Balancing Past and Future


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The City of Mesa used GIS technology to visualize and analyze the planned development of a light rail line by creating a 3D model of the city.

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Balancing Past and Future

  1. 1. Balancing Pastand FutureUsing 3D GIS analysis to route light railthrough historic MesaBy Cory Whittaker, City of Mesa, Arizona The Valley Metro Light Rails Sycamore In December 2008, the Valley rail is a catalyst for transit-oriented de-Station in Mesa has had the highest velopment of nearby properties.ridership of any station in the light rail Metro Light Rail system debut-system. The proposed route takes the light ed in the Phoenix Metro area. rail line through the heart of down- [Valley Metro Rail Inc., a nonprofit town Mesa to cultural venues such as public corporation, operates a the Mesa Arts Center and the Arizona high-capacity transit system in Museum of Natural History. The route this region.] In the months that fol- also passes through the historical lowed, the City of Mesa’s single center of the city of Mesa, where build- ings and places of historic significance— station had more passengers than some listed on the National Register of any other stop on the system. Historic Places—are located. To better understand how this project When this trend continued, Valley would interact with the nearby historic Metro decided to expand the light buildings, 3D GIS visualization tools rail system through downtown Mesa. were used. These tools gave decision This announcement was seen as a vic- makers and the public a virtual view of tory for revitalization efforts in the city. what downtown Mesa might look like Neighboring cities have seen that light after the light rail system was completed.22 au Summer 2012
  2. 2. Focus: TransportationModeling Downtown Mesa inventorying and estimating the heightsBefore the light rail expansion was of all non-single-family buildings. Thisproposed, the City of Mesa GIS staff inventory established a starting pointconducted a pilot project to assess for constructing virtual buildings.the feasibility of modeling downtown Data for the inventory was collectedMesa in 3D given existing departmen- in two ways. For some site locations,tal resources. This happened just as the original, detailed building plans wereeconomy began to nosedive and budg- readily available, and these were usedets were shrinking. Staff used readily to create individual building structuresavailable software to render Mesa City that were accurate down to the inch.Plaza in 3D with minimal effort and cost, For buildings that predated the city’sdemonstrating to city management that founding, no plans were available, somodeling buildings in 3D was not only oblique aerial photos were used tofeasible but that staff members had the digitize these buildings. Althoughnecessary skills. The results could be these buildings were not as accurate aseasily imported into the City of Mesa’s ones created using detailed plans, theyexisting Esri-based GIS system. were sufficiently accurate for purposes This successful pilot project provided of analysis. Much time and effort wasthe impetus to begin creating a 3D expended to capture each building inmodel of downtown Mesa. The first step enough detail so that it could be imme-in creating the virtual downtown was diately recognized without a label.  The 3D model of downtown Mesa  Summer 2012  au 23
  3. 3.  This 3D rendering shows the proposed Working with the Community where they would put 4,000 dwellingdevelopment intensity for residential The city needed to establish policies units and 1.8 million square feet of(yellow), commercial (red), and mixed use(purple). The number of stories and lot for development along the light rail nonresidential floor space. Committeecoverage for each is shown. route. Upon completion and approval, members could incorporate their these policies would be organized into grand ideas for downtown Mesa. After a document called the Central Main compiling the results, city planners had Plan. A committee composed of city a blueprint of where and how much planners and local property owners, redevelopment would be possible. business owners, and organizations, Parking lots, a few existing buildings, such as historic neighborhoods and and vacant lots were identified as po- business alliances, was formed to tential redevelopment sites.Being able to see gather different viewpoints from the With the redevelopment areas, community. The committee helped the number of dwelling units, and thehow downtown Mesa city maximize the benefits of the light amount of nonresidential square foot-would look with the rail expansion. age defined for each area, city man-completed light rail The committee performed one key agement requested a 3D GIS analysis exercise, called the Reality Check, using for these areas. Calculations, based onsystem and subsequent the 3D GIS visualization tools to answer the number of dwelling units, squareredevelopment helped four important questions about the footage, land use, and lot coverages,the public see the future development along the light rail showed how tall buildings would need route: to be to fulfill the proposed require-benefits of having this •• Where should infill and redevelop- ments. Buildings at these heights weremode of mass transit in ment occur? displayed in 3D next to existing building •• What areas are off limits tothe city of Mesa. footprints. The three light rail stations redevelopment? and rail tracks associated with them •• What will be the intensity of the de- were also modeled in 3D. This analysis velopment/redevelopment that is explained complex development plan- envisioned? ning criteria to Mesa citizens in an easily •• Is this achievable? digestible format that helped them en- With these questions in mind, com- vision redevelopment potential along mittee members were asked to map the light rail path.24 au  Summer 2012
  4. 4. At first glance, the redevelopment would need to be exercised when rede-  The historic Alhambra Hotel shown withareas had something in common. The veloping this site to ensure that the his- the adjacent proposed redevelopmentmajority of the buildings along the light toric character of the Alhambra Hotel israil route in downtown Mesa front along preserved.the street with large parking lots behind Light rail expansion through down-them. Because most of the proposed town Mesa spawned a significant 3Dredevelopment is slated for these park- GIS effort that also provides potentialing lots, they are a blank canvas for benefits in other areas of the city. Withdowntown revitalization efforts. this information in GIS, the city can conduct viewshed and line-of-sightSeeing Today and Tomorrow analyses. City of Mesa Police and FirePreserving the historic character of departments want to use the 3D modeldowntown Mesa was a key priority. The in strategic planning for special eventsAlhambra Hotel was built in 1893 and is in downtown Mesa. The 3D model oflocated in the heart of downtown Mesa. downtown provides the flexibility andAlthough it was partially destroyed opportunity to model building interiorsby fire, the building was added to the for asset management, real estate re-National Register of Historic Places in quirements, or similar purposes.1993. No longer a hotel, it still has his- Being able to see how downtowntoric value and is located just south of Mesa would look with the completedthe light rail route, next to a large park- light rail system and subsequent rede-ing lot that is the site of a proposed velopment helped the public see thesix-story building with 90 percent lot benefits of having this mode of masscoverage. The proposed building, transit in the city of Mesa. This projectnearly three times taller, would dwarf has also opened the minds of city lead-the Alhambra and possibly harm its his- ers and citizens to the benefits of 3D GIStoric value. analysis for standard city operations. Without a 3D GIS view, the magni-tude of the disparity in the heights of About the Authorthese buildings would be lost. With this Cory Whittaker, GISP, is a GIS specialistvisualization, it was clear that caution for the City of Mesa, Arizona.  Summer 2012  au 25