walkability is so important to our community, at the following websites:
Vitalyst Health Foundation – vitalysthealth.org
Arizona 2017 Year of Healthy Communities – livewellaz.org
Walkable and Livable Communities Institute – walklive.org
AARP Livable Communities – aarp.org/livable
Walk Score – walkscore.com