Mesa wants to shake down messy yard criminals?
Merchants who remain on East Main desperate for revival
by Art Thomason - Feb. 9, 2011 10:25 AM
The Arizona Republic
From scores of vacated commercial outlets to burned-out buildings and empty lots, stretches of Mesa's east Main Street are a blighted testament to poor land-use zoning, overbuilding and an exodus of retailers to the malls.
The mostly modest shops and services that remain are desperate for help, hoping for revival with infill redevelopment despite the fact that the city has few tools available to deal with some of the worst symptoms.
Decline rooted to fast growth
"No one is going to invest in an area with boarded-up windows," said Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, who is leading an effort near the west end of town to revitalize the Fiesta District, once the city's most vibrant retail marketplace.
Ten miles east, Tara Treadway stood in her office about a block from a motel that was gutted by fire 15 months ago. She sees all the attention paid to the Fiesta District and wonders why the Main Street eyesore in her neighborhood hasn't been razed.
"If your house burned down in a neighborhood, you'd have to remove the mess," said Treadway, who manages an insecticide company. "So why doesn't the city have a law requiring businesses to do the same thing?"
That thought occurred to City Councilman Alex Finter two years ago when he asked city administrators to seek legal tools to demolish such buildings, with or without the owner's consent.
Finter later found support from Councilman Scott Somers in the quest to clean up neighborhoods and pave the way for redevelopment, but that's as far as it got.
Their proposal has yielded no remedies, and what's left of the San Dee Motel still stands just west of Power Road, one of the city's most traveled arteries and link to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, Arizona State University Polytechnic and Chandler-Gilbert Community College. A chain-link fence surrounds the demolished structure, its collapsed, asphalt-shingle roof, broken windows and open doors.
City officials are hoping to have the motel torn down in the near future, said Christine Zielonka, director of the Mesa Development and Sustainability Department.
She said the city could use federal Community Development Block Grants to raze the structure and put a lien on the property to recover that money from the property owner.
"We have been working with the City Attorney's Office to make sure that we first jump through all the legal hoops," Zielonka said.
But across the street from the motel, a gas station that has been vacant for months is surrounded by another chain-link fence. And within a block, a single-story building with boarded-up windows has been vacant for a year. An empty lot just to its west is littered with weeds.
A mile west, Buckhorn Baths, the once-famed spa and Mesa landmark, is deteriorating from old age and its closing a decade ago.
The 15-acre site, which opened in 1935 as a trading post, is up for sale, and there is interest among family members and local preservation groups to restore the complex.
"The problem is how long it takes to accomplish that and what the property looks like during that period," Somers said. "Many of these dilapidated and outdated buildings don't have any hope of new life."
Other examples of abandonment and neglect are plentiful, but efforts to revitalize marketplaces are also not hard to find.
"If there were more places like this that are kept up with the 50- to- 60-year-old feel I would come back more often," said Barbara Wagner of Gilbert after shopping at Sun Valley Plaza, a recently refurbished, 107,000-square-foot shopping center at 7246 E. Main.
The center's owner, developer Michael Pollack, said "extremely creative" uses of commercial outlets and turning unproductive property into high-density residential units could put East Main back on its feet.
"Main Street needs more people living along or near it to support the businesses," he said.
But the city needs to step in to attack blight, he said, a problem that Smith said Mesa is virtually powerless to stop.
"The city should surely have the ability to tear down those structures as soon as the property owner settles with the insurance company," Pollack said.
But it doesn't work that way in Mesa, which has historically been reluctant to tell individual owners what they can and can't do with their property.
"Some cities have stringent codes, and they have the ability to go in and force things to happen," Smith said. "Some cities are very aggressive. Historically, Mesa has not been very aggressive."
It was only in 2009 that the city, with voter approval, authorized inspectors to check the interiors of rental properties suspected of being unsafe, he said.
"Now, we are seeing the effects of burned-out property, and people look at it and see that if property owners don't do anything it has the effect of dragging down an area," Smith said.
How other cities attack blight
• Chandler will use a new Voluntary Demolition Program in which owners have to request the demolition and agree to pay one-fourth the cost. The remainder is financed through federal grant funds.
Property owners also must be current on their taxes and agree to keep the parcel clean and weed-free afterward.
• Phoenix confronts some of its blight with a neighborhood-preservation ordinance that authorizes demolition of unsafe buildings after notice is given to the owner and filed with the county recorder.
• Glendale has teamed with two non-profit groups to buy and renovate vacant homes with federal funds and then sell them.