Apache Boulevard had long been overlooked by anybody who had money — unless they had a few bucks for drugs or a hooker. Now, the rundown buildings and weed-filled lots along Apache are some of Tempe’s hottest real estate.
Developers have bought some of the bleakest places for new condos, apartments and shops. The area is seeing its biggest boom in decades as builders construct housing and shops that are far nicer than many could have imagined just a few years ago.
Nearly 20 developments are planned or under way on a 2.5-mile stretch of Apache, ranging from eight-story condo buildings to single-family homes.
The area’s rebirth is largely the result of the same thing that made it boom decades ago and then fall into decline: its status as a major transportation corridor.
The boulevard was the original route of U.S. 60 before the Superstition Freeway was started in the 1970s. The new highway diverted drivers from the motels, service stations and restaurants that had thrived for decades.
“Without all that traffic to feed into them, they just weren’t that viable anymore,” said Larry Schmalz, Tempe’s principal planner.
The failed businesses brought blight, and the area became a crime hot spot.
The city spent the last decade closing the worst businesses and buying land that could be developed later.
Several construction projects now are a result of that planning, including 45 houses being built where some of the area’s must rundown houses used to stand.
Tempe began planning a project called Newberry Terrace in 2000 by working with a developer on plans for new housing. The city bought more than five acres of cheaply built, poorly maintained homes and tiny apartment buildings with up to four units each. One of the roads, Newberry Terrace, wasn’t even paved.
Nearly all of the properties were rentals that became a magnet for crime, Schmalz said.
“They were just investors,” he said. “It was all about the money.”
Tempe assembled about 17 parcels and struck a deal with Barton Homes for a mix of single-family homes and attached town homes.
It’s likely the first single-family project to be built in the area in a half-century, said Jim Walton, co-owner of Barton Homes. Walton said the area’s reputation wasn’t an issue because the project has enough critical mass to encourage others to invest, rather than to be overtaken by what’s around it.
“I wouldn’t want to build two homes here, but if you build 45, you kind of create your own weather,” Walton said.
His development is also unusual for its price, about $275,00 to $350,000 for two or three bedrooms. By comparison, the downtown condo towers sell studios or one-bedrooms for $300,000 or more.
The city chose Barton Homes over another developer that planned to build something that likely would have become rentals, Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman said.
The city wanted owner-occupied housing in a part of the city that already has so many rentals, he said.
Hallman expects new-home sales will stay strong in Tempe despite the nationwide downturn. Demand is high because of the city’s large job base, the proximity to transit and the shorter commute times compared with developments on the edge of the Valley.
“Tempe generally is completely different than the rest of the Valley and nation,” Hallman said.
Some other notable Apache projects include:
• The Holiday Inn being converted into a Starwood Four Points Hotel.
• Apartments for low-income seniors who are deaf.
• A new police substation that opened this year.
• A park set to open next year.
• A 450-unit apartment complex at Apache Boulevard and McClintock Drive that includes a park-and-ride garage. The land was first reserved as a transit station parking lot, but Tempe found a developer to build a parking garage surrounded by apartments and shops.
Only a few of the developments will open by December 2008, when the Metro light-rail line is scheduled to start service.
Apache’s full redevelopment will take many years, Schmalz said, just as downtown Tempe’s redevelopment started in the 1970s and is still under way.
Still, the public will see a big step forward within a year, as new landscaping, sidewalks and a few just-opened businesses replace the chaotic effort to build the Metro.
“Once light rail is open and operating, you’ll see the cleaner streets,” Schmalz said. “You’ll see the vision instead of the construction.”