Mention skyline and the Valley, and there’s not much to boast about aside from a strip of buildings on Phoenix’s Central Avenue. Mention skyline and the East Valley, and you’re likely to get a chuckle. But Tempe is poised to reshape the East Valley’s skyline, if not its very identity and way of life, with buildings of 30 stories or more.
These buildings would rise from downtown, where three 30-story buildings are up for approval this week. Along Tempe Town Lake, city officials say there may be no limit to how high they’ll let buildings soar.
The buildings represent a small but growing number of places in the Valley where people can live in a place that feels more like Chicago or New York City than the oneor two- story suburbs that have defined Arizona living.
Developers and Tempe’s elected officials claim the highrise rush indicates Tempe is the true center of urban living in the Valley, surpassing Phoenix and its more impressive skyline.
"People are starving for that urban lifestyle," said Ken Losch, a principal at Avenue Communities, now building the 30-story Centerpoint Residential towers. "We’ve been behind the curve on this whole urban living thing."
Losch and Tempe planners envision a city where 10,000 residents or more will live in a vertical urban setting. They’ll give up their cars most of the time and walk or take light rail. They’ll eat at bistros and quirky restaurants. They’ll shop at gourmet markets. They’ll live in a place that will become more of a hub for entertainment or just hanging out to watch people.
It’s something developers say downtown Phoenix can’t match because it’s so spread out and has lost so much of its history.
That may smack of biased boosterism, but an expert in urban issues agreed Tempe has a shot at creating an urban lifestyle in a way Phoenix probably never will.
"There is stuff to do in Tempe," said Joel Kotkin, who has studied the Valley and other urban centers. He’s generally skeptical of efforts to urbanize dying downtowns yet sees Tempe as a logical place for that.
"There is a ‘there’ there," Kotkin said.
Tempe’s downtown has grown more urban and tall over the last two decades, but the Tempe Butte and Hayden Flour Mill silos have long towered over everything. Several buildings have approached 10 stories in recent years, including the U.S. Airways building.
Losch’s group won approval for four condo towers, including three at 22 stories. Since the city said yes, he decided the market demands more. He wants an upgrade to 30 stories, something that would bring 2,000 new residents. The City Council will vote on the matter Thursday.
COW TOWN NO LONGER
The Valley didn’t have many tall, unusual buildings until now because investors nationwide saw the area as a cow town, Losch said. Soaring property values and growth have brought more respect, money and a desire for something different, he said.
City officials have heard rumblings from other developers of 30-story buildings. The sudden jump in height may surprise some Valley residents used to suburban living, said Chris Salomone, who oversees downtown redevelopment efforts. But Salomone said tall buildings have exploded in other communities as people clamor for urban life.
"I saw it happen in San Diego and it blew me away," said Salomone. "I think it’s going to blow people away here."
Kotkin isn’t so sure.
He sees the high-rise proposals as developers playing "chicken." The market won’t support many projects labeled as hip urban living, Kotkin said. The current trend is driven largely by investors who are skittish on the stock market and looking to make a quick buck in real estate, he said.
Rising interest rates will change that, Kotkin said. And once the projects are up, he predicted investors will sell, values will drop and the Valley will have only a hint of the urban lifestyle promised.
"In New York, you live in a studio because it’s New York," Kotkin said. "People who move to places like Phoenix want a little bit of space, they want a pool. I don’t think there’s this kind of a demand."
The Valley can’t duplicate the dynamics of the nation’s biggest cities, though Kotkin said Tempe, Scottsdale and the Camelback Corridor in Phoenix will eventually develop their own brand of urban life. Valley leaders should be content with the suburban lifestyle and a few pockets of moderately urban development, he said.
"I think Phoenix has got a lot of dynamism," Kotkin said. "It’s too bad the elites don’t realize it."
City leaders say they’re not after tall buildings for the sake of an impressive skyline. Market forces are driving the height more than anything. For Mayor Hugh Hallman, tall buildings are essential to the landlocked city’s economic survival. Downtown Tempe needs a large resident base to get more businesses to generate tax dollars. Existing bars and restaurants aren’t enough to justify years of city subsidies, he said.
City officials expect a steady flow of high-rise proposals downtown and along the lake. Tempe has outlined University Drive, the lake, Ash Avenue and College Avenue as the boundaries for tall buildings. Elected leaders aren’t sure how high the city will rise within the boundary.
Councilman Ben Arredondo said the City Council hasn’t addressed all of the issues that will come with density and height. Too much density could overwhelm the area with traffic and trigger the city to get rid of parking on Mill Avenue to allow another lane of traffic. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, he said.
Hallman and other council members said they will judge each project on its own, but they generally favor what Hallman calls a "tent pole" skyline. That puts the tallest buildings in the middle and shorter buildings farther away. Centerpoint is at or near the top of that. As for the shores of Tempe Town Lake, that could bring an even more dramatic skyline.
"The sky is the limit there," Hallman said.