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Downtown Phoenix campus turns 15

It was once a place where people cleared out after work, where most restaurants closed by 3 p.m., where only the occasional sports game or First Fridays art walk drew a younger crowd.

Now Arizona State University students live and learn on the Downtown Phoenix campus, bringing an energy and presence that have helped inject new life into the area.

It’s easy to forget that the Downtown Phoenix campus’ vibrant collection of new and renovated buildings, residence halls, entrepreneurship spaces and streetscapes were once vacant acreage, parking lots and neglected commercial space. Now it’s a place where students study health and nursing, journalism, public service and law; gather in open spaces for social events; and do outreach with various local communities.

The campus marks its 15th anniversary this school year.

“The ASU Downtown Phoenix campus represents the best of what is possible when a city joins forces with an innovative university to address a community need and reimagine all the ways they can collaborate to be of service,” said ASU President Michael Crow. “ASU believes that universities should be accessible wherever there is an opportunity to help learners and the community at large to thrive, and we’re proud of the growth and experiences our downtown campus creates for learners and partners alike, as well as the robust, cross-sector network it has revitalized in the heart of our metro region.”

Prior to the Downtown Phoenix campus, ASU had never tried to sell an urban experience. Its establishment came as result of an unprecedented referendum.

Public money was involved. The basketball arena was downtown, but unless there was a game, the streets were empty in the evenings. Civic leaders knew the area needed more to push it to the next level. And that included populating the area with students who would live, work, study and shop there.

In short, these students would become citizens of the city and able to pursue their careers in a more dynamic arrangement.

New York City has Columbia. Los Angeles has UCLA. Phoenix needed an urban university. But there was no need to create one from scratch. 

What follows is the story of how a group of very determined people turned a napkin sketch into a viable 20-acre, multimillion-dollar university campus in a short amount of time that had skeptics wondering if it would ever really happen.

Students move big carts of belongings across a downtown street

Two decades ago, the streets of downtown Phoenix were populated by business people and the occasional event goer. Now students bring their energy and potential to ASU's campus, where a line of families moving students into the residence halls is a common sight each August. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Breakfast of champions

The Downtown Phoenix campus wasn’t initially created on an architect’s draft table or an engineer’s rendering. It was sketched on a plain, white restaurant napkin.

It started with two great minds — and two empty stomachs — over breakfast in 2003. Crow and then-Mayor Phil Gordon wanted more than a satellite school. They wanted bacon and eggs — and they wanted thousands to live and study in downtown Phoenix for a very long time.

“Our first meeting took place at The Good Egg on Central and Camelback in Phoenix when I was running for Phoenix mayor,” said Gordon, who won the race in September 2003 and served as Phoenix’s mayor from 2004 to 2012. “Bringing ASU to the downtown area was one of things I pushed during my campaign. Dr. Crow said, ‘Great idea. Come back — win or lose — and let’s move this concept forward.'”

They met again at the same restaurant shortly after Gordon’s victory, vowing to work together to take the university, the city and the region to new heights. Gordon, a municipal leader unafraid of taking on challenges, and Crow, the academic visionary who felt that the old college system was broken and who had declared ASU the “New American University,” seemed perfectly matched.

Phoenix and the university’s burgeoning popularity added pressure to act swiftly to create an environment that would attract a “creative class” — people who would build a knowledge industry and develop technologies to nourish Arizona in the 21st century.

Despite Phoenix’s designation as one of the nation’s largest cities, and its growth and prosperity in the new millennium, its core had been somewhat hollow, especially after business hours. Merging students, staff and faculty with merchants, artisans, government and nonprofits would inject a much needed, livelier ambiance in the city’s core.

It would also help accommodate ASU’s booming numbers. In order to meet the projected growth in college-bound Arizona high school graduates, the university needed capacity. ASU began shifting its focus from Tempe to other campuses in the Valley to handle the overflow: ASU’s West and Polytechnic campuses, and a small satellite facility at the Mercado at Seventh and Van Buren streets. Both Crow and Gordon knew expanding ASU to a full-scale campus in downtown Phoenix made perfect sense.

A college student smiles for a headshot with a news desk set behind her

ASU Adjunct Professor Isaac Easley takes a headshot of Cronkite News Sports team member Mariah Graves, a graduate student in sports journalism, at the Cronkite News set on Aug. 19. The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication was one of the first colleges that moved to the Downtown Phoenix campus 15 years ago. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

A blueprint for maroon and gold

That napkin became ASU’s blueprint — a campus geared toward city-minded students attracted to service-oriented careers. The area was teeming with government, media, nonprofit, legal, medical and business operations ripe for full- or part-time internships, mentoring and professional networking opportunities. The region’s bevy of professional arts, dance, theater and music venues; sports stadiums; and fine and casual dining would cap off the university’s unique work-study-live experience.

A university design team, led by Wellington “Duke” Reiter, then dean of what was known as the College of Architecture and Environmental Design (now The Design School), said in early 2004 that he was pulled into Crow’s office and asked if he could design an urban campus for ASU. There weren’t yet too many hard-and-fast specifics, including which colleges would relocate downtown, but he was given one directive — have it done in 60 days.

“How do you design a house before you know who the occupants are? How do you design a campus before you know which colleges will go there?” Reiter said. “The only thing I really knew was the scope, which was, one day the campus would potentially serve 15,000 students, which was a start.”

Reiter also enlisted noted and locally based architecture firms to think beyond the normal constraints of what might be possible. The firms included Will Bruder Architects, Architekton, SmithGroup and DeBartolo Architects.

They collectively identified several universities — George Washington University in Washington, D.C.; New York University; Emerson College in Boston; and Savannah College of Arts and Design in Georgia — as excellent models of how an urban campus interacts with the community.

Reiter also advocated for a civic space or multiuse park to be used by the students and general public. The idea was to bridge the city and the university, and offer community-related events, sponsored by both entities. The end result was a $34 million sustainable space that opened in 2009 called Civic Space Park.

A university design team also spent several months deciding which colleges should relocate to the downtown campus. They ultimately chose: the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication; Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions; the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation; and University College.

A few years later the campus added the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law; College of Health Solutions; Thunderbird School of Global Management and the Graduate College. The College of Integrative Sciences and Arts; Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College; and Barrett, The Honors College also established a presence on the campus, as did a sprinkling of centers, think tanks and initiatives.

A light rail train crosses the street in front of a high-rise dorm

Fusion on First, a combination high-rise residence hall and academic-entrepreneurship space, welcomed its first residents on Aug. 16. The first floor of the new building will offer some student amenities as well a makerspace. The second and third floors will feature academic space with fashion being prominent on the second floor and music programing on third. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

No Plan B

When the city and ASU unveiled its master plan to the community, it was met with mixed praise from the business community, local residents and most especially the media. Landholders debated whether or not to sell their property; private developers in the area wondered if they should get involved; residents didn’t want the university to change the downtown’s character. Some media openly questioned the viability of the project.

There were some members on the home team who wondered aloud if the city’s greatest revitalization project was really going to happen, given its collapsed timeline of getting the campus up and running by late August 2006.

“One of the deans asked me early in the process what was ‘Plan B’?” said Mernoy Harrison, former ASU executive vice president and chief financial officer, who was selected by Crow to oversee the completion of the campus. “I told this person, ‘There is no Plan B. It’s do or die. We either launch this campus or die trying.”

Harrison’s declaration soon became the battle cry for ASU and city of Phoenix employees, who designed, renovated and constructed a university campus in record-breaking time.

But where to get the money?

A 2006 Phoenix bond proposal would provide the necessary funds to build the campus. The proposal totaled $878.5 million for homeland security, education, parks, libraries, streets, fire stations and other city infrastructure and amenities. Of those funds, $223 million was earmarked for the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus — almost a fourth of the total and the largest single proposed bond expenditure.

But it needed voter approval.

That took place on March 14, 2006, winning over 60% of the vote according to the Associated Press. That was the good news. The bad — or at least stressful — news was that ASU and city officials had less than six months to renovate several buildings, purchase office supplies, equipment and furniture, strategize operations, move 600 faculty from the Tempe campus, and hire 80 new staff members, including the four founding deans. A tall order for a short window of time.

three men talking outside wearing masks

School of Social Work graduate students Brandon Falk (left) and Ronald Bookman (right) chat with Westward Ho resident Douglas Meyer during an informal meetup in Civic Space Park in downtown Phoenix last winter. The social-hour activity was started by the ASU Community Collaborative as a way for residents to safely connect and is but one of many ways ASU students connect with the downtown community. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

The planets align

Construction crews scrambled, working around the clock while ASU burned the midnight oil planning for the massive four-college move — all while the new light rail system along Central Avenue was getting underway. Buildings were gutted and classrooms readied, while the torn-up streets made navigating a challenge.

But then trucks and shipments with televisions, computers and furnishings started to arrive and, finally, it was done.

“All the planets were aligned for this project,” Reiter said. “We had a mayor who was ready to do something great; a governor who was predisposed towards higher education; a university president who was ready to build; a community who supported this idea; a bond election, which could fund this and make it a reality; and a thriving economy, which gave voters the confidence to make positive change. It was the right cast of characters at the right economic time.”

Several hundred dignitaries, employees, business owners and locals joined the Aug. 15, 2006, ribbon-cutting ceremony inside the University Center lobby to listen to special remarks from Gov. Janet Napolitano, Gordon and Crow, as well as take a tour of campus facilities. ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus went from brainstorming sketch to reality in just three short years.

And that fall, it welcomed more than 3,000 full-time and 6,000 part-time students. Today, that number has almost quadrupled to more than 11,000 full-time students. One of them is Noah Furtado, a Hawaiian native who came to Phoenix to study journalism.

“I like that everything on the Downtown Phoenix campus is close by, and the longest walk I have to make for a class is about 15 minutes,” Furtado said. “There’s a really down-to-earth vibe here compared to Tempe. Everything is close by, and the people are close-knit.”

Furtado also likes the amenities at the Cronkite School and hanging out with like-minded students.

“I like the fact that the Cronkite building has a lot of editing bays, and you can go in there whenever you want to learn the craft and work with all of the different photo and video applications,” Furtado said. “It’s refreshing to be around a lot of people who are passionate about the same thing you are. It’s nice that we have a shared interest in sports journalism, and it’s something that I didn’t have with a lot of people back in Hawaii.”

Also new to campus this year is Cronkite School Dean Battinto Batts Jr., who moved from Cincinnati this summer. He said living and working in downtown Phoenix has a vibrancy that he’s enjoying.

“The downtown Phoenix campus has grown tremendously over the course of the past decade and has been a powerful catalyst in the community’s overall growth,” Batts said. “Being new to ASU, I am currently living downtown while looking for permanent housing. The energy is so appealing that we’re in no rush to leave. I am a believer in the role of higher education as transformers of communities. That role involves being a developer of buildings while also developing a vibe and a feel. Arizona State has accomplished both with its Downtown Phoenix campus, and I am excited to be a part of it.”

A construction worker standing on an elevated ladder platform works on the windows of a building under construction

Construction is in the final stages of the new home of the Thunderbird School of Global Management on the Downtown Phoenix campus, shown here Aug. 19. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

Room to grow

Though it may seem to many that the campus has reached full maturation, it is in fact growing and still has room for expansion.

This semester saw the opening of Fusion on First, a high-rise residential community at 380 N. First Ave. The building will include 13 floors of apartment-style student housing and several floors of classroom space, housing the fashion and popular music majors from the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

Another building nearing completion is the new home of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, which announced its relocation to the Downtown Phoenix campus in 2017. Thunderbird’s move from its former westside location to downtown Phoenix provides the opportunity to evaluate the curriculum and give them proximity to other ASU schools and colleges, while continuing to provide world-class global management and business education with a unique intercultural focus.

Thunderbird’s new building is between First and Second streets, just north of Polk Street. It includes space for classrooms, meetings, enclave and office space and will include two levels for executive education. There will also be rooftop function space.

Ongoing plans for the campus include continued growth of the existing academic programs currently on the campus, which, over time, means the need for more classroom, office and residential space. In addition, downtown has become a major center for health and bioscience research, with the opening this year of the Wexford Innovation Center on the Phoenix Biomedical Campus, which was another collaboration between the city of Phoenix and ASU, with the help of Wexford Science + Technology.

TGen and private companies — along with all three state universities — are doing cutting-edge research to advance human health in the downtown area. ASU’s College of Health Solutions and Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation are driving this research growth for ASU, and it is expected that additional university and private research activity will gravitate to and grow in the downtown area, along with the startups that emerge from this research.

The Downtown Phoenix campus’ launch and continued success is one of Gordon’s proudest accomplishments in his eight years as Phoenix mayor.

“It has succeeded way beyond anyone’s expectations,” said Gordon, who is now the director of the Chan Soon-Shiong Institute of Advanced Health, a data center dedicated to health information. “In addition to the campus, there’s the outgrowth of apartments, houses, restaurants, bars, grocery stores, retail businesses and commercial buildings. The campus has totally redeveloped downtown Phoenix, and now other major cities want college campuses in their downtowns, too."

Learn more about the evolution of the Downtown Phoenix campus and the unique partnership between ASU and the city of Phoenix

Top photo: Students make their way to classes at the Beus Center for Law and Society during the first day of fall 2021 classes on ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus Aug. 19. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU