Downtown Tempe development in 'adolescent phase'

Some residents watch Tempe grow through the windows of high-rise luxury apartments and from the patios of sleek urban  wine bars. Other residents sneak peeks through the trees that line the front doors of their decades-old homes. 

In March 2015, experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, a relative stranger to Tempe, created what he called a "millennium camera" to document downtown Tempe's growth as a city that serves as a perfect case study in how cities come about and grow. 

The artist revealed his millennium camera at the ASU Art Museum, where its watchful eye will peer across the city for the next 1,000 years. 

“One of my interests in working in Tempe on this project ... was that Tempe is a model of a city that seems to have come into being not by design, but as a matter of momentum, expansion and how population shifts have been taking place in this country,” Keats said. 

Keats said Tempe's makeup as a community within a sprawling metro allows residents to foster relationships that are “more human in scale” than those that exist within the greater Phoenix area.

The question now is whether those relationships are strong and transparent enough to ensure that downtown Tempe is growing in a manner its residents really want to see.

Housing redevelopment

Mary Ann Miller, president and CEO of Tempe Chamber of Commerce, said the city recognizes the need to balance the area's college energy with its corporate class. 

She said many of the upscale housing and business developments downtown cater to millennial graduates who like an energetic urban lifestyle and are looking to live in Tempe long-term. 

Residents who fall on the outskirts of that demographic, like software engineer and Wilson Street resident Rob Biggs, have more complex perspectives on the matter.

Biggs, who has lived on Wilson Street for three years, said development can be good as long as it’s developing for the need that exists. 

“The role of the city isn’t to change the demographic, it’s to serve the demographic that’s already here,” he said. 

We are ready for Tempe to graduate, from PBR to red wine after work. Are you ready to rise?

Posted by Tempe Rising on Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ryan Levesque, Tempe's deputy director of planning, said the city hopes to see and retain a balance within demographics that are looking to rent and own.

“What we’re looking for is that the residential can grow as the market dictates,” Levesque said. “So what is initially an apartment complex could ... ultimately turn into a senior housing facility.”

Urban planning professor Joochul Kim agreed that change in a city depends on the shifting landscape of the market. Kim specializes in community and economic development planning and understands how general city planning comes to pass.

“Although planners can argue for a key age group for a specific area, often times market process dictates how a given area will be developed,” Kim wrote in an email. “In this country, market process influences development more than planners.”

This market process has changed the business landscape of downtown Tempe over the past several years to accommodate a demographic with graduated tastes.

Impact on small business

Snooze CEO David Birzon is thrilled that some of Tempe’s downtown energy has finally shifted off of Mill Avenue and onto places like Farmer and College avenues, where the breakfast place opened in December 2014. 

“We love Tempe as a trade area,” Birzon said. “The whole area has changed and young professionals are staying here. For the first time, there’s development and energy off Mill.”

Both Snooze and neighboring  Postino occupy what was once the University’s Art Annex Building in the 1950s. For places like Snooze that satisfy that young professional demographic, ASU’s urban spread into College Avenue with the additions of the Del E. Webb School of Construction and University Towers has been primarily positive.

Some small businesses in the area unfortunately can’t say the same. 

Boutique Here on the Corner and convenience store  College Corner, both located off of University and College, are set to close their doors at the end of the month. 

Julie Kent, owner of Here on the Corner, said any beef she has about the re-development of the downtown area is not directed at the city, but at the poor way ASU handled itself when managing early construction for the College Avenue Commons, Snooze and Postino early last year.

Kent said her shop took a huge blow in February 2014 after a construction worker dropped by unexpectedly one Friday afternoon to hand her a notice that said her side of the street would be closed to all vehicle and foot traffic, effective the following Monday and extending into August.

“They both sort of pointed fingers,” Kent said. “ASU said the city was supposed to tell us, but the city was saying — which I believe to be true — that it’s up to whoever owns the project to tell the neighboring businesses what’s going on.”

Still, Kent isn’t against these re-development efforts. 

“I’ve always been all for them,” Kent said. “But not the way they’re doing it.”

Biggs echoed her sentiment, said he’d love to see a grocery store go up on the empty lot on Ash Avenue and University Drive, where there have been talks of building a high-rise apartment complex with a  Whole Foods on the bottom.

“I think the city is funding things in the wrong way,” he said. “A grocery store would be a great thing; but there’s another luxury high-rise two blocks away that’s not even full.”

Planning for the future

Levesque said one of the ways the city ensures it is developing in the ways residents desire is by a unique system called Character Area Planning. This method allows city officials to recognize and understand the specific needs and cultures of different areas around the city and tailor planning efforts to meet those needs. 

But in order for development to be truly effective, Kent said people must engage in discussions by attending city council meetings. 

"They can't complain if they're not going to be a part of the process," she added. 

For Keats, the millennium camera is a way to make people aware of their place in a city that is hopefully on its way towards growing into the best version of itself.

"Tempe is an interesting place to try to ... urge it to be the best city it can be through this mechanism by which people are thinking of themselves and their activities, not only in terms of the next election cycle or the next rent check, but in terms of the larger future of the city over generations," Keats said.

Reach the reporter at or follow  @lina_lauren on Twitter.

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