By Ron Bernthal
Since the mid-1960’s the southwestern desert of central Arizona has been blooming—with verdant golf courses, reflective glass skyscrapers, opulent resorts, air-conditioned cookie cutter suburbs, and long ribbons of concrete freeways that slice through the desert floor as easily as the native diamondback rattlesnakes.
More than 65,000 people have moved into metro-Phoenix every year since 1968, swelling the area’s population to almost three million. Many of these new immigrants, seeking either year-round jobs, winter tee-off times, or just an opportunity to live near the cactus-filled Sonoran desert, settle down in one of Phoenix’s bedroom communities—Mesa, Scottsdale, Tempe, or Chandler—where, rich or poor, they all share the same concern–water.
The quest for water, in a region that gets less than 7 inches annually from mother nature, has become, literally, an obsession in Arizona . Whether it is used for agricultural irrigation, local industry, residential swimming pools and showers, or to water 18 holes of a golf green, everyone needs, and wants, this precious liquid.
In the Phoenix area residents pay dearly for CAP water (Central Arizona Project), that portion of Colorado River water that is diverted to Arizona ‘s central valley cities. Underground aquifers bring in more water, and canals and dam projects allow surface water to flow down to the valley from the mountains.
Still, with most rain water evaporating almost instantly as it hits the dry desert floor, and with new housing developments and population growth drawing down the aquifer supply,
conservation is on everyone’s mind. One desert city, however, is about to begin a large-scale experiment that should not only help conserve and control its water resources, but provide its residents and visitors with a unique sight of splashing whitecaps just yards from downtown.
This summer, in one of the largest commercial water projects to date, the Phoenix suburb of Tempe (pronounced Tem-pee), will attempt to fill a dry stretch of the Salt River and create a two-mile long freshwater lake, that will one day attract resorts, restaurants, bike paths, retail shops, condominiums, and marinas to its desert shoreline.
This ambitious undertaking, known as The Rio Salado Project, will turn the sandy and arid northern end of Tempe (population 159,000) into an idyllic green belt, and add one more appetizing feature to a city that seems to be near the top of everyone’s “Best Places to Live” list.
“This will really put us on the map as far as tourism is concerned,” said Julie Henig, of the Tempe Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The Salado project should give a big boost to a city that already has so much going for it.”
“This town is really a fabulous place to live, ” said Carrie Johnson, echoing Ms. Henig’s opinion and, apparently, the feeling of most Tempeans. Ms. Johnson, a ex-Brooklynite who moved to Tempe a few years ago, is a former back-up singer to Debbie Gibson and Paula Abdul, and lives in one of Tempe ‘s residential neighborhoods, where quiet cul-de-sacs are bordered with palm trees, and front lawns sprout desert cactus and lemon trees.
Most of the city’s neighborhoods lie within a 10 minute bike ride of Arizona State University and Mill Avenue, Tempe’s main downtown artery, which is more reminiscent of 1960’s Berkeley than 1990’s Southwest.
“We have such a vibrant and friendly community here,” Ms. Johnson said, as she sat at the edge of her backyard swimming pool. She softly plucked the strings of her guitar in preparation for her late-night singing gig at a local brew pub.
“The freeways in Phoenix are like LA, we don’t have our nose in the air like Scottsdale , and we’re not blue-collar suburban like Mesa or Chandler ,” she said, alluding to other nearby cities that, according to her, just don’t have the cachet of Tempe .
A recent Tempe City Council survey backed Ms. Johnson’s feelings, with 97 percent of those surveyed saying they felt satisfied or very satisfied about the quality of life in their city.
Although Tempe’s dozens of trendy boutiques, brew pubs, bookstores, art galleries, museums, and snazzy shopping centers are the envy of most American cities, it also has bragging rights to a clean environment, a major state university, a young and benevolent government that is presently seeking to reduce city property taxes, and now, as if all that weren’t enough, a sparkling new desert. lake.
Founded in 1871 by Charles Hayden, Tempe began as a small agricultural settlement on the Salt River . Using the ancient Hohokam canal system, which brought surface water to the valley fields from the snow laden mountains, early farmers were successful in growing a variety of citrus fruits, including lemons, grapefruits, and oranges.
With the hazy peaks of the Sierra Ancha in the distance, and sandstone buttes erupting from the earth right in town, the settlement must have been an idyllic spot. An early resident, Darrell Duppa, suggested the name Tempe after the beautiful Vale of Tempe in Greece , near Mount Olympus .
The construction of the Roosevelt Dam in 1911, fifty miles east of Tempe , helped control the flow of Salt River water, and cotton flourished in the area during World War I and II, when military orders for cotton goods helped increase profits.
The introduction of evaporative cooling and refrigeration during the 1950’s were a major factor in Arizona’s growth, but Tempe remained a quiet agricultural town, with just a few thousand people, although the establishment of the main campus of Arizona State University, in the early 1900’s, set a tone that would one day be an important facet of Tempe’s explosive growth.
As farms were slowly replaced by residential subdivisions, new residents had to contend with animal odors from nearby feedlots, and small downtown agricultural businesses moved further out of town, to be replaced, in the 1960’s, by incense and candle shops, used clothing stores, espresso bars, and stores openly selling drug paraphernalia. For many Tempeans, the quiet, sun-baked little farming community was being taken over by unemployed hippies, and these conservative farmers wanted none of that.
In the early 1970’s, however, city planners in Tempe , now with almost 150,000 residents, including more than 30,000 college students, decided to change the city’s physical image and, at the same time, unify its citizens.
The Gammage Auditorium, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building, went up on Apache Boulevard , and local merchants and political leaders started a redevelopment program to save Historic Tempe, the downtown area which had become seedy looking and rundown. Historic downtown structures were renovated, and outlying 19 th century homes were dismantled, moved into the city center, and rebuilt. Vest-pocket parks were created, and Mill Street , the city’s main commercial drag, was redesigned under compliance with the 1971 Design Review Ordinance, a master plan which helped turn Tempe into one of the country’s most livable cities. By 1985 Tempe was chosen as an “All-American City,” especially for its efforts to integrate the university community, local businesses, tourism interests, and the environment.
And by this summer, if all goes as planned, Tempe will have a waterfront, an anomaly that does not go unnoticed by other parched southwestern cities. Despite the fact that The Rio Salado project will recycle lake water runoff, and help control Salt River snow-melt flooding, the thought of a desert city having its own lake is too much for some Arizonians.
“I can’t believe they’re spending all that money to cover the desert with water,” a sheep rancher from Prescott was quoted as saying in a local weekly. “It’s just not natural. If those people want to look at water so much, they should have stayed back East,” he said.
Tempeans, however, may have the last laugh. With a waterfront conference center, corporate offices, hotels, and themed attractions set to go up on the new lake, and with a ferry shuttle planned to take visitors across the cool water, it will make those scorching summer days seem more like, well, a day at the beach.
America West Airlines has daily non-stop flights from Newark to Phoenix , and the airline’s corporate headquarters are located in downtown Tempe , only 10 minutes from
Phoenix ‘s Sky Harbor Airport . (800-292-9378)
The Tempe Mission Palms Hotel is a full-service 303-room hotel with a palm-shaded interior courtyard, outdoor pool deck and health club, and Mission Grille, with excellent regional cuisine. Located just off Mill Avenue in downtown Tempe . Rate: $109-189 (Low off-season rates begin June lst) (800-547-8705; www.missionpalms.com)
Other properties include Ramada, Holiday Inn, Embassy Suites, and Hampton Inn. The Peabody Tempe, with 1,000 rooms, is expected to open as part of the completed Rio Salado project, and will be Arizona ‘s largest hotel.
There are dozens of good restaurants in Tempe , including Beeloe’s Cafe & Underground Bar, Monti’s La Casa Vieja, Mill Landing Restaurant, Gordon Biersch Brewing Co., and Blue Burrito Grille.
The Tempe Historical Museum , Hackett House, the Arizona Historical Society Museum , and the Niels Petersen House are all worth visiting for historical interest. The Arizona State University Art Museum, the Anthropology and Geology Museum, the Meteorite Collection, and the Northlight Gallery, are all part of ASU and easily accessible to visitors. Sun Devil Stadium is the site of the annual Fiesta Bowl, as well as the home of the NFL Arizona Cardinals. Gammage Center for the Performing Arts is the last public structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and offers musical shows, concerts, dance.
For a complete list of upcoming events, and nearby Arizona attractions, contact the Tempe Convention & Visitors Bureau, 51 W. Third St. , Tempe , AZ 85281 (602-894-8158; Email firstname.lastname@example.org)
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