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?

"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.

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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.