Tempe is working to take better care of its downtown after hearing concerns that the area has deteriorated and needs a clearer vision for its future.
The center of the effort involves new streetscape design guidelines for downtown, which will touch on everything from the signature ficus trees to cleaning bird droppings from brick sidewalks.
The city wants a cleaner and more consistent look without turning it into a bland strip mall.
The work could update the downtown more than any effort in a generation, but city officials caution it won’t happen over night or be too radical.
“The city is not going out to build a new downtown,” Mayor Hugh Hallman said.
The city expects to have new design plans by September. Officials will spend the summer reviewing an inventory of downtown features while seeing what to change or keep.
“We want to make sure public amenities fit together and don’t have a hodgepodge sense to them,” said Chris Salomone, Tempe’s community development director.
Several City Council members said the downtown’s maintenance had become a concern. During a recent review of downtown, they said parking is difficult to find, dead trees haven’t been replaced and swarms of birds have covered sidewalks with their droppings.
“Sometimes it does kind of look like a Hitchcock movie,” Councilman Corey Woods said.
The first question Tempe seeks to answer is how to address the sometimes-beloved ficus. The dense canopy cools Mill but has created headaches. Merchants complain the dense branches block signs. Birds love the trees, leaving droppings on the sidewalk, cars and pedestrians. And many of the trees are sick or have died.
The city replaced some dead ficus a year ago with Chinese Pistache trees, which also feature a dark green leaf. Some merchants second-guessed the decision, so the Downtown Tempe Community did a study to see which tree was better.
The issue proved more difficult than anybody imagined, said Nancy Hormann, executive director of the non-profit DTC.
“You get mixed messages,” Hormann said. “Literally, we’ve had two different reports, and one said use ficus and the other said you should not use ficus.”
The DTC plans to select a tree in a month so something can go in the small number planter boxes where ficus trees have died.
Also this summer, DTC will expand cleaning efforts with a larger staff of porters. When summer is over, the merchant group plans to add color downtown with flowers in tree wells and in hanging baskets.
In the fall, the DTC plans to start a new effort to deter birds. In the past, bird deterrents included tree thinning, slathering sticky substances on branches, broadcasting predator bird noises, bright lights and more. The city wasn’t satisfied with the results.
Hormann wouldn’t reveal the new plan yet but said it’s proved effective in other cities.
The public won’t appreciate most of the new design plan for some time. Most streetscape elements are required of property owners and will be part of new development.
“We need to be prepared for when the recovery is in full swing and we know that we’re one of the first areas that’s going to recover,” Hormann said.
In spite of the unfinished Centerpoint Condominium towers downtown, Tempe has less vacant space than surrounding communities. About 95 percent of downtown space is full, Hormann said, which means some of the first new construction will likely take place there.
The city will eventually pay for some improvements, including the Mill Avenue streetscape. Tempe will get some funding for that when a modern streetcar is planned to be built on Mill in 2014. That will require tearing out the center median. Some streetscape work will likely take place at the same time, Salomone said.
Unlike light-rail construction that lasts nearly three years, streetcar work takes only a year and is far less disruptive. And unlike the massive redevelopment that took place along some segments of the 20-mile Metro line, Mill won’t take on a vastly different feel with the new transit system. Tempe is more interested in elevating its standards than revamping downtown, Salomone said.
“I don’t think that any one should expect that the plan will be a dramatic departure from what’s been successful already,” Salomone said.