Tempe Marketplace fails urban design

Tempe is certainly no leader when it comes to sustainable design or development that combats urban sprawl. Despite being home to the nation’s first “School of Sustainability” at ASU, the city in recent years has shown a remarkable lack of concern for effective urban planning.

Tempe Marketplace, championed as a crown achievement of “interactive shopping, dining and entertainment,” is a prime example.

Before opening in 2007, the nearly 1,300,000 square foot outdoor mall was home to a federally-designated Superfund site that had accumulated decades’ worth of industrial toxic waste.

Loose regulation and city officials who turned a blind eye had turn a once riparian-ecosystem into a landfill wrought with illegal dumping. Starting in the mid-1990s, a series of feasibility studies on the Salt River’s banks were conducted as part of a federal mandate.

While many portions of the river have been revitalized, largely funded by federal money, the history of this pervasive pollution still lingers. Next to Tempe Marketplace alongside the Loop 202 is one of these revitalization sites.

In his 2011 book, “Bird on Fire,” Andrew Ross explains, replanted trees “give the spot an oasis feel, but those tempted to take their dogs down for a walk are advised to make sure their pets do not drink the water,” due to the “toxic legacy of several hundred dumps” that existed along the river bed.

On top of this “complex Superfund site — the largest brownfield cleanup in the state’s history,” as Ross puts it, are the big-box retail stores that make up the shopping center.

Unfortunately, despite the $30 million clean up, Tempe Marketplace fails as a pedestrian and bicycle friendly destination with efficient urban design.

Limited signage, scattered pedestrian crosswalks and a complete absence of bicycle lanes turn the parking lot into a mess of confusion. Four way stops meant only to accommodate vehicles plague the roads every few hundred feet.

As far as public transportation goes, just forget about it. The Valley Metro Bus passes by every 30 minutes — hardly enough to serve the high volume of visitors the outdoor mall receives.

The very layout of the complex is iconic of our city’s ever-growing need to devour land. Corporate-owned stores that subtract from a unique Tempe identity are sprawled out in an incoherent fashion over the 1.3 million square feet.

A much better use of this reclaimed land would have been to build upwards, with mixed-use structures, therefore maximizing land-use.

A key component of sustainable and efficient design is to incorporate the many different functions that a city serves. Tempe Marketplace hails itself as an “interactive” destination, but there is only one thing to do there — shop at corporate retailers.

Mixed work-live structures, public spaces and consideration for small businesses is sadly lacking. The strict zoning codes that our cities adhere to prevent these types of designs from being implemented.

Developers, city officials and the public fail to see how improperly designed centers like Tempe Marketplace are a threat to our well-being. The dangers that urban sprawl pose are numerous — air pollution, environmental degradation, social inequality, vehicle safety and regional temperatures, only to name a few.

It’s time for our city to grow up and start showing responsibility towards its design.


Reach the columnist at damills3@asu.edu or follow him at @Dan_iel_Mills.


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