As Development Grinds Ahead In Mesa, Longtime Locals Are Getting Left Behind

Pedro Contreras fears he will have to close his longtime Mesa restaurant.
Pedro Contreras fears he will have to close his longtime Mesa restaurant. Katya Schwenk
For seven years, Pedro Contreras has stood behind the counter of Pedrito’s Mexican Food, a charming, hole-in-the-wall taco joint located on the edge of Mesa's downtown strip. It's a neighborhood destination for authentic street food and fish taco specials.

Soon, though, Contreras may be forced to shut his doors — a result, ironically, of Mesa's fervent downtown revitalization efforts.

This summer, Pedrito's Mexican Food was issued a litany of city code violations, Contreras says. Some were relatively minor. The city says that a flag strung up outside the restaurant and the bright red signage painted across his windows that reads “TAQUERIA" must be removed. But other complaints required more expensive fixes: An overhang was too low. There were cracks in his asphalt. Each levies a $500 fee if not addressed within two weeks (the city tells Phoenix New Times that the time frame is flexible).

Contreras, a renter who's already struggling with the pandemic's impact on his business, cannot afford to pay those fees. And his landlord (who did not reply to New Times’ inquiries) is refusing to foot the bill unless Contreras accepts a major rent hike. Leaving is beginning to look like his only option.

“They want to clean everything up,” Contreras said in Spanish, looking out over his restaurant, which is full of soccer memorabilia and bright decor. “Not just here — all around the neighborhood."

For years, as neighboring Valley cities built high-rises, development in downtown Mesa was practically nonexistent. No market-rate, multi-family housing was built in the city for more than three decades, according to Jeff McVay, the city's current manager of downtown transformation.

These days, it’s hard to go a block in downtown Mesa without running into construction: New housing complexes, new storefronts, new restaurants. The area is booming. McVay expects more than a thousand new housing units to come on the market as a result of efforts of the last year. The city says that, at long last, it's luring the kinds of tourists who have long confined themselves to better-known districts like Old Town Scottsdale.

Until recently, gentrification and displacement in downtown Mesa weren't much of a concern. Mesa Mayor John Giles even told New Times as much in February: "I think in some ways, we aspire for gentrification."

But some residents are beginning to see the downside of Mesa's fixation on growth. They say they are now watching small businesses and residents of the city’s historically Latino neighborhoods, like Contreras, being pushed out.

According to some critics, like Ryan Winkle — a longtime Mesa resident and the director of Rail CDC, a local community development organization — the efforts seem intentional.

“This is effective, purposeful displacement, using city tools like zoning,” Winkle told New Times.

Contreras' situation is a part of a larger crackdown in Mesa's downtown district. In this area, public data shows, code violations issued by the city are up more than 400 percent over the three years prior. The city is even requesting that some businesses take down banners advertising their business that the city itself gave out to those businesses last year as part of an effort to promote small businesses during the pandemic.

“They didn’t like the flag they gave me,” Dorian Lenz, owner of the National Comedy Theatre, told New Times. Mesa asked him to remove other signage as well. Lenz said the effort was unprecedented in his years of working downtown. 

The data also shows a dramatic spike in code violations issued in the residential neighborhoods just south of Mesa's downtown this year. These are historically Latino neighborhoods. They are also poorer, and, for years, have seen little investment from the city. The two census tracts that encompass these southside neighborhoods, according to the data, each saw a bigger rise in code violations than almost any of the more than 75 census tracts in the city. In most other tracts, in fact, violations went down this year.

“These are neighborhoods where we're starting to see transitions and major investments,” says Augie Gastelum, who lives just south of downtown. "But when you're finally investing in a neighborhood, the goal should be to positively impact the people who live in the neighborhood that you've neglected for a generation or two."

Gastelum grew up in Mesa. In a way, he says, he is glad to see attention paid to the long-neglected south neighborhoods in the city. But he fears that the residents — his community — will be pushed out before they can benefit. "The most likely scenario is that they will be displaced," he says.

Gastelum has worked alongside Winkle and Rail CDC to track disparate enforcement in Mesa’s neighborhoods — to try to head off that displacement and to protect the city’s small businesses. But it’s a difficult task. Development in Mesa, like elsewhere in the Valley, is barreling forward.

The city, for its part, denies that it has embarked on any intentional cleanup spree in Mesa’s residential neighborhoods. Ryan Russell, the city’s code compliance administrator, told New Times that any uptick in enforcement was likely due to complaints that the city had received — although the city has issued hundreds more violations over the last nine months than usual.

The city does admit to an intentional enforcement effort in the downtown strip — though Russell insists it's not intended to be punitive. When asked about Contreras’ case, he noted that other businesses were "appreciative" of the code compliance efforts, as the project was forcing some landlords to make needed investments in their properties.

“We just want the downtown to be a vibrant area that people want to come to,” Russell said. “And make it very successful for all these business owners.”

Residents remain skeptical. Some feel they are being targeted. Rents in the downtown area are already rising, a fact McVay acknowledges is “largely, if not fully, attributable to the new developments coming in.” One transitional housing provider in Mesa told New Times that it had begun to see significant increases in requests for help over the last three months.

On Gastelum’s quiet, tree-lined street, a few blocks south of the downtown strip, there have been more police regularly patrolling — which is out of the ordinary, he says. “Especially for a certain segment of the population, that's a really scary thing,” he said. Neighbors have come to him fearful, he said.

When asked about the increased policing in the area, the city pointed to a new policing initiative, launched this summer, that has a renewed focus on "high-density violent crime areas" throughout the city. This year, according to data the department provided, Mesa police assigned five new patrol officers to the city’s central district, which encompasses Mesa’s southside neighborhoods and the downtown; last year, eight new bike cops were added to the district.

“They like to play ignorant,” Gastelum said of the city. “But there's no way that you can be taking these actions and not realize the implication.”

Deirdre Pfeiffer, a professor of urban planning at ASU, told New Times that fines and costs from neighborhood cleanups “if they accumulate over time, could affect people’s ability to pay for housing." Studies have also confirmed that “overzealous or insensitive” code enforcement can prompt displacement.

"The whole idea behind this plan is probably to increase property values in the area," she said.

Gastelum and community organizations like Rail CDC say they want to see more active attention to the issue from Mesa — to see a plan to preserve the city's character and communities. McVay says that this is already a priority. "We have a Subway and a Jimmy John's and those are the only real chains in our downtown," he said. "We want that. We believe in that."

Winkle isn't so sure. Standing outside of Pedrito's Mexican Food last week, he laughed at the idea that his taco joint was any kind of priority for the city’s officials.

“They don’t eat here,” he told New Times. “They don’t know that on Sundays, he makes barbacoa and consomé — which is amazing.”

His organization is trying to help Contreras find the funds to move forward, even without his restaurant. Contreras is planning to transition his business to a food truck if he has to end his lease. For now, at least, he won't be leaving Mesa behind.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Katya Schwenk is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. She previously reported for VTDigger and the Indypendent.
Contact: Katya Schwenk