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Meridian mayor: ‘We’ll never grow ourselves out of congestion’

No Treasure Valley city has grown the way Meridian has over the past quarter-century.

In 1990, Meridian’s population was 10,308 — about the size of Burley. Today, it’s the second-largest city in Idaho, slightly larger than Nampa, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 estimates, which put its population at 90,739.

Mayor Tammy de Weerd, a fourth-generation Idahoan, has held Meridian’s highest office for 13 years. She has received awards for her work with families and children, for involving teens in local government and for substance-abuse prevention. And she has overseen growth that more than doubled her city’s population. Growth tends to foster prosperity, and vice versa.

But it brings problems. The most commonly cited is traffic. People hate congestion and spending half their weekday afternoons in parallel rows of cars that barely move.

Some 1,500 apartments are planned, under construction or recently built near the corner of Eagle Road and Fairview Avenue, the city’s primary retail and leisure corridor. That is evidence that the city is in transition, de Weerd says. Where it once was a bedroom community — she hates that term — Meridian now is a place where residents also work and recreate.

The mayor wants to build on that without abandoning the family-oriented living that made Meridian what it is today. For every apartment or other home in a multifamily dwelling that Meridian has, it has more than twice as many single-family homes as the rest of Ada County.

Jobs and balance are keys to sustaining Meridian’s growth while minimizing its problems, de Weerd says.

Here are excerpts from a recent Idaho Statesman conversation with the mayor:

Q: What values are most important to people who live in Meridian?

A: When I knock on someone’s door and they open it and they want to talk, they’re proud of where they live. And that excites me. They live in safe neighborhoods. They love their schools. They love our parks. And what is ultimately really important is that they feel safe. And they feel safe here. It’s a family-oriented community that has a focus on our kids, and that’s who we are.

Q: Any specific policies you’ve been a part of have helped foster that safety?

A: One of those is our Impact Team [a group of detectives that uses data and proactive policing to prevent crime]. That is a group that specifically works with different neighborhoods. They don’t look at the symptoms. They drill down into the root cause. They work a lot with the citizens. And by doing that, we’ve gained greater trust among our citizens. We get phone calls that give us tips in helping us solve crimes.

Q: What challenges have arisen due to Meridian’s growth?

A: Certainly it has expanded the expertise that we’ve needed in both police and fire, in certain types of crimes, in certain types of fire prevention knowledge that we need.

Q: Do you hear from your constituents about traffic?

A: Absolutely. We’re the center of the Treasure Valley. I live in west Meridian. I pull out of my subdivision and I think I must live in Canyon County, because I see more 2C license plates on the roads than I do 1A — Ada County — license plates. It shows that, certainly, all roads will travel through Meridian.

And that does add to the congestion. If we were just Meridian alone, we wouldn’t see the enormity of it. Growth has found the Treasure Valley. The best we can do is manage that growth and guide it to where we have the services so that we can address those certain needs the best.

We’ll never grow ourselves out of congestion. But if you can bring services closer to where people are living, if you can make sure that you have workforce choices for people as well, they can work closer to where they live. We want our residents to spend more time with their families, not sitting in traffic.

Q: You’ve told me before that Meridian’s recent surge in multifamily housing projects is a sign that Meridian is evolving as a city. What needs to happen in Meridian so that growth can continue without exacerbating some of these challenges?

A: We try to find a good balance between rooftops and jobs. That’s really important. We feel that the best strategy to congestion, to finding a better balance, is to have family-wage jobs here.

As a city that is growing up, we certainly need to look at growing vertically in the places that have the infrastructure that can support it, but also looking to those opportunities for estate lots. There are people who start out in an apartment and renting. But a number of our residents are families. We have one of the highest ownership rates of homes in the state. That shows you what demographic we have.

Q: Will Meridian continue developing as a destination as well as a place to live?

A: Certainly. We have The Village at Meridian, which certainly is that. They have family-wage jobs there. They have retail. They have services. They have entertainment. And there’s residential [development] around there. [Those residents] don’t have to hop in their car to go and get all that. Those are the things that we’d like to see.

Q: Where does growing vertically instead of horizontally make the most sense? In downtown? Near The Village?

A: That’s yet to be seen. We have our first live-work, loft-style development [downtown] that’s going to start turning dirt in June. And we’re really excited about that. There will be living on top and retail and office.

Really, the higher elevated areas are going to be out in the Ten Mile [Road] area. We did an extensive and comprehensive land-use plan for that location, and that is envisioned to go vertical just right there off the freeway. [The area surrounding the Ten Mile interchange is one of the last remaining undeveloped areas at an interstate interchange in the Treasure Valley. Two major office buildings are planned there now, but the city’s plan envisions a variety of uses, including retail, restaurant and residential space.]

Q: What is the future center of Meridian?

A: Meridian is going to have several different centers, but the heart will always be in the downtown. So you’ll have The Village energy center. You’re going to have the 10 Mile energy center. We’re looking at another one in our northwest area, where we’d like to bring jobs — again, closer to where people are living. And that’s going to have its energy and identity.

But the heart will always be in our downtown. This is the heart and soul of our community. It’s our roots. And it will have, always, a unique and distinctive difference between any of those. This will always be ground zero.

Edited for length and clarity. Sven Berg: 208-377-6275, @IDS_SvenBerg

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