Tempe Rising: The Landlocked College Town Explodes with New Development -- as Planned

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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.

It all adds up to Tempe's becoming an exciting suburban city.

Years, if not decades, of planning are starting to pay off, but city leaders aren't responsible for everything. Being home to a major university has given Tempe the revenue, people, and attractions to do things that other municipalities can't. But one look at the basket case of Glendale, a Valley city facing budget shortfalls of $30 million a year because of bad decisions regarding sports arenas, proves that leadership counts. Tempe didn't have to be the job attractor it is, but instead of stagnating, its daily workforce is expected to rise an impressive 29 percent by 2020. A population of about 162,000 is estimated to grow to 183,000 by 2020, and 217,000 by 2040, by the Maricopa Association of Governments.

The picture's not all rosy.

Longtime residents worry about Tempe's character changing.

More high-density development will bring in more traffic congestion and crime, and homeowners and families are expected to be replaced by apartment dwellers and childless adults in certain areas.

The influx of new residents, workers, and tall buildings will change Tempe in fundamental ways. With about 40,000 students attending ASU's main campus, Tempe always will be a fun place to hang out. But it remains to be seen whether the city, founded in the pioneer era, can sustain so much growth and retain its high quality of life for residents.

Indeed, the potential exists for financial shortfalls, more vacant offices and storefronts, traffic gridlock, fewer places to park, and more noisy neighbors who care only about the next keg party.

Yet the hundreds of millions of dollars getting invested in the city obscures potential downsides.

For now, at least, Tempe is the place to be.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.