Tempe Town Lake officially re-opens today, fresh with 773 MILLION gallons of water. Of course, after sitting empty for nearly three months, it’s awfully quiet! I say it’s due time we say hello to an old friend. Who’s with me?
(Courtesy of Derek Quizon and Luci Scott – Arizona Republic)
The day before Tempe began refilling Town Lake, Walter Hall, 62, of Phoenix, and Doug Mach, 60, of Scottsdale, waited on the south bank for their weekly running group.
They stood at the edge of the walkway, facing away from the sun as it set over the Phoenix skyline to the west, its orange glow reflecting brightly off scattered puddles where the lake used to be.
That evening, the park was less lively than Mach and Hall remembered it. There were a few runners, a photographer and two men practicing martial arts underneath the light-rail bridge. Like the lake itself, the park felt strangely empty.
“It’s like someone pulled the plug on Tempe,” Hall said.
In its 11-year history, the lake’s city-meets-nature setting had become one of Arizona’s most visited attractions, second only to the Grand Canyon. It was home to numerous festivals and made possible swimming and boating races that couldn’t be staged anywhere else in a desert city.
All that washed downstream when the lake’s dam burst in July. In the months since, the Valley has been without its aquatic centerpiece. And along the banks, the runners and walkers, photo-takers and spectators, rowers and high-rise residents all have been waiting for the lake to return.
On Oct. 9, the new dam was in place and water started flowing.
On Tuesday morning, Tempe will officially reopen Town Lake.
The lake emptied abruptly July 20 when part of its rubber dam collapsed – the result, according to official reports, of age and exposure to heat. Most of the lake’s water drained into the Salt River bed, leaving behind a pit full of puddles and dying fish.
The failure created an immediate controversy, with officials from Tempe and Bridgestone Co., the dam’s manufacturer, blaming one another.
Bridgestone said it had warned Tempe as far back as 2006 that the dam’s rubber bladders were deteriorating faster than expected. Tempe City Council members grumbled that despite the bladders’ 10-year warranty, they had been told the bladders would likely last 20 years. The bladders failed in half that time.
But Tempe and Bridgestone put aside their differences to restore the lake quickly. Under an agreement made in 2007, Bridgestone paid the $3 million in dam-replacement costs.
The Valley’s sprawling desert communities fail to offer visitors the type of grand entrance they would have in, say, Chicago or New York – at least not in the way of cityscape. The surrounding mountains offer a scenic backdrop, but the area lacks the man-made landmarks found in other major American cities.
The development on the lake, including high-rise condos and office buildings, changed that. In addition to being an economic engine and a place for community events, the lake is a signature attraction that identifies Tempe and the Valley for outsiders.
“When you fly into Phoenix for the first time and you’re expecting sand dunes and cactus and camels, you see this gleaming lake with contemporary development along the edge,” said architect R. Nicholas Loope, president and chief operating officer of DAVIS, an architectural and interior design firm that occupies a lakeside office.
“And you see Papago Park or Arizona State University, and you’re saying, ‘My gosh, this desert is alive and vibrant with beautiful buildings and natural resources.’ ”
The string of upscale developments created waterfront property out of what had been an empty riverbed.
Scottsdale real-estate developer Sunbelt Holdings bought roughly 16 acres, including the spot for an office tower at Rio Salado and Mill Avenue, Vice President Heidi Kimball said.
Kimball said she can’t imagine the development would have happened without the lake. Previously, the area was not attractive.
“You were looking at essentially a gravel pit,” she said.
Tempe Beach Park’s ample space and scenery also have made it a favorite location for all kinds of races and benefit walks.
So when the dam burst, something significant was missing.
The lake is home to some of the Valley’s biggest events. Next month, it will play host to the Ironman triathlon, attracting athletes from around the country to compete in a grueling race combining swimming, cycling and running.
The draining of the lake didn’t stop it from hosting Fall Frenzy, a three-day rock concert in September featuring nationally recognized musicians, and the city’s annual Oktoberfest.
“The lake has become a node for these various public events that now occur on a regular basis,” Loope said.
As for the lake’s races and athletic events on and off the water, some had to be canceled or postponed, including a series of swimming and running races known as the Ironcare Splash and Dash and a day of boat races called the Hot Head Regatta. But races scheduled for November are expected to go on as planned.
Nancy Hormann, director of Downtown Tempe Community, estimated that 100 events a year happen at the lake. The non-profit organization works with the city to manage and market the downtown for area landowners.
The lake is “a constant draw to our community,” she said.
That was evident the week before the lake reopened, as the process of refilling it neared completion.
Between 25 and 30 people were at the park Tuesday evening. The runners, who had come throughout the summer, were joined on that night by the kinds of people who had been missing since the lake dried up.
Two women held a picnic on the surrounding grass, and a few students dropped their backpacks to rest on nearby benches. Groups of visitors huddled near the concrete edge of the south bank, admiring the beauty of the sunset over the newly restored lake.
And that, said Walter Hall and Doug Mach, may be the lake’s most significant role – bringing people together on the most mundane occasions as well as the most festive ones.
“It gives you a sense that you’re a part of something,” Mach said.