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Reviving the heart of Tempe: The Downtown Tempe Refresh initiative

Tempe is in the midst of 'refreshing' its downtown area with art, shade and pedestrian-friendly elements


"Three Blacktail Jackrabbits," statue in front of Pedal Haus Brewery off of Mill Avenue in Tempe on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023.

The City of Tempe will soon revamp and renovate the Historic Mill Avenue area with new streetscapes, lighting, shade and other aesthetic features through a "Refresh Tempe" capital improvement plan that kicked off in 2022. 

The Downtown Tempe Refresh is bringing the necessary infrastructure to the area. But when the Mill Avenue portion of the project begins, the city will focus on improving the pedestrian experience through practical design elements.

Various projects are going into the Refresh initiative, such as adding "urban living rooms," string lighting, more murals and public art installations along Mill Avenue. 

READ MORE: A 'Tall Order': The guide to coffee shops in Tempe and downtown Phoenix

"Many of the Downtown Tempe renovations are part of the Refresh Tempe effort," according to the City of Tempe website. "The program aims to add and maintain Tempe amenities and infrastructure in order to improve quality of life for all community members."

Art along Mill Avenue

Introducing vibrant murals is a major effort to hearken back to the city's roots in arts and culture.

Shelly Seyler, the interim engineering and transportation director for the City of Tempe, said art plays a vital role, particularly murals and mosaics.

"A big part of our projects include murals, and this particular project is looking at the opportunity to incorporate mosaics at the corners," Seyler said. "Artists are also a big component, and they make the downtown area interesting too."

Pedestrian accessibility

Building upon this transformation, one project within the initiative focuses on enhancing pedestrian crosswalks to make the downtown area more accessible and safer for all community members.

The "all-pedestrian" crosswalk phase is being piloted at intersections like Fifth Avenue and Mill Avenue, changing how pedestrians and vehicles share the road. 

Lori Foster, the interim Downtown Tempe authority president, said the city prioritizes pedestrian safety.

"It's going to improve the pedestrian experience, the experience for employees that work down here, as well as residents," Foster said. "It's going to make our downtown more walkable and more comfortable at all times of the year with shade and safety."

According to Foster, the Refresh Tempe effort is expected to attract more visitors, boost local businesses, and enhance the overall energy of the community by creating a safer and more inviting environment.

As a part of the general strategy driving the "Downtown Tempe Refresh" initiative, there is a strong commitment by the city to enhance the condition of the streets. The primary goal is to create safer streets more conducive to pedestrian activity. 

"From a walking and cycling perspective, (the streets) are not friendly, and they are not safe," School of Community Resources & Development professor Mark Roseland said. 

"The streets were not designed for human scale," Roseland said. "They were designed for automobiles. That's because they're so wide. People drive faster on those large roadways than they would on narrower ones, which is why they are so dangerous.

Combating heat with shade

Amidst these comprehensive efforts, addressing the challenge of extreme Arizona heat becomes vital to ensuring that the revitalized downtown area remains comfortable year-round.

Seyler said the initiative is aware of the escalating temperatures in the area and recognizes the importance of minimizing heat-related risks for residents and visitors. 

"We know that temperatures in Tempe are continuing to climb," Seyler said. "We want to mitigate that as much as possible through incorporating shade structures and using tree canopies to make the area more pleasant during the summer."

Like many other dry areas, the urban heat island effect poses a significant risk in Arizona. 

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the urban heat island effect occurs when cities get much hotter than the areas around them because of buildings and roads that trap heat.

High temperatures in urban areas can create uncomfortable and potentially hazardous conditions, making initiatives like the "Downtown Tempe Refresh" essential in addressing this challenge.

"Mill Avenue is a big attraction for ASU students, so I think that the refresh movement will be beneficial because it will likely enhance the overall appeal of the area," Rishik Chaudhary, a sophomore supply chain management and data analytics major, said.

Edited by Grey Gartin, Walker Smith and Shane Brennan

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