Mesa's Fiesta District Hops on the Unfortunate "Re-Branding" Trend

I like downtown Mesa. Every time I return from there, I have the same thought: Cool. I like the ma-and-pa book shops and antique stores and cafes, all the nice, tidy old strip malls that, rather than being repurposed or reconfigured, are simply still there. Downtown Mesa reminds me of Mill Avenue without the angst and the chain restaurants, and sometimes downtown Glendale but with more cool thrift stores to poke around in.

But things, in the name of progress, are about to change. Because, after two years of hemming and hawing, the Mesa Fiesta District project is back. And this time it's a go.

East Valley business owners began hearing rumblings about a business district revitalization plan in early 2010. Public meetings were held, questions got asked, shopowners complained and were ignored, and now Mesa has launched a plan to create what it promises will be "an economically vibrant, pedestrian-friendly, and active urban destination."

They'll accomplish this in phases, all designed to tie together businesses in the southwestern portion of Mesa, a two-square-mile district defined by the Tempe Canal on the west, Extension Road on the east, U.S.  60 on the south and Southern Avenue on the north. Phase One commences this month, with construction following in 2013. This year, Mesa gets street improvements along Southern Avenue from Alma School Road to Dobson Road, intersection enhancements, monument signs, and "a paseo on the south side of Southern Avenue," whatever that means.

But the real push this year is in renaming this part of town. And so Mesa has begun touting its new Fiesta District in ads and in banners. The city has, in short, hopped onto the national trend in "re-branding" itself — the whole "urban village" craze that's lately being beaten to death by city planners across the country — because no downtown or business district is considered truly successful today unless it has its own logo, an advertising campaign, and banners promising that buildings that are already there will now be better because they're part of a "district."

It's all in the name of public investment, says Patrick Murphy, project manager for the Mesa Office of Economic Development. By creating a more pedestrian-friendly area with better landscaping and a new name, Murphy told me, Mesa will have a renewed sense of place. Which will, he says, lead to increased private investment that will make Mesa more vibrant and more economically viable.

"Right now, there's minimal landscaping and lighting," Murphy says, "and [it's] geared more toward the automobile. We're trying to gear it more toward the pedestrian, to implement a higher density area that will be more appealing."

Murphy and company appear to have missed the Copper Square fiasco of a few years ago. After Phoenix spent more than $4 billion on private and public sector development in downtown's "cultural district," some wiseacre publicist decided that the name "downtown Phoenix" no longer was good enough. And so several city blocks were "re-branded" as Copper Square, a name that never caught on because no one knew what it meant. Or why it was necessary to rename a section of our city just because it had been refurbished.

Today, "Copper Square" is the punch line to a joke about Phoenix's urban revitalization; according to Wikipedia, in response to the Copper Square moniker, "business interests have begun referring to the area by the rather confusing name 'Downtown Phoenix Business Improvement District.'" A visit to the Copper Square website is even more revealing: Nowhere on the site's main page does the name "Copper Square" even appear.

Murphy says he's been asked by disgruntled citizens whether he thinks that putting up banners announcing the Fiesta District will do anything to revitalize the area. "The answer is 'no,'" he says. "But it's a start. It's part of a larger puzzle that will help brand Mesa as more vibrant. Branding is important."

More important, it would appear in early-21st-century America, than uniqueness. And so a big hunk of Mesa soon will become a "district," anchored by a shopping mall (Fiesta Mall! Don't get me started), in hopes that businesses will be lured there by new landscaping and banners and a catchy name. I'm worried this plague will spread and that, eventually, downtown Mesa will stop looking like downtown Mesa and commence looking exactly like every other shiny new business borough you've ever visited. Stay tuned.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela