For many who visited Chandler's city center over the years, "downtown" was defined as the historic square and little more.
Downtown seemed to dead-end at Boston Street, where building walls and narrow sidewalks seemed to shove pedestrians within inches of traffic whooshing by on Arizona Avenue.
The city hopes that perception changes in November, when a $10 million streetscape project will debut along with wider sidewalks, trees and public art meant to create a new front door to downtown and a more urban character.
At the same time, an $80 million, five-story City Hall will open on Arizona Avenue. Together, the projects will transform the downtown more than nearly any other effort in the city's history, said Teri Killgore, the downtown redevelopment director.
"The City Hall has become something that everybody talks about," Killgore said. "More importantly, it starts to expand our definition of downtown."
The downtown now is thought of as starting at Chandler Boulevard and ending at Boston Street. The street project will extend downtown to Frye Road, and eventually to Pecos Road, she said.
The redevelopment lured Gangplank to ditch its suburban-style offices for the more urban downtown, co-founder Derek Neighbors said. Gangplank is a nonprofit group that offers free space for technology professionals to work, share ideas and develop products - drawing innovative people who crave the kind of environment Chandler is developing, Neighbors said.
"It really encourages walkability and density, and for the creative class and for the type of employees that we're looking to attract and retain, having urban density is key," Neighbors said.
Gangplank moved south of the historic square in July and seemed to be separate from the downtown, Neighbors said. While construction is still underway on wider sidewalks, a common theme is already apparent along Arizona Avenue and it's getting pedestrians to explore areas south of the historic square, Neighbors said.
The wider sidewalks are important to getting people to go south of Boston, said Eileen Brill Wagner, executive director of the Downtown Chandler Community
"If you ever tried to walk down that sidewalk, you were taking your life into your own hands," Wagner said.
She's seen more interest in areas beyond the historic square and figures pedestrians will be more likely to cross Arizona Avenue or walk along it.
"We want downtown to feel integrated and I think the improvements will go a long way toward that," Wagner said.
The projects have generated criticism. Several candidates in this summer's City Council election blasted Chandler for taking out some parking and right turn lanes to make room for the sidewalks and landscaping. Many of the same critics said the City Hall is too big, too costly per square foot and too imposing a structure. Spending so much money in a recession was also questioned. Supporters noted the city had built up funds for the City Hall through 20 years of planning and argue Chandler likely saved millions by starting a project when contractors are eager for work.
For Neighbors, the City Hall signals Chandler is ready for urban buildings - and architecture different from the Spanish colonial.
"I think the City Hall really sets a precedence for art and a more contemporary style of architecture," he said.
The City Hall will be one of Chandler's tallest buildings at 98 feet tall. It includes a parking garage, a new home for the Vision Gallery and a council chambers that's meant to be the centerpiece of a municipal campus. City workers have been in leased buildings downtown for the last 22 years.
The City Hall's stone-clad buildings at 175 S. Arizona Avenue include a water feature in a courtyard, where water from a cooling tower will cascade down a wall. The city expects the campus will earn a gold-level LEED certification, which measures the environmental rating of buildings.
Chandler will unveil the new City Hall and street project Nov. 20 with a Downtown Block Party, which the city hopes to make an annual event. After that, Chandler aims to spark new projects along Arizona Avenue, Killgore said. Chandler owns and is seeking development plans for 4.5 acres west of City Hall, land now used for parking.
The city aims for buildings 4-6 stories tall, which creates an urban character without being too tall, Killgore said.
"It's got a pedestrian scale to it and we'd like to see that continue," she said.