Since Tempe’s founding, its iconic downtown landmark has been an industrial building that milled grain into flour. Its downtown scene for at least a generation relied largely on college students, bar food and beer. And the neighborhoods around Mill Avenue mostly vanished.
That’s all changing in a way that will transform Tempe’s place in Arizona and nationally. The new iconic image will be not a single building, but instead a cluster of 30-story luxury condos. The social scene is shifting to swanky eateries with celebrity chefs and boutique wines. And the neighborhoods are coming back — vertically. Nearly everything new downtown ranges from eight stories to 30 stories. The whole thing thrills civic leaders and merchants who insist Tempe is joining an elite group of urban cities known for their bustling downtowns.
Yet it horrifies others who see a quaint college town being gobbled up by developers eager to erect hulking monuments that will forever change Tempe’s face.
The opposing camps generally agree on one point: A promise summed up by Ken Losch, one of the men behind the 30-story Centerpoint Condominiums.
“Two or three years from now,” Losch said, “people aren’t going to recognize Mill Avenue.”
Change is now as much a part of downtown Tempe as the historic Hayden Flour Mill. But the building boom is the most rapid transformation in Tempe history. Within 10 years, or perhaps as many as 20 years, the current boom will exhaust itself as nearly every vacant parcel and most modest buildings are turned into high-density urban projects, according to city planners, developers and real estate experts.
Tempe’s downtown is vital because the 42-square-mile city is penned in by other communities. The city of 161,000 has almost no vacant land remaining. That means the only direction it can grow is up.
Looking to the future, the city envisions as many as 5,000 downtown condos, plus more offices, hotels, restaurants and shops. Unlike any other Valley city, the future downtown will be designed to allow residents to meet their everyday needs without a car.
“It’s going to be a real city,” said Rod Keeling, executive director of the Downtown Tempe Community.
“It’s not going to be a suburb of Phoenix. It’s going to be a real city.”
Tempe’s rise may seem natural today.
But the college town’s emergence as a major urban hub came after an embarrassing decline of its downtown, massive subsidies to lure developers and occasional bitterness as developers and city leaders periodically redefine Tempe’s vision.
The development under way now or planned to begin within a year exceeds $1 billion. Nearly 2,000 condos are approved, mostly in high-rises soaring 18 stories or more. Also, two hotels are approved and some landowners are planning major expansions and renovations. That could be the tip of the iceberg, as development officials have occasionally been caught off guard at times over the number of projects and their massive scale.
Historically, Tempe’s downtown has served as a key crossroads in Arizona, from the day Charles Trumbull Hayden arrived on the south side of the Salt River in the 1870s.
He started a ferry to transport people and goods across the then-flowing river. He built an adobe house that still stands and began the mill. The place known as Hayden’s Ferry was a top business post that eventually was dwarfed by Phoenix as the Valley’s center of gravity.
The downtown still flourished as a traditional center of a college town through the 1960s, when urban sprawl began taking its toll on central business districts in Tempe and across the country. For a time, Tempe’s core was known largely for biker bars and drunken brawls.
“It’s not that we were just a little college town,” said Keeling, an Arizona State University student in the early 1970s. “We were a dirtball little college town.”
It had become almost too much for city fathers to bear by 1968. The growing city began considering a new City Hall on the outskirts of the city, in what would have been a symbolic abandonment of downtown.
The City Council decided by one vote to stay downtown. That led to construction of an upside-down pyramid for City Hall — and national attention for its unconventional design.
The pyramid’s 1970 completion triggered a trickle of private developments. Owners restored historic buildings on their own in some cases, but the effort was boosted by city subsidies of major projects that developers considered too risky.
But Tempe has turned off the subsidy spigot in recent years, as private investment carried the momentum. It can now demand developers give money to other city projects as the price of doing business in Tempe.
One or two developers have historically dominated Tempe redevelopment at any given time.
Today, the list of influential developers includes native Canadians Ken Losch and David Dewar of Avenue Communities. They’re working to move their Camelback Corridor headquarters to the Hayden Flour Mill. From there, they’ll coordinate plans to build as many as 5,000 condos in the region surrounding downtown.
Losch is the company’s chief pitchman — and for good reason.
He speaks with an evangelistic zeal about making Tempe like other urban centers — Toronto’s Yaletown or New York City’s SoHo district.
Losch can’t mention other megacities without boasting of plans to make a new hip urban core — SoBo.
That’s short for sophisticated Bohemian, which means historic red brick buildings, glass condo towers, boutique wine and restaurants with European influences.
Losch’s company checked out 200 developments across the nation before settling on Tempe. During a recent tour of the Centerpoint Condominium site, Losch stood on a newly poured foundation of what will become an Italian bakery and rattled off the reasons why he landed in Tempe.
First, he said, there’s Phoenix, the nation’s fifth largest city. ASU, now the nation’s largest university. A massive airport minutes away. Employment opportunities. Access to freeways. Papago Park. The Metro light-rail line. Lots of historic buildings.
“I challenge you to find the confluence of that any other place in the country,” Losch said. “Phoenix now has become a primary city and this place is screaming out for SoBos.”
As for modern design, Centerpoint will eclipse any existing building downtown. But Losch insists he values historic buildings. That’s why he is buying Hayden Flour Mill from Tempe.
He wants to restore the site as his corporate headquarters. He plans to move some milling equipment into a glass enclosure that will let visitors see how grain was processed. And he’s seeking a restaurant that will make flour on site to carry on the mill’s traditions.
The old mill also will house a winery. Avenue Communities has ordered 60,000 pounds of Napa Valley grapes that should arrive in a few weeks and will be made into wine in Tempe.
It might seem a high-end developer would want to crush the quirky elements of this college town. But Losch insists he wants unexpected moments. That could be a guy hitting him up for a buck or a street musician, he said.
Even the Tempe establishment has cautiously embraced the Bohemian side of Mill Avenue. The downtown’s street musicians and sellers of hemp jewelry are technically illegal, but they’re allowed to operate as long as they aren’t too obnoxious.
Keeling loves that. As a selfdescribed former 1970s hippie, he embraces some of the downtown’s wildness. The pro-business, proestablishment side of him also sees the benefit of life on the edge to set downtown apart from the lifeless corporate culture that dominates other shopping and entertainment venues.
“The guy with his guitar and the dreadlocks — that’s Mill Avenue,” Keeling said. “That’s the ‘It.’ ”