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

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It's May 20, the day of a special election in Tempe that asks residents to weigh in on the city's direction.

Up for voter approval is the city's General Plan 2040, outlined in a 248-page document that hardly any residents read. An update to previous plans, the new version is seen as a blueprint for even higher-density development, especially around light-rail hubs, and it pushes public transit over private vehicles.

It's a warm day, and the 2040 plan is the only question on the ballot. Few people head to the polls; most already had voted early by mail.

Dan Mayer, a visual artist, rides his bicycle away from the Knights of Pythias ballot site on Apache Boulevard after casting a ballot. He voted "no," he says, because he's concerned about plans for increased development next to neighborhoods.

Next door to the ballot site is Gracie's Village, a new four-story apartment building adjacent to a light-rail station and beside a neighborhood of single-family homes. Mayer was part of a large group of Tempe residents who opposed the 50-unit apartment building in 2012. Foes of the affordable-housing project succeeded in shrinking it from six stories to its current four.

Mayer, a Tempe resident since 1979, lives in the adjacent neighborhood just north of Gracie's Village. He admits that since the apartment building opened last year, he's neither seen nor heard of problems regarding it. But he's still concerned that the city isn't doing enough to buffer planned multi-story buildings from surrounding neighborhoods. A proposed project that alarmed him last year was a 20-story sorority building at Terrace Road and Apache Boulevard. This deal, by developer Wally Trace, apparently has fallen through. But, Mayer says, "that [structure] would have impacted neighborhoods immensely. It would have overlooked people's backyards."

The city's still considering projects of seven stories or more near existing low-rise residential areas. It's too much for residents like Mayer.

Farther south, at the polling site at Gethsemane EV Lutheran Church near Guadalupe and Rural roads, "VOTE NO" is scrawled in pen on a sign stuck into the landscaping rocks at the parking lot's entrance.

Roberta Stultz, a 42-year Tempe resident, is in the parking lot between running errands. She's already voted "no" by mail. A question about the election draws out the curmudgeon in her. When her adult children asked what the election was about, she says, she told them: "It's about money. What else is it ever about?"

Stultz worries about decreases in services, like "cleaning up [her] alley," and laments that only two of her original neighbors have remained over the years.

On the other hand, the lakeside development is "not bad . . . I'm all for the entrepreneurial spirit," she says.

As it turned out, the plan wound up passing comfortably, 56 percent to 44 percent. Turnout was especially low, at 15.4 percent, with 13,260 ballots cast. If the vote serves as a poll of city residents, Tempeans are cautious about overdoing it but believe the city generally is headed in the right direction.

A day after the vote, city leaders told New Times they're aware of potential problems with new development patterns. A giveaway of their coming challenges is the solutions the city has planned for them.

In discussing problems and solutions, Tempe officials noted:

• More owner-occupied housing is needed. When the Great Recession hit, a high-profile effect on Tempe was the unfinished 22- and 30-story residential towers at Sixth Street and Maple Avenue. After a $120 million investment, they sat empty for nearly three years ("Concrete Bungle," October 15, 2009). An Ohio apartment company, backed financially by the California State Teachers' Retirement System, bought the towers for $30 million, completed them, and opened them as apartment buildings with many student renters. Good, to an extent, but the city has plenty of student housing. Owner-occupied condos, the original plan, would have attracted a stable and wealthy base of residents.

• Along the same lines, Tempe entertainment areas should appeal to a diverse customer base. While college students are Tempe's captive customers, they spend too little in the city, says Tempe City Manager Andrew Ching. Out-of-state students buy the bulk of their clothes, for instance, in their hometowns. In general, he says, students party too much and annoy neighbors. But the upside is that they keep cash registers humming at bars and nightclubs.

• The city wants to "recruit" businesses seen as more desirable. The Downtown Tempe Community is working on this, too. Professionals and others making decent livings want more upscale, hip eateries and bars. City leaders look with envy at the trendy spots evolving in downtown Phoenix at, say, Seventh Avenue and McDowell Road or along Roosevelt Row.

• Transportation and parking will be an increasing problem in Tempe. The city wants more "bicycle boulevards" (Ching notes bike-friendly College Avenue as an example) and signage that was added to make motorists more aware of bikers. Success can be a headache, in other words. But it beats the alternative.

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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.