Town Lake turns 20: From river bottom to Valley’s recreation and development centerpiece

An evolution to celebrate: Wrangler News joins the celebration with special coverage of the past, present and future of Tempe’s centerpiece. Pictured here is Kate Schumann performing yoga poses on a splendid evening at Tempe Beach Park. — Photos by Billy Hardiman for Wrangler News

Special coverage by Wrangler News staff

A Town Lake celebratory wish: Happy birthday!

Tempe Town Lake turns 20 years old this year and a celebratory event featuring free activities takes place 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9.

Melissa Quillard, a public information officer for Tempe’s Community Services Division, said the birthday party will also offer a view to the future.

“We want to celebrate the history of the lake–how far it’s come–while also giving the community a preview of what the next 20 years will look like,” Quillard said.

“Last year, Tempe City Council passed the Rio Salado and Beach Park Master Plan, which is the city’s blueprint for the future of Tempe Town Lake.
The community event will activate the lake for a day in alignment with that plan,” Quillard said.

“Additionally, we will be issuing an RFI (Request for Information) next month to seek ideas for public-private partnerships.”

As for the types of activities that party-goers will see at this event, Quillard says, “People can experience mini-recreation classes like yoga, Core Fitness, Zumba and Tai Chi. There will be a zip line, rock wall, pump track, mini Sixth Street Market, tons of game tables and REI activity station, mini-kayak and stand-up paddleboard lessons.”

The park will also feature various types of food trucks and exhibitors as well as live music from four separate bands.

From the City of Tempe staff:

It’s a beautiful place to be at sunset. The sky and glass buildings reflect their colors in the water. A heron glides over a rowing team. Amidst the buzz of an urban city, it’s peaceful at Tempe Town Lake.

The metamorphosis of Tempe Town Lake from a barren river bottom to one of the Southwest’s leading destinations for recreation and development showcases Tempe’s innovation, leadership and its value of community partnerships.

Now celebrating 20 years as a drawing card for visitors Valley- and state-wide, Tempe gets deserved credit for its transformation of seven miles of floodplain into breathtaking park space and some of the most coveted real estate in Arizona.

Said Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell: “We are celebrating the lake as an entertainment and development success, but it is so much more than that. Town Lake is a place where people celebrate milestones in their lives—they get married at Tempe Center for the Arts; athletes push themselves to the limit competing in their first triathlon; families come together for traditions like the annual boat parade or just for Sunday evening strolls. Town Lake has become the backdrop of meaningful memories for many people.”

The idea for Tempe Town Lake originated as a class project for the Arizona State University School of Architecture in 1965. The dry Salt River had long been used as a dumping ground.

But Dean James Elmore and his class had an idea: they conceived a return of the Salt River in the form of a lake, surrounded by businesses and recreation opportunities.

Great vision doesn’t happen overnight. It took more than 30 years, but with partnerships from Arizona State University, federal, state and county governments and the business community, Tempe Town Lake became a reality in November 1999.

Today, more than 2 million people visit Tempe Town Lake annually. More than 30,000 people live within a mile of its shores. More than 42,000 people work within a mile of the lake at companies such as State Farm Insurance, Amazon, Microsoft, Freedom Financial, Silicon Valley Bank and Carvana.

Alexandra and Sean Mullaney pause for a snapshot while strolling along the shore.

As Tempe Town Lake continues to attract tech firms and advanced business service companies, the economy of the whole region rises.

What’s more, the area’s popularity continues to climb. Location is one reason—it’s located minutes away from five freeways, Sky Harbor International Airport, light rail and, soon, Tempe’s streetcar.

The amazing recreation opportunities around the lake make it a popular selling point for attracting some of the best of the Valley’s workforce.

Where else can one go paddleboarding on a lunch hour? Since its creation, more than 13.8 million square feet of development has been built at Town Lake. Another 2.7 million is under construction. About 6 million square feet of Class A office space has been built with a vacancy rate of just 3.1 percent, compared to about 14 percent across metro Phoenix.

And to make room for the lake’s visitors, 400 hotel rooms await, with hundreds more planned.

from the very youngest age, Tempe residents learn to appreciate the subtle beauty of an urban waterscape.

Underway now is IDEA Tempe, a technology campus to the west of Tempe Center for the Arts. The first building, anchored by Becton Dickinson, opens in early 2020.

Commercial and residential projects at The Grand at Papago Park Center and Watermark are under construction now, opening in the coming months.

ASU’s Novus Innovation Corridor will also add more than 300 acres of new office, retail, residential, and educational uses. Looking to the future, there is still prime land on Town Lake, large enough for several new buildings.

The success of the lake has flowed into adjacent areas of the community, such as the Smith Innovation Hub and downtown Tempe. Where there were once development gaps, a long stream of businesses now exists. Additionally, there are more recreation options coming to Tempe Town Lake.

A Rio Salado Master Plan looks toward the lake’s next 20 years, when it is expected that people will be able to take outdoor painting classes or do lakeside yoga. There could be a zip line or a rock wall. Rather than getting in the car, a water taxi could take passengers from the north to the south side of the lake.

Dipping their oars in Tempe Town Lake at sunset, a team of rowers makes its way across the waters.

Rio Reimagined—a creative and collective effort envisioned to integrate priorities of public open space, environmental quality, housing, transportation, economic and workforce development, community sustainability and resilience—could spread the spirit of the Rio Salado Project to Phoenix and Mesa, using the success of Tempe Town Lake as a starting point.

The vision that foresaw what might be in two decades has become a reality, and is now spurring imaginations again.

The future of Tempe Town Lake is as golden as an Arizona sunrise.

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