The vibrant college town of Tempe came of age during the past decade, staking its claim as a progressive, culturally minded community. Surrounded by the cities of Phoenix , Scottsdale , Mesa, and Chandler, the 40-square-mile city can no longer spread into the desert like other Valley suburbs.
Instead, it’s meeting the demands of a growing population by slowly casting away the shackles of suburbia to become a city where residential, retail, and commercial buildings coexist rather than retreat to their respective neighborhoods.
The city’s developers, recognizing the success of pedestrian-oriented Mill Avenue—a popular spot for dining and shopping—are now moving beyond the street’s nostalgic red-brick buildings and creating a modern cityscape along Tempe Town Lake . That said, the city isn’t new to experimental design.
In 1971, the city unveiled the Tempe Municipal Building (31 E. 5th St., 480/967-2001, www.tempe.gov ), an inverted glass-walled pyramid that shades itself from the summer sun. More recently, the Tempe Center for the Arts (700 W. Rio Salado Pkwy., 480/350-2829, www.tempe.gov/TCA , 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Sat., free) made a splash on the banks of Tempe Town Lake, with an elaborate silver roof reminiscent of local mountain ranges.
Still, Tempe hasn’t bulldozed its past. At the northern end of Mill Avenue, you can see the tall silos and remains of the Hayden Flour Mill. Charles Hayden originally built the river-powered mill in 1874. His Hayden Ferry connected Phoenix  from the north banks of the Salt River to a road to Tucson . A small community grew up along this “Mill Avenue,” and you can still see the old brick buildings and quaint bungalows and ranch houses that popped up here.