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EDITOR'S DESK: Tide turns for development on the Mesa

       By Kenyon Jordan

       About a year and a half ago, I laid into the Mesa Road neighborhood for pushing City Council to limit the property rights of First Evangelical Free Church in its plan to buy the southeast corner at Mesa and Fillmore for a future church site.
       That still burns me, but I've got to give credit where credit is due.
       And the truth is, that Mesa bunch just beat city hall again… only this time I think all of us on the Westside are going to gain from it.
       Before going into details, I want to offer a related side note. Yes, we're all Westsiders - I hear it often said with pride - but that comes with a catch. We tend

not to get excited unless an issue has a direct effect on our own little areas. I don't mean that as a criticism. I think it's human nature.
       The point is that the vast area known as the Mesa - a rugged, largely open, sometimes scenic expanse extending roughly to Kissing Camels, down to Sondermann Park and east of Mesa Road to Mesa Springs - had been heading, piece by piece, toward a future of eye-opening urbanization… but nothing was happening to change it. The locations were too scattered, with not enough people living close by to make a difference. The 12-story hospital plan on Centennial north of Fillmore raised some eyebrows, but a mile or so south of there, across from the VA Clinic on Centennial, almost no one but prairie dogs were close enough to receive postcards from the city about a concept for office/commercial that included the removal of a hillside overlay zone and shaving a 50-foot knoll down to half its size.
       Accentuating all that, I need to add, has been a current city trend pushing growth. "Infill" is the code word for building up areas that aren't on the city's outskirts, and (in a separate initiative) City Planning is asking City Council for more streamlined ways to do it. (Update: Council passed the infill initiative on first reading March 8, despite “no” votes from Don Knight and Keith King, who represent the two districts including the Westside, with Knight concerned that the document as written diminishes neighborhood influence.)
       I don't mean to sound like someone who opposes development. It's the key to economic vitality, after all. But I do like balance, and if the Mesa were a pendulum earlier this year it would seem to have swung decidedly to the framing-and- sheetrock side.
       It was at this juncture that the latest Mesa project plan was submitted. A retirement-home company based in Texas proposed a complex atop a ridgeline that included a building 67 feet tall. Once again, the city sent out its postcards (they typically go to addresses within a 500-foot radius), but only a small pocket of residents was in the vicinity. That meant few objections, so no public meetings were held. On top of that, city staff used the magic “infill” word, a majority of Planning Commission agreed, and all looked rosy going to council.
       But luckily for us, the Mesa Road residents are an outward-looking bunch, always on the alert for threats to what they define as the “rural character” of their area, consisting of large, low-key homes on large lots. They call it the Rawles Open Space Neighborhood (ROSN), having named it after the seven-acre open space in their midst. They even took the extraordinary step of writing their own neighborhood master plan, then wrangling it through city bureaucracy for four years before finally gaining approval from City Council.
       So, as you might imagine, when the Rawles residents realized they could see the planned ridgetop retirement complex from their backyards, even though it was across a canyon more than a mile away, they were not about to shrug it off.
       So was that the concern that won the day? Hardly. The Rawles people knew they'd have to dig deeper for an appeal. They researched the city's Comprehensive Plan and found the Holy Grail in its Chapter 6. They were able to show that planning staffers, in their infill zeal, had only been using the parts of the Comprehensive Plan favoring development (never mind the design). But Chapter 6 talks about the philosophical side of building, mainly how construction should fit in with natural surroundings and scenic amenities.
       Convinced by this argument, City Council agreed to send the plan back to Planning Commission. Still, the Rawles gang left nothing to chance. They organized a big meeting - over 100 people in attendance - to discuss how the Mesa should be developed going forward. Big surprise: Everyone there liked Chapter 6.
       One person took care to write down the individual ideas, but to my mind the important thing was the show of strength. Sure enough, at Planning Commission, the retirement home architect unveiled a new, shorter, less intrusive design. And there to speak in support was none other than Rawles leader James Kin.
       Does this mean I think the “battle for the Mesa” is won? Hardly. There are plenty of building sites left and many eager builders. But it's clear that they'll have to go through the Rawles group first… our unlikely guardian angels.

(Posted 3/15/16; Opinion: Editor's Desk)

       Kenyon Jordan is the editor of the Westside Pioneer.

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