Tempe Town Lake began as an academic exercise for ASU architect students in 1966, but the formerly dry riverbed is now a bustling mecca for Tempe’s economic development and rising real estate values. More than 50 years ago, ASU’s College of Architecture dean, James Elmore challenged his students to come up with a way to reconnect the Salt River to the Valley, to restore ecosystems, offer flood control and create a catalyst for economic development. No problem, easy “A” right? Except, Dean Elmore was talking about restoring dried out riverbeds that in some places were being used as landfills or had significant property damage from flooding. Despite the challenges, students rose to the occasion and the Rio Salado Project was the result of that assignment.
Tempe Town Lake development
After more than 20 years of environmental planning, the Rio Salado Project had a price tag — $2.56 billion – and a berth on the 1987 ballot. The plan envisioned new green spaces, recreational areas, commercial development and walking corridors along a 45-mile stretch of the Salt River. Maricopa County voters were asked to approve a property tax to pay for the project. The measure didn’t pass, but the City of Tempe decided to go ahead with its portion of the project – a lake. In 1999 water began flowing from the Central Arizona Project into what is now Tempe Town Lake. Along with the lake, Tempe constructed bike paths and parks, developing approximately 800 acres, including the lake.
Commercial and residential growth
When water was added to the lake, development in the area sprouted up, much like water sprouts life in the desert. In the 20 years since Tempe Town Lake opened, more than 3 million square feet of mostly class A office space has sprung up along the two-mile span of the lake. A high-tech theme of employers has prevailed. Of the 90 tech companies located in Tempe, 20 are headquartered at Tempe Town Lake. State Farm built a 2 million square foot campus on the lake’s shores and employs some 8-thousand people. Zip Recruiter and Houzz also have offices on the water.
Multi-family housing is also coming to the area. Four developments, offering more than a thousand units already exist, but that number will soon double. The amenity-rich housing and a deep supply of qualified employees, courtesy of its proximity to ASU, helped fuel the tech boom near Tempe Town Lake and beyond. This growth explosion around the lake has generated new interest in the rest of the Rio Salado Project.
In 2018, the late Senator John McCain got behind what’s called “Rio Salado Re-imagined.” Once again, ASU is spearheading the project. But now planners can hold up Tempe Town Lake as the shining example of the potential such a project has. Even so, it will be years before Rio Salado Re-imagined will even be able to offer design proposals. The sheer scope of the project is daunting because it means getting leaders from several municipalities, two Native American communities and a host of industries to come together and agree on multiple factors. Nobody said it would be easy, but then no one probably thought Tempe would end up with a lake.
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