Orchard Mesa on the rise
Brenda Negrete, owner of Celestial Water on Orchard Mesa, likes to get a tasty coconut smoothie in customers’ hands.
But the small business owner in a new strip mall bookended by popular Hawaiian and Chinese restaurants worries that her business will never be booming because there isn’t enough commerce in the area.
“Clifton can be kind of ugly, but they have McDonald’s and Taco Bell. All we have is City Market,” Negrete said from her shop at unit 105 2740 U.S. Highway 50. “To have some more stores up here would be nice. Why would I drive 20 minutes from Palisade or Fruita for a smoothie?”
Indeed a number of residents lament that change seems to occur at a sluggish pace on Orchard Mesa, the area roughly south of the Colorado River, extending south to the Gunnison River, and on east to 34 1/2 Road.
“I think it needs more landscaping and more shopping centers,” Negrete added.
U.S. Highway 50 is the major arterial, severing the area by hooking south from the Fifth Street Bridge.
In some small ways, Orchard Mesa is slowly transforming. But that plodding clip is painful for residents, especially when compared to progress slated for two other roadways in Grand Junction, Horizon Drive and North Avenue. Orchard Mesa residents are encouraged to chime in with their thoughts on the future of Orchard Mesa as the city of Grand Junction and Mesa County work to update a plan for the area.
NEW DEVELOPMENT PLAN IN THE WORKS
One of Dave Thornton’s first assignments as a new city planner with the city of Grand Junction was to work with community members to create a plan for Orchard Mesa. But that was 18 years ago. The plan that was drafted in 1995 sunset in 2010.
Thornton again is tasked with collecting input and drafting a new plan. A final draft is due in mid-December, but the document will have wiggle room for edits until it is adopted in late February.
“There were residents that were concerned that we were taking the plan away,” Thornton said. “We said, ‘Let’s take a new fresh look.’”
Some successes from the 1995 plan included the installation of sidewalks along Unaweep Avenue and the creation of Mesa County’s 29 Road Bridge over the Colorado River. Previously, residents had to travel three miles more east on Highway 50 to 32 Road to access the Clifton area. U.S. Highway 50’s owner, Colorado Department of Transportation, installed a new traffic light at 27 3/4 Road, helping to manage traffic heading to the City Market to the north or the Mesa County Fairgrounds to the south.
Despite these baby steps, the elephant in the room continues to be the slapdash character of U.S. Highway 50 on Orchard Mesa. Residents mostly complain that traffic is too fast, there is no landscaping, the roadway is nearly impossible for pedestrians to get across and any kind of pedestrian or bike path is non-existent, Thornton said.
“The biggest thing we heard is, the highway is a barrier,” Thornton said. “It’s like you can see your school from here, but the school district is going to bus you across. What can we do to solve that in an era when we don’t have money for an above-grade bridge?”
For instance, some schoolchildren who live on the north side of U.S. Highway 50 must get to Dos Rios Elementary School, located south of the highway.
Sure enough, Bryan Collings, an employee at Octopus Coffee, 2678 S. Highway 50, near the intersection of Linden Avenue, often sees school-age kids taking chances to cross the highway.
“I’ve heard cars honk wild, blaring honks,” Collings said. “They’re not friendly honks.”
DOING BUSINESS ALONG 50
For the past 50 years, Jerry Derby has been selling Western wear and boots in Grand Junction. But four years ago, he built his shop on Orchard Mesa after moving from the more commercial-heavy area around Carpet One, 360 W. Gunnison Ave.
Derby isn’t shy about complaining that he’s yet to see a return on his portion of taxes to the city of Grand Junction for new development, called Transportation Capacity Payments. Derby said he paid $21,000 in TCP fees on his $400,000 building, Rocky Mountain Hats and Boots, 2718 U.S. Highway 50.
“I’d gladly pay it if my customers didn’t have to shop in the weeds,” Derby said, referring to the scrubby roadside.
In addition to getting some traffic improvements, Derby also advocates for more of a police presence, especially after about $8,000 to $10,000 in pricey, alligator and ostrich skin boots and jewelry were stolen last spring.
“I think we need more police out here but we don’t have enough police officers,” he said.
Thirty-five year Orchard Mesa resident Vicki Felmlee agrees that U.S. Highway 50 could use a face-lift.
“It’s not very attractive, we know that,” she said. “One person told me all Highway 50 does is get people to one area of Orchard Mesa to another as fast as possible.”
While CDOT — and not the city — owns the roadway, the city can play a role in sprucing it up. Landscaping and some sort of welcoming entrance is planned for the slopes of the B 1/2 Road overpass. Another idea is to transform the overpass to a one-way route for motorists and allow pedestrians on the other side. That would require CDOT approval.
TRAILS AND SPACE, AND LIVING ON ORCHARD MESA
Orchard Mesa is rich in open space, which is one reason that residents tend to stick around, Felmlee said.
“I think that people tend to forget that we have two rivers and one of those is the Gunnison River,” she said. “The views are spectacular. We do have to tell people we’re seven minutes from downtown.”
Felmlee, a member of the group Orchard Mesa Neighbors in Action, OMNIA, would like to see a connection between the Colorado Riverfront Trail and the Spanish Trail, a hiking trail with two trail heads. One is in Whitewater and the other is off 28 1/2 Road.
On the commercial side, vacancy rates are higher on Orchard Mesa, at 17 percent, than with any other regional city center.
Mesa County records nearly 6,600 households on Orchard Mesa with homeowner rates higher than in other areas of the city, at about 75 percent.
Residents tend to be younger, with the median age at 34.6 years. Grand Junction’s median age is 36.7 years and Mesa County’s is 38.1 years, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
The exodus of the Choice Hotels call center and its more than 120 employees at the intersection of 27 Road is concerning because those workers helped stimulate the local economy, Thornton said.
However, other additions — like a new, planned 90-unit apartment complex — are hoped to help round out Orchard Mesa’s unofficial hub, east of City Market, he added.
To see the changes of the likes that will occur on North Avenue and Horizon Drive, community members often must first step up and organize, Thornton said. On those corridors, business owners formed districts to collect taxes to improve their respective streets. With that kind of road map in place, the city is able to pursue state and federal grants to pay for infrastructure. Hopefully, after Orchard Mesa completes its planning process, other opportunities to beautify the area will surface, Thornton said.
“It’s like a big stone rolling down a mountain hill,” he said. “It picks up steam as it goes.”
To comment on the Orchard Mesa plan, call Dave Thornton at 244-1450 or Mesa County at 244-1636. Information about the Orchard Mesa plan presentation is on the city’s website at http://www.gjicty.org.