Tempe Rising: The Valley College Town Is Exploding with Development

Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the bestsellers Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, is surrounded by a few academics and fans at a wine-and-cheese reception on the north patio of Tempe Center for the Arts. It's November 5, the weather's gorgeous, and the dark blue of twilight reflects off the shimmering surface of Tempe Town Lake, which dominates the view.

Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California-Los Angeles, looks every bit the eccentric, brilliant former field researcher that he is, sporting his trademark beard with no mustache and wearing a robin-red suit jacket. He's here to talk about his new book, The World Until Yesterday, which describes his work with Papua New Guinea natives and ponders what modern people in developed areas can learn from primitive societies.

The talk and book-signing event, sponsored by Changing Hands Bookstore and Arizona State University's Global Institute of Sustainability, is so popular that it must be held at the large arts center — prices started at $25 a head (book included). His books explain masterfully the accidents of geography that led to the dominance of Western societies and how the failure to create sustainable environments leads to sometimes-rapid declines. A reporter works his way to the professor for a handshake and question: What does he think about the long-term prospects of the Phoenix metro area?

Ray Stern
Tempe Center's parking lot and mostly empty strip mall.
Evie Carpenter
Tempe Center's parking lot and mostly empty strip mall.

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"I'd better not say. I haven't researched the history of the place," he says, declining the question with a thin smile. "But . . ."

He turns away for a second, holding out an arm to sweep the view of manmade Town Lake. "What is that doing there?"

A few people chuckle uncomfortably as Diamond smiles at his quip. It's unclear whether he realizes he's made a social faux pas at the expense of his hosts. As he walks away to chat with others who want to meet him, the ASU faculty members who heard the exchange suggest, in hushed voices, that the esteemed professor didn't know what he was talking about.

Tempe Town Lake is a source of pride for ASU. The idea for it sprang in 1966 from the minds of ASU students, who were asked by then-dean of the architecture school, James Elmore, to think of ways to rehabilitate the dry scar of a riverbed that runs through most of Central Phoenix and its eastern suburbs.

Water in the riverbed, arguably, isn't an example of wasteful water policy — it's the restoration of the natural order of things.

Water ran year-round through the Valley of the Sun in the Salt River until the 1940s, when canal improvements dried up the last trickles. The main flow had been stanched decades earlier with the construction of upstream dams that tamed the river, capturing water for use through years of drought and nearly eliminating the threat of damaging floods. In the process, dozens of miles of tree-lined riparian habitat running across the Phoenix area were destroyed.

When Town Lake was filled 15 years ago this summer, a two-mile section of the sad-looking, trash-ridden, dry riverbed became something like the pleasant place it used to be many decades earlier.

And it's been a money magnet.

About $1.5 billion in lakeside development either has been built or is on the way, city officials boast. The economic feedback to the city has been about $578 million, enabling it to build structures like the Center for the Arts, which opened in 2007.

Professor, that's what Town Lake is doing there.

The college town of Tempe has gone through plenty of sea changes in recent decades, but its current growth spurt is without precedent. It's also an example of what many people consider "smart growth." That is, the 40-square-mile city on Phoenix's eastern border is growing vertically — instead of sprawling — and is adding job centers and public entertainment areas, not auto-centric bedroom communities.

Visually speaking, the centerpiece of the new growth is the $600 million State Farm office complex under construction on the south bank of the lake, just east of Sun Devil Stadium. Called Marina Heights, it's the largest-ever office-building project in Arizona. Announced just a year ago, the construction now is a beehive of activity, with one building shell already several stories high as workers toil amid miles of rebar laid in a vast concrete foundation.

Other significant projects:

• A $300 million renovation of Sun Devil Stadium that began in April. Plans are to modernize and revamp the aging venue by 2017.

• Hundreds of new apartment units going up near the lake, in downtown, and across the city.

• The Liberty Center near Rio Salado and Priest drives, which broke ground in December and is expected to add a million square feet of new office and light-industrial space.

• The Discovery Business Center near Elliot and Price roads, a 136-acre mixed-use commercial property under development by the father-son team at Wentworth Property.

• The venerable Twin Palms Hotel at Apache Boulevard and 13th Street that's under renovation.

• The final office tower in the Hayden Ferry Lakeside development, which already includes two multi-story office buildings and two condominium towers.

• USA Place, a dense $350 million development housing the relocated headquarters of USA Basketball as its most important anchor tenant. The organization is the governing body for non-professional basketball in the United States, the organization that selects U.S. basketball teams for the Olympic Games. The project would transform the 10.5-acre parcel at the corner of University Drive and Mill Avenue into a proper gateway to downtown, with a 350-room Omni Hotel, 500 luxury apartment units, an arena, retail space, maybe even a long-awaited grocery store, and another 240,000 square feet of office space. Groundbreaking has been delayed for several months but could begin this summer.

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Correct me if I'm wrong but that original vision by ASU students was to restore riparian habitat along the Salt River by letting water flow and help recharge the aquifer. The Tempe Town Lake is just a big sealed bathtub to promote development, not a restoration project.


Tempe is already a startling example of the new American college town, a gigantic university at its center and chain stores, strip malls, bars and bullshit radiating out in a cultural wasteland of epic proportions. This piece has PUFF written all over it. Might as well have been written by the Tempe Chamber of Commerce. Is anyone going to dig deeper into questionable land development deals involving the state university? Fast-buck loss leader overdevelopment? destruction of local culture through rampant courting of big chains? Mill Ave already went down in flames and is basically a crass trash strip now, getting worse with every new business in its ridiculously overpriced retail space. Stay classy Tempe, and stay classy PNT, as usual kissing corporate ass and avoiding the tough stories. 


the riparian environment along the river sounds nice. like the one at central avenue and the river in phoenix. the tall cottonwood trees might have blocked out the freeway, from a vantage point on the south bank of the river looking north.


He didn't know what he was talking about. THAT'S THE BOTTOM LINE. When he pointed to the lake of all things....he should have talked about the inharmonious nature of for profit prisons. What could fuck up the natural order of the commonwealth more that THAT! YOU NEED TO ARREST PEOPLE FOR PROFIT. 


How did he cross the line with what he said? It sounded to me like he was remarking on the seemingly unnatural existence of a giant man-made water feature in the middle of a desert city from the perspective of a geographer/environmentalist. Seeing as how his status as a high-achieving geographer/environmentalist is what was being celebrated at this event, what  were people expecting when they asked this question? Him to compromise his intellectual credibility so we can keep feeling nice about our lake?

"Water in the riverbed, arguably, isn't an example of wasteful water policy — it's the restoration of the natural order of things."

The natural order of things...which we interrupted with excessive canal extensions, and are now "fixing" with a concrete lake/dam combination that is so polluted we keep having to cancel the swimming portion of Tempe's Ironman. It's not even a living riverbed, we filled it with a layer of concrete and have to stock it with fish every few months so something lives in it.

Tempe Town Lake is beautiful and I think it's a great addition to the the city aesthetically and economically, but let's not pretend it's a noble act on behalf of the environment. Let's also not be crybabies when a highly qualified person lightheartedly jabs something we're a bit deluded about, especially when it's clear he thinks highly enough of the city as a whole to spend time here and work with our academics.


Yet more examples of how City of Tempe could care less about the actual residents and is only interested in what ASU and it can do for each other. Many of us have lived here for 30 and 40 years and have watched as this town has increased costs to residents while bowing to the wants of ASU. Perhaps Tempe should just tell the actual residents to get out so that ASU can take over the entire city. This town and it's leadership stinks!


@rlgans1 Not before they collect $25,000,000.00 to $30,000,000.00 more from you and me for ASU's new trolley. State mandated nexus requirement? What, the City of Tempe is required to study the impact and identify best alternatives for our tax dollars. I thought Tempe just decided where they wanted the rail to go in their non-televised council meetings? Kolby, please don't tell the Goldwater Institute!

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