The public’s image of downtown Tempe for years was bolstered by television news programs using Town Lake or the leafy Mill Avenue as a backdrop.
Then the recession hit, and a popular new backdrop became the vacant, unfinished 30-story Centerpoint Condominums.
It’s been a rough couple of years for Tempe’s downtown.
But the condos are being bought and will become upscale apartments. More than a dozen vacant storefronts have been leased in the last four months and are returning to life. And an empty eight-story office building will house hundreds of workers by the spring.
Downtown Tempe is emerging as one of the East Valley’s first places to recover from the recession. And as it does, the city and the Downtown Tempe Community are trying to return Mill to its roots by encouraging more locally owned specialty shops rather than the chain stores that took on such a large presence in recent years.
The resurgence hasn’t come easy, said Nancy Hormann, executive director of the Downtown Tempe Community.
When she took her job two years ago, she jokes, she had to constantly tell people the rumors of Mill Avenue’s death had been greatly exaggerated.
Some restaurants or shops failed because of the downturn or failed business plans, she said. But large numbers were forced out when property owners let leases expire because they planned to bulldoze buildings for grander projects. Hormann had to fight perception that Mill was the culprit.
“I could understand why everybody was thinking that, but the mindset was: Look at all these empty stores you have,” Hormann said. “If a business goes out in a shopping center, people think it was a bad business. If a business goes out in a downtown, they think it’s downtown’s fault.”
Many of the landlords that kicked out tenants began leasing space again as they decided to put redevelopment plans on hold. That was most pronounced at Centerpoint on Mill, where many storefronts were vacant for a couple years. Now, downtown has only two existing restaurants spaces that aren’t leased, Hormann said.
As downtown comes back, DTC is attempting to attract a wider range of visitors with a campaign called Generation Mill. Nancy Hormann said the downtown is already taking on a different flavor.
“It is much more destination-oriented, where a lot of our retailers are in a place you can’t find anywhere else but on Mill Avenue, and that’s what we think the change is,” Hormann said.
DTC is also freshening up downtown with hanging planters, more flowers and more frequent cleaning. Early next year, the red brick sidewalks will undergo the most rigorous cleaning they’ve ever had.
“You’re going to see a marked difference in what the downtown looks like,” Hormann said.
Meanwhile, Tempe is making the biggest changes to its streetscape standards since Mill got its red brick and ficus trees in the mid-1980s. The updated character standards should be adopted late this year and will include several themes for different parts of downtown, city architect Mark Vinson said.
“I use the term diverse continuity, which sounds like an oxymoron but we want the streetscapes to tie things together, but to allow diversity so not everything looks the same,” Vinson said.
The streetscapes generally will take shape as new development comes in.
The lake and downtown will have the earliest and strongest recovery from the recession, Mayor Hugh Hallman said.
“It starts with some historical benefit, and that is Tempe is right in the center of everything so as the recovery starts, it shouldn’t be surprising that it is hitting first in Tempe,” Hallman said.
He expects development on vacant lots in about a year, saying the unstable financial market is a bigger problem than market demand. Hallman predicts downtown will ultimately have more office space but fewer condos than the multiple projects that Tempe approved in the last several years. The roughly 10-story to 30-story hotel, condo and office towers still makes sense, he said, and are necessary to diversify downtown’s economy from its current volatile base of restaurants and entertainment.
Downtown property owner Vic Linoff said Tempe should resist megaprojects. Virtually every major project went bankrupt by the time it opened over the years, he noted, and those failures have loomed over the city until they were turned around. Linoff owned Those Were the Days bookstore for 35 years, closing the Mill Avenue shop in 2008.
“I have always expressed concerns about the size and scale of developments,” Linoff said. “I would prefer many more smaller projects because if and when there are failures, they don’t have as traumatic an impact on the entire downtown.”