Downtown Walkabout: City of Tempe welcomes light rail

Posted By Mike Padgett

Dec. 30, 2008

(Writer’s note: Downtown Phoenix rules the school these days, with the headlines dominated by the new Metro light rail, the expanded Phoenix Convention center, the new 1,000-room Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel, Arizona State University’s expanded downtown campus and other new developments. But there is more to the Valley than Phoenix. As part of an occasional series, I plan to talk with mayors, city planners and business owners in the region’s other cities. If you have ideas or concerns about the Valley’s suburbs or downtown Phoenix, send me a note. Thanks.)

A historic and popular business in Tempe is at once rooted in the state’s territorial past and a short walk from the region’s economic future.

Michael Monti saw the link between the past and the future become obvious on Dec. 27, the first day the Valley’s light rail system began carrying passengers. His restaurant, Monti’s La Casa Vieja, is a short walk north of a light rail stop at Mill and Third Street.

Monti’s, opened in 1956 in a structure that dates to the 1870s, was busier than expected on the first days the light rail trains ran. The rides were free last weekend, and about 150,000 passengers boarded the $1.4 billion light rail system. Two days later, just before New Year’s Day, and the rail cars remained packed, likely because of the holidays and the rides remain free until Jan.1. The system stretches 20 miles from 19th Avenue and Bethany Home road in Phoenix through Tempe to Mesa.

Those standing-room-only numbers, generated over two days by the uniqueness of light rail to the Valley, probably won’t be seen again. But Monti sees the light rail, called Metro, offering two immediate advantages – the mass transit system is a new way for residents and tourists to get around, and it creates a new economic corridor along its route.

The Metro also offers a new opportunity for East Valley hotels and restaurants to market themselves as a group to Metro riders heading to or from downtown Phoenix for sports events and other attractions at the new Phoenix Convention Center. The new facility’s north building opened Dec. 27, the same day light rail began operations.

For example, conventioneers unable to book rooms in downtown Phoenix will be able to consider staying in Tempe hotels “and ride the train to the convention center” in Phoenix, Monti says.

“They can now stay in Tempe and enjoy downtown Tempe but ride over to Phoenix for the other events,” Monti says. “I personally believe that downtown Tempe has more to gain from that (light rail) connection than downtown Phoenix does.”

Tempe’s selection of restaurants should benefit from the light rail because it is a short ride to and from Chase Field and US Airways Center in downtown Phoenix. While Phoenix officials naturally recommend dining at restaurants in their city, East Valley residents could walk or drive to the light rail stations in Tempe, ride the Metro to the Phoenix arenas and then return to Tempe for dinner, says Nancy Hormann, president and executive director of Downtown Tempe Community Inc. and Mill Avenue District, nonprofit organizations that help the city promote its downtown.

Monti, an admitted skeptic of light rail, says his restaurant at 100 S. Mill Ave., saw results of light rail traffic on the system’s inaugural run. He says several passengers getting off at the Third Street train stop visited his restaurant bar.

“We’re about 100 feet north of the light rail, so we’re really close,” he says. “Our bar got really busy during the first day just because people who were walking around stopped in for a drink.”

Hormann isn’t surprised that Monti’s received more business. She expects the light rail system to help crank up the activity in downtown Tempe’s retail community and its three time zones. They are:

• 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., dominated by the under-40 crowd, which are young professionals, students, business people and some faculty from Arizona State University, which is a five-minute walk from downtown Tempe.

• 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., which is the 55-and-under dinner crowd, often the weekday workers stopping on their way home from their jobs for dinner and entertainment.

• 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., when 20-somethings are prevalent in the downtown bars and clubs.

From her office at the corner of Mill Avenue and Third Street and looking north, Hormann points out her door to the new light rail line, the Tempe Gateway office building that Opus West Construction Corp. is erecting across the street, Monti’s, and the western end of the 43-acre Hayden Ferry Lakeside development less than two blocks away. Hayden Ferry, which is a SunCor Development Co. project, is a mile-long commercial, office and residential development with up to 5 million square feet proposed in several buildings.

In mid-2009, work is expected to begin at Hayden Ferry Lakeside on a 14-story building that will include a 240-room Hyatt Regency hotel with 24 condominiums on the upper floors. Completion is projected for early 2011.

Hometown ‘streetmosphere’

Horman says downtown Tempe has a hometown business atmosphere that hustles to keep up with economic changes while offering the ambiance of a small town. Unlike many other Valley cities, downtown Tempe offers a variety of storefront designs. It has trees and building overhangs shading the sidewalks. The one lane of traffic in each direction on Mill forces motorists to decelerate. Hormann calls it “a streetmosphere.”

“The environment, to me, seems like a small town,” she says. “Downtown Tempe has texture. It’s comfortable. And with the mix of old and new, it feels so real, to me. The feeling I get looking down the street is, it’s real. It’s active. It’s a community gathering place. It has character. It has diversity. There’s a mixture of old and new, which I think is great. It’s the coolest place.”

Hormann says downtown Tempe, like other concentrations of businesses, has its economic peaks and valleys. Currently, because of the economic downturn, Tempe is experiencing a slowdown, like the rest of the state.

“We were a victim of the economy before the rest of the region was a victim,” she says. “We have a lot of people who were closing down and tearing down buildings to build new buildings, because of (the formerly strong) economy. They had developer agreements to build new buildings. They tore down viable buildings; they emptied out viable buildings that had retailers in them.”

As bad luck would have it, “the economy changed, nothing’s happening and we have empty spaces that would not normally be empty,” Hormann says. “It was very bad timing.”

That slowdown forced developers and property owners to put their plans on hold, “and here we are,” Hormann says, adding that the light rail system is expected to help the region’s economic recovery.

“Everybody’s excited about it,” she says. “There’s a buzz here. I think what we will see is more people coming here (to Tempe because of light rail) who have not been here in a long time.”

Hormann was working in Dallas in the mid-1990s and in Sacramento, Calif., when those cities started their light rail systems. Hormann says many downtown workers in those cities eventually left their cars at home and commuted on light rail.

She says Dallas businesses expanded or relocated along the light rail line. Hormann and Monti, among others, expect similar dynamics in Tempe, Mesa and Phoenix now that Metro is operating.

“I think light rail is going to help Tempe sustain its destination status,” Hormann says. “Right now, downtown Tempe is a destination. You come here to eat, to be entertained, to hang out. And now, it’s a much easier place to come to, having the light rail station right there. You get off and make a left, you go to Tempe Town Lake, but if you make a right, you’re in the heart of Mill Avenue. You don’t have to walk several blocks to find it – you’re there.”

“From what I’ve seen in transit-oriented development (in Dallas), the light rail should help increase the foot traffic here,” Hormann says. “That’s going to help us develop more businesses here, as we get more and more people using it.”

 Light rail skepticism

Hormann says the naysayers that for years have been critical of the light rail system in metro Phoenix remind her of the public opinion battles faced by the Dallas light rail.

“I saw, before it started (in Dallas), a sea of skepticism,” she says. “Every day. People were saying, ‘Why are we spending all this money? What a waste of time and energy.’ But from the time it opened, it took maybe four years for 60 percent of the people who worked downtown were riding light rail in Dallas. And they all drove or rode buses before that.”

She adds that the conversion to light rail took time. Dallas residents had to get used to the idea of leaving their vehicles at home and using public transit. Economic incentives will help accelerate the process in metro Phoenix, especially when employers or commuters realize how much they can save, she adds.

“You can’t shove it down people’s throats,” she says. “You have to let them experience it first.”

Hormann expects metro Phoenix employers with offices and other operations close to the light rail line to begin subsidizing their workers’ light rail tickets. She says that expense might be comparable to, or less than, the employers’ current expenses in paying for employee parking.

Monti says light rail’s impact on the economy will take time. “It’s not a magic bullet. It’s not the Midas touch for any business along the line.

“There is no such thing as a miracle solution, and this economy’s pretty rough,” Monti continues. “I’m very optimistic about the benefits this (light rail) line is going to bring.”

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Dec 30th, 2008

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