ASU Downtown Phoenix campus and city experience rapid growth

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Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix Campus (Stephanie Morse/DD)

Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus is the university’s fastest growing campus in recent years–leading to rapid change in the city it calls home.

The downtown campus has grown by 490 percent during the eleven years since its opening, according to a Downtown Devil analysis of Arizona Board of Regents data. When the school opened during the 2006-2007 academic year, the downtown campus accounted for five percent of total ASU full-time enrollment. In the current academic year, the campus accounts for about 18 percent.

The City of Phoenix also saw large growth over those years: the development of the light rail, the addition of multiple new businesses and apartment buildings, and a sizable technology boom. In 2004, ASU joined with the City of Phoenix, University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University to create the Phoenix Biomedical Campus downtown.

ASU’s downtown campus planning also began in 2004 and received a boost from the city of Phoenix with a $223 million bond approved by voters in 2006. Wellington “Duke” Reiter, senior advisor to the president at ASU and a leader in the planning and development of the downtown campus, said the planning and community support was important during the early development.

“Having a very methodical plan was crucial,” Reiter said. “Obviously the taxpayers believed in us. If the community gives you that kind of a runway, that gives you a real boost, and you can be really methodical if you know you have that much capacity to work with.”

The bond provided early funds for the development of the campus and was supported by 66 percent of Phoenix voters. However, there were some early community concerns about the connectedness and possible lack thereof between the university and the community.

“When the campus was built, it was easily described as sort of a gated community, it certainly wasn’t interspersed in the downtown, it was centralized,” said Steve Weiss, then chair of the Downtown Voices Coalition. “Whatever system ASU decided to get the word out about community events to students, it was either infantile hokey, or very insular.”

Rick Naimark, who now works for ASU, worked with the City of Phoenix during the initial planning phases of the downtown campus. He said the city was excited about the possible economic opportunities associated with having an ASU campus in Phoenix.

“From the city’s perspective, they were looking to invest in downtown to create greater vitality downtown, and an economy that was more sustainable for Phoenix,” Naimark said. “ASU had an interest to expand to serve an increasing demand for education. ASU thought about certain programs would flourish and grow if relocated to this particular location.”

Growth of the campus mirrored growth in the downtown area. Downtown Phoenix was the ninth fastest growing metro area economy from July 2016 to July 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. This translates into a $3.9 billion growth per year between 2011 and 2016.

Over that time, the downtown campus grew from 11,371 full-time students to 17,016.

Christine Mackay, Director of Community and Economic Development at City of Phoenix,  emphasized downtown’s growth over the past years.

“The development of the ASU campus is a true economic engine for downtown Phoenix,” Mackay said. “In 1980s and ’90s and early 2000s there really wasn’t a lot of activity in downtown. ASU really caused the redevelopment of the downtown area, they and the light rail and then the University of Arizona on the bioscience side were the three catalysts that really changed downtown Phoenix into a truly vibrant economic engine.”

Naimark echoed Mackay’s comments and said ASU played a big role in the revitalization of downtown Phoenix.

“The outcomes of this campus for the downtown community have been pretty amazing,” Naimark said. “If you lived in downtown Phoenix prior to this campus being built, you would notice unbelievable change in terms of the revitalization of downtown physically, the number of people around at all times of the day. The other piece is the tremendous amount of private investment in residential and office and other amenities, restaurants, et cetera that has really been a major outcome of this campus being down there.”

Weiss acknowledged downtown Phoenix’s growth, but said ASU’s presence has overall been a mixed bag and that community relations could still be better.

“What [the campus] is now, is a combination of good and ‘eh,'” Weiss said. “I think it’s a good thing that ASU came downtown, there’s definitely more people out there, there’s definitely more commerce going on. It could have been better if it were more interspersed.”

The campus has had various community initiatives over the years including an honors college class and a club called Downtown Phoenix Alive!, both focused on engaging with the community.

Reiter, however, felt more confident about the university’s integration with the community.

“We did our best to make sure that one of [the community’s] fears was not realized,” Reiter said. “At the time I think it was, ‘We don’t want ASU to be walled off from the community’. To create that kind of porosity you see on campus today, you know you can walk through it. We hold public events in all of the buildings all the time, some of which are not related to the direct mission of the university, but we think is the right thing to do.”

In addition to public events, the university also has more recent initiatives like Student Health Outreach for Wellness, a homeless health clinic, and Collaboratory on Central, a clinic at the Westward Ho. The public is generally allowed on campus–expect during certain student-only events–and is able to use some ASU resources like the library.

RELATED: Student-run clinic provides health care to Phoenix’s homeless

Much of the downtown campus growth is tied to its increasing expansion, with some of the biggest gains in full-time enrollment happening when the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Sandra O’Connor College of Law opened.

The growth of the campus is slated to continue with the Thunderbird School of Global Management moving downtown next school year and the first phase of ASU’s Phoenix Biomedical Campus expansion to open in 2019.

RELATED: Future Thunderbird relocation draws praise

RELATED: ASU partners with Wexford for Phoenix Biomedical Campus expansion

Mackay said the city is excited for ASU’s future growth in downtown Phoenix.

“The two universities [ASU and U of A] have been absolute economic changers for downtown,” Mackay said. “So now instead of being courts and governments and social services and financial services, now its tech companies, its redevelopment, its high density residential. In 2012 there were 67 technology companies in downtown, there’s 300 today. That’s driven by those universities being close.”

Naimark said the downtown campus has fulfilled its mission and exceed the university’s and city’s expectations.

“It gives me great gratification that the vision and the goals laid out by President Crow and the mayors and city councils that have been engaged in this [campus] has come to fruition,” Naimark said. “In a way, it’s been more successful than even our wildest imaginations.”

Correction March 13: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated when the Phoenix Biomedical Campus formed. It has been updated to reflect that the Phoenix Biomedical Campus was established in 2004.

Contact the reporter at jspevace@asu.edu.

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