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Plans for major apartment complex in downtown Tempe sparks controversy

A dirt lot is on the northeast corner of University Drive and Farmer is pictured on Sunday, April 17, 2016, where a new apartment complex has been proposed to be built.
A dirt lot is on the northeast corner of University Drive and Farmer is pictured on Sunday, April 17, 2016, where a new apartment complex has been proposed to be built.

Known for its vibrant nightlife, downtown Tempe is a popular place not only for socializing, but it is also where many call home. As the area's population increases, the demand for more housing options is growing.

A new apartment complex might add to the many living options in downtown Tempe, thanks to a new proposal by the Tempe City Council.

The new apartment complex would be built on the northeast corner of University Drive and Farmer Avenue — a now-dirt lot that has been vacant for quite some time. The complex would be 13 stories and include a total of 281 units.

Although the complex might seem like a positive addition to an area sporting the largest university in the country, officials like City Councilwoman Lauren Kuby said she's hesitant of moving forward on the project.

Kuby said the project was approved as a nine-story building back in 2007, but now the complex's developer, Tempe-based Urban Development Partners, wants to update the building to have 13 stories.

“Farmer Ave is a narrow north-south street that has been envisioned as a 'buffer-zone' street between the dense downtown business district and the residential neighborhoods immediately to its west,” Kuby wrote in an email. “The proposed building is out of scale with the neighboring new construction on Farmer and does little to support a pedestrian-activated space, as the developer proposed in 2007.”

Kuby said the apartment would be stand-alone, lacking public amenities and businesses within the complex.

“There is little mixed use, and no workforce housing in the mix, as was proposed in 2007,” Kuby wrote. “Tempe needs to do better, we have only one chance to get it right.”

Kuby also wrote that the apartment proposal would bring about another problem: traffic.

“In fact, the increased traffic load with a 700-space parking garage will negatively impact the neighborhood,” Kuby wrote.

The proposal has yet to have a final vote by the City Council, but local businesses and residents are working on a compromise with the developer to see if certain changes can be made.

“The developer has offered to remove one story,” Kuby wrote. “Neighborhood residents are meeting with the developer to see if a compromise is possible. I'm crossing my fingers, but I am not hopeful.”

Many residents in the area are heavily opposed to the project, like Josh Smusz, who has lived in Tempe on and off since 1999. Smusz said the idea to transform the vacant lot into an apartment complex is nothing new to the residents' ears — but still is something they continue to fight. 

“We’ve been fighting this stuff for a long time," Smusz said. “City Council is too afraid to go against any of these developers." 

Smusz said he wouldn't mind if a new apartment complex was built if it was affordable housing and not 'super luxury condominiums' like other places that have been built in the area. Smusz is worried that the emergence of these new apartments will drive people away from living in downtown Tempe.

“Nobody around here makes that kind of money," Smusz said. "The people and jobs who are moving to Tempe are making $30,000 to $40,000 a year. Really what’s happening over and over again is that people don’t move there—because there's no rich people.”

Smusz said he and other community members will continue to fight against projects like this in the area, but if the proposal passes, it would leave community members would highly upset. 

“It’s a pretty serious issue for us," Smusz said. “These projects will change our landscape if they do get built — forever. They are changes our lives and to our landscape." 

Jay Wisniewski, owner of Caffé Boa on Mill Avenue, said he disagrees with the opposition and thinks more housing will bring more business back to Mill Avenue, rather than Tempe Marketplace.

"I’ve seen ups and downs,” Wisniewski said. “I’ve seen things escape to Tempe Marketplace. It’s starting to come back but its not the way it’s used to be.”

Wisinieski said his business has been at the same location for 22 years and has seen what kind of impact more housing in downtown brings to businesses like his.

“This is supposed to be a live, work and play community,” Wisnieski said. “Those people who are working in those buildings are really living here. They need all kinds of housing.”

English literature sophomore Cianna Leparulo said she lived in downtown Phoenix freshman year, but moved to Tempe because of it’s proximity to ASU. Leparulo thinks the complex would assist students like her, hoping to live by the Tempe campus.

“I think the complex would be a great idea,” Leparulo said. “I know that when I lived downtown my freshman year, I didn't like Taylor Place very much and I wanted to kind of have my own space the following year. Tempe is much more populated and I got more of a college experience once I moved here.”

Related links:

Roosevelt Row building, mural to be replaced by luxury apartments

Mill Ave apartment complex does not accept tenants under 23-years-old

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