Urban Center Set Squarely in Tempe
The Business Journal
Mill Avenue is tough to peg.
On any given night, the heart of downtown Tempe
is a stiff cocktail mixed with young, single professionals,
families with children and hard-partying college
students topped off with "Mill Rats"
During the day, the Valley's urban center is
much more tame, with a combination of casual shoppers,
busy students and nearby workers out and about
The only certainty on Mill Avenue and its surrounding
glut of bars, restaurants, small shops and chain
stores -- be it night or day -- is that people
will be there.
Downtown Tempe has more visitors than ever before
and the trend is going to continue. Everything
from creating Tempe Town Lake to putting parking
meters on Mill Avenue is bringing more people
to the area.
But for city officials, area supporters and local
merchants, challenges remain. A city smoking ban
has turned off some on the area, and the loss
of Cardinals football and the Fiesta Bowl in a
few years is a problem the city is attacking now.
At the same time, the Valley's light-rail system
and the Tempe Center for the Arts are just around
the corner, and residential development in the
area is growing at an unprecedented rate. It all
means one thing: Even more people in downtown
Survival of the fittest
The restaurant and retail landscape along Mill
Avenue in downtown Tempe is not for the faint
of heart. Much like in a shopping mall, it's not
uncommon for a restaurant or store to dot Mill
Avenue one day and be gone the next.
Susan Shemberger and her store on Mill Avenue,
Mazar Bazaar, have been an exception. They've
Shemberger's store of unique clothing, gifts
and collectibles has been a classic Mill Avenue
"mom-and-pop" shop for 15 years. The
key to her store's success has been an ability
to adapt. "You have to be open to change
down here," she says. "For example,
I started out mainly in women's clothing and now
my merchandise is much more in collectibles."
Shemberger says there was a time when she would
simply wait for customers to walk in the door,
but those days on Mill are long gone.
"You can't survive on foot traffic alone
down here," she says. "For your business
to survive you have to be aggressive. Setting
up a mailing list was one of the first things
I did, and I have a Web site that adds to my business."
A primary criticism of Mill Avenue in recent
years is that the area has lost much of its character
with larger corporate names such as P.F. Chang's
China Bistro and Abercrombie & Fitch moving
into the area. And because of that, many believe
there are fewer stores such as Mazar Bazaar.
But city representatives balk at the criticism.
They say more prominent signage and household
recognition of big retail names gives a false
impression that the "chains" are taking
"When people say we have all these national
chains, they're wrong," says Kris Baxter,
a marketing coordinator in Tempe's Economic Development
Department. "We are by far predominantly
According to the Downtown Tempe Economic Overview
-- released in May by Tempe, Arizona State University
and the Downtown Tempe Community -- 78 percent
of the restaurants and retailers in downtown Tempe
are locally owned.
Still, Shemberger wishes there were fewer major
retail chains and more niche shops.
"People can go to a Gap in any mall, but
it was the uniqueness of the shops that brought
people down here." she says.
The Gap on Mill closed earlier this year.
For better or for worse
One of the most significant changes in downtown
Tempe in the past year is the addition of single-space
parking meters along Mill Avenue. Traffic was
limited to one lane in each direction in an effort
to reduce speeding and offer more convenient parking.
It seems to have worked on both fronts.
Rod Keeling, executive director of the Downtown
Tempe Community, or DTC, a nonprofit that works
with the city to manage and promote services to
the area, says the meters have been a success.
"It's almost a universal hit with merchants
and customers," he says. Keeling and the
DTC installed the meters and say that within the
next few months, all the electronic multispace
parking meters (currently used on Mill's surrounding
streets), will be replaced with single-space meters.
Shemberger, who was in favor of the meters from
the beginning, says her customers love the convenience.
"People who come down here that didn't know
about the meters have said they are something
that would make them come back," she says.
The city smoking ban is another recent change
that has impacted downtown Tempe. Keeling said
the effect it
has had on business is negative.
"It just makes us less competitive -- that's
why we (DTC) were against it from the beginning,"
Keeling says. "Restaurant/bar sales have
gone down 8 percent since the ban and 8 percent
the year before that. Food service is down about
16 percent in the last year and a half."
Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano disagrees that the
ban has had a negative effect.
"I think the smoking ban has been positive,"
he says. "The number of patios has more than
doubled since, and it adds energy to the whole
Keeling says while food-service sales have taken
a hit recently, over the past 18 months aggregate
sales in downtown Tempe are up about 11 percent.
He says aggregate sales have grown from $70 million
in 1993 to an expected $170 million in 2003.
"In my time with DTC (10 years) there have
never been more people, cars or retail sales here,"
Up, up and away
Giuliano says he has seen quite a few changes
to downtown since he took office as mayor in 1994,
but they may pale in comparison to the changes
the heart of Tempe sees in the decade to come.
In the short term, ASU is set to move much of
its engineering school into the Brickyard development
on Mill Avenue. Giuliano says it will bring as
many as 1,500 people per day to the area.
Beyond that, a residential boom is approaching
that could result in 7,000 more people living
downtown within 10 years.
"That will be the biggest change,"
according to the mayor. "And it's smart growth.
The rest of the Valley is moving farther into
the desert and we are going up."
One of the larger residential projects planned
is a 585-unit, 13-story tower on Centerpoint property
near the corner of Mill Avenue and University
Drive. Aside from that, more development near
Tempe Town Lake is coming down the pipeline.
Janice Schaefer, economic development manager
for Tempe, says the downtown area draws about
2 million visitors a year, but major growth in
the years to come will be in residential development.
"We're trying to attract the people with
discretionary income who want to live here to
be in the middle of everything going on,"
she says. "We're hoping for an area full
of knowledge workers."
And city officials also are hoping the light-rail
project, set for Tempe in 2006, will be able to
transport those knowledge workers to and from
Tempe and downtown Phoenix. "The light rail
will allow all the scientists at ASU and TGen
(Translational Genomics Research Institute) to
go back and forth," Giuliano says. "And
to people moving here, this will add to an urban
One of the challenges the city will have to face
in years to come is the loss of revenue generated
from Cardinals football games and the Fiesta Bowl,
both of which will move to Glendale in 2006.
"We will definitely feel the impact, especially
with the Fiesta Bowl," Schaefer says. "We
will continue to have the Block Party, but we
are interested in bringing more quality events
to the area."
Giuliano says Tempe Town Lake and bordering beach
park already is the No. 1 outdoor destination
in the Valley, and the Tempe Center for the Arts
-- set to be completed in 2006 at the West end
of the Lake -- will be another draw for downtown.
"We are focusing on creating other things
that occur over the course of the year,"
the mayor says. "The beach volleyball event
in the spring was an example, and we are shooting
for one significant event per month for the entire
year. That can more than replace lost football
Giuliano has less than a year before his term
as mayor ends. He says in the time he has left
he wants to make sure residential projects progress,
secure a deal for a new downtown or lakeside hotel
and oversee the completion of the arts center.
Aside from that, he's happy with downtown Tempe.
"We want the downtown of this city to be
the living room of the community," he says.
"It's a place to entertain guests and make
them feel comfortable. At the same time, it's
under constant evolution and renovation."