Development at Town Lake has a new look

Alia Beard Rau
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 29, 2004

Touted as a development that would attract $1 billion in private investment, Tempe Town Lake has been a tough sell: The promised restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues have yet to show up around the lake, and probably never will.

Alm ost five years after the lake was filled, city officials say development is finally materializing.
But this latest version of Town Lake development has traded retail and cutting-edge for residential and realistic. The nine projects that will begin over the next 18 months are predominantly residential, office space and open space.

"The old plans were on a larger scale, but more sizzle than steak," Mayor Neil Giuliano said.
"We're getting more realistic."

He said officials now want the area to focus on residential, commercial and open space, leaving the retail and entertainment on Mill Avenue.

"We want to create an urban neighborhood of people who want to live in a dense environment that is also a wonderful outdoor recreation environment," he said. SunCor's Hayden Ferry Lakeside has been the only office development to rise on the lake's banks. Mill's End Espresso, inside Hayden Ferry Lakeside, is the only retail. Regatta Pointe, south of the lake near the western edge, is the only residential property, with 136 luxury condos.

Plans for the $48 million aqua arena, $220 million 1,000-room Peabody Hotel and the multiuse development around Hayden Flour Mill have been discarded. Arizona State University has done nothing with its 25 acres on the south bank.

"Everybody is disappointed there is not more out there," Giuliano said. "But we always knew it would be 10 to 12 years before development is up around the lake."

The Town Lake area, called Rio Salado, cost $150 million to build. Tempe paid $88 million of that and is coughing up $3 million a year for maintenance until lake development revenues start coming in. City officials say the new projects prove development is finally catching up to the dream.

"For all the people who have asked for so long where all the construction on the lake is, here it is," Town Lake marketing coordinator Kris Baxter said. "For the next three years, there will be more construction down there than anyone can imagine." SunCor Senior Project Manager Randy Levin said he looks out each day on a Town Lake filled with kayakers and dog walkers. Every weekend there is a different event.

"The time has come," he said. "The area matured, the market matured, we've come out of a recession and everything has come together." Michael Monti, owner of Monti's La Casa Vieja steakhouse just south of Town Lake on Mill Avenue, likes the fact that plans now focus on residential.

"The failure of the city to execute the Peabody Hotel was a crushing, devastating thing for us," he said. "What we don't need down here is more retail or more office space." He said what Town Lake does need is round-the-clock residents in condos or hotels.

"The developers and the city are now being realistic," he said. "They are coming to realize that you can't have these grandiose plans and force them to happen. You have to let the market work on its own." Giuliano said Town Lake is a success.

"The transformation from a garbage dump and a dry river bottom into something that's already productive from a recreation standpoint is pretty amazing," he said. "And we will be successful from a financial standpoint as well." While city staff members are thrilled with the impending construction, they warn that it will cause parking problems.

The most-used free parking lot along the lake, west of Beach Park on Rio Salado Parkway, disappeared last week when construction began on the Tempe Center for the Arts. "Things are going to change," Rio Salado Manager Chris Anaradian said. "When you come to an event, you will have to expect to pay for parking."

The city staff is looking at allowing more bicycle pedicabs in the area. It is also hoping to eventually offer water taxis.

A parking lot will be built on the west side of the arts center. During construction, Anaradian said the city will work to provide better signs to other available parking lots, including the pay parking garage next to the America West building at Mill Avenue and Third Street. There is also new free parking on the north side of the lake at the marina.