June 5, 2005

John Vasilijevich can't wait to sell his toys.

The boat. The lawn mower. The workout equipment. Maybe even the car and the Xbox.

The 25-year-old mortgage consultant says he won't need them anymore when he trades his Tempe house for his dream condo in Centerpoint, a forthcoming 22-story tower in downtown Tempe.

The building will have its own boats, gym, game room and landscapers. What's more, he works just down the street, and his favorite playgrounds, which are Mill Avenue and Tempe Town Lake, will be under his windows.

So who needs toys?

After growing up in a Peoria subdivision awash with identical homes, Vasilijevich longs to trade the predictability of suburban life for a series of unexpected moments in a big city.

Tempe is betting there are lots of people like Vasilijevich and is revamping itself to become the state's first 24/7 city.

Granted, downtown Phoenix is spending big bucks to become the Valley's hub. But Tempe is years ahead of Phoenix in its ability to draw folks in, intoxicate them with vibrancy and keep them coming back for more.

Thirty years of redevelopment has changed Mill Avenue from a crime-filled, blighted strip to a popular, all-ages hangout. Millions of people visit Town Lake and Arizona State University each year. The area offers 20,000 jobs, not including those at ASU, and downtown Tempe soon is expected to be the corporate home of US Airways, the nation's fifth-largest airline.

To complete the 24/7 puzzle, the city is bringing back the residents, grocery stores, dry cleaners and bakeries that bolted from most downtown scenes decades ago.

If Tempe is successful, its concept of living, working and playing in one small, urban space could spread to other cities looking for the magic formula to liven up downtown or curb urban sprawl. Or, if not, the venture will provide a good learning experience for cities planning for redevelopment.


Where Phoenix is trying to create downtown life with residents, Tempe believes the only way to sustain existing life is to attract new neighborhood services and at least 5,000 additional residents in the next five years.

That need for sustainability may come as a shock because Tempe has long been considered the gold standard of Valley downtowns. Head there any weekend night, and the place is, to steal a phrase from Mayor Hugh Hallman's State of the City address, a "hip-hop happenin' place to be."

Nevertheless, Mill Avenue is less crowded now that ASU students are out for the summer, and shops are producing half the sales-tax revenues that downtown advocates say they should.

City officials started talking about change when the economy slowed and tourism shrank after Sept. 11, 2001. They realized Mill Avenue was overreliant on discretionary income, and that made profits unreliable when fewer people were spending fat cash on a new outfit, a weekend getaway or an elaborate dinner.

The area needed customers that were guaranteed to shop there. It needed folks who were living there 24/7, who would pump money into the economy by buying groceries and other necessities.

Enter high-rise developments like Centerpoint, which are designed to squeeze thousands of new residents into a few city blocks. Enough residents to support the quirky little places that were squeezed out long ago by declining sales and increasing rents on Mill Avenue.

'Unexpected moments'

So who will live in this new urban oasis?

We could assume folks with healthy incomes, considering one-bedroom condos are selling for the price of an average home in Mesa or Surprise and three-bedroom condos are selling for the price of an average home in north Scottsdale or Paradise Valley.

Money aside, the client list is relatively diverse. Ken Losch, a principal at Avenue Communities and who has built two upscale condo projects in Scottsdale, says he is getting inquiries about Centerpoint from young and old, singles and couples, empty-nesters and even families.

A growing number of these condo folks are transplants from big cities and California who are used to an urban lifestyle. Most don't want a big yard. They're not interested in having a stucco house with a tile roof and a car in the garage.

These are folks who would rather spend their time traveling, eating out or entertaining friends. Folks who, as Losch says, "are looking for a series of unexpected moments."

He thinks downtown Tempe will create those moments through resident interaction, both inside the towers and out on the streets.

Say, for example, someone runs into a friend on the way home from work or doing errands. The two strike up a conversation and head upstairs for dinner cooked by Centerpoint's in-house chef.

Maybe the kids meet their neighbors in the video-game lounge after dinner for a friendly battle of Halo 2 .

Or maybe everyone decides to walk a few blocks to ASU for an evening show or lecture. On the way back, they encounter a street musician and stop to listen.

A series of unexpected moments. Moments they probably wouldn't get in suburban environments where everything and everyone isn't crammed into one place.

Change isn't easy

Residents in surrounding neighborhoods could benefit from this urban lifestyle. New bakeries, markets and delis would eliminate a 20-minute drive to the nearest grocery store.

The popularity of living downtown would empower more residents to stomp out blight, crime and loud party houses.

This thriving area would attract additional restaurants, corporate offices, cultural activities and public events and provide even more unexpected moments for suburbanites.

But not everyone who lives near downtown is welcoming the changes.

Despite Hallman's assurances that these two lifestyles can and must coexist, some residents fear the urban high-rises will destroy their suburban, tree-lined neighborhoods.

Those fears were heightened over the proposed Cosmo Building, a 16-story tower on the southern edge of the downtown redevelopment area.

Although a last-minute redesign allayed some height and location fears, some still worry the upscale tower will gentrify historic homes across busy University Drive.

They also worry the project's grocery store would worsen traffic backups along Mill Avenue and cause more people to cut through the quiet neighborhoods to get in and out of downtown.

Those concerns aren't necessarily about the building. It's frustration over existing traffic problems and real estate conditions that threaten these quiet, historic streets.

Council members don't yet have all the answers to solve these problems. But they have some ideas.

Before Cosmo gets final approval, the developer must fund some historic preservation, affordable housing and traffic-calming improvements in nearby neighborhoods.

To combat speculators trying to buy land and raze the homes for redevelopment, a public review process may be created for folks who want to tie parcels together.

The council sees merit in rezoning neighborhoods from multifamily to single-family classifications, making it harder for investors to buy homes and split them into rentals. They may also consider an overlay district for surrounding neighborhoods to protect them from urban creep.

It may take awhile to straighten out the kinks that come from combining two completely different lifestyles in a city's core.

Even though several towers are under construction, city officials estimate a shift in sustainability won't come for at least two to three years.

No, this grand, residential experiment won't be built in a day.

But folks such as John Vasilijevich are glad Tempe's willing to be the lab.