TEMPE, Ariz. — A steady stream of sports and development bigwigs hailed the benefits of bringing a new hockey arena to Tempe, Arizona, during a recent city council meeting, although discussion rarely turned to the question of how the 46-acre mixed-use development it would anchor might impact the local arts scene that’s already grappling with increasing gentrification.
Assuming the developer gathers enough signatures, Tempe voters will get the chance to decide the issue in May 2023, following months of controversy about what this massive project could mean for housing, traffic, and the economy.
Today, some local artists and culture workers are wondering how the arena, which would be created as part of a larger Tempe Entertainment District, could impact the arts landscape — which includes traditional venues such as the ASU Art Museum on the Arizona State University campus and the Tempe Center for the Arts as well as alternative creative spaces like the Danelle Plaza strip mall with its mix of intriguing mural art.
Along with hotels, multifamily residential buildings, and retail spaces, the developer’s plan includes $7 million in public art and a 3,500-seat music theater, according to materials posted on the city’s website.
On the surface, it sounds like a good deal for Tempe, a city of about 200,000 people located just east of Phoenix, which snagged the number two spot in Money Magazine’s 2022 list of the best places to live partly because of its “active arts and culture scene.”
But a staple of the metro Phoenix arts landscape is offering a cautionary tale, recalling the displacement of artists that occurred when Phoenix and the Phoenix Suns basketball team partnered to create a multi-use arena that opened in 1992. “It totally destroyed the developing arts scene in the warehouse district,” artist Beatrice Moore told Hyperallergic.
Bobby Zokaites, a Tempe-based artist who has created several works of public art for the city, has a sculpture studio located just a mile or two from the planned arena site at Priest Drive and Rio Salado Parkway. Although he’s excited about the public art components of the plan, Zokaites said he’d rather see something akin to Chicago’s Millennium Park in its place. “Dream-wise it would be an amazing place for a sculpture park,” he said.
Robert Moore, a Tempe resident who coordinates Danelle Plaza art installations and previously served on the municipality’s arts and culture commission, notes that the promise to include art in the arena development sounds strangely familiar.
“Arts and culture seems to be signaled as a key component within Tempe redevelopment initiatives recently without much follow through, as if it is simply a mechanism to lure public support instead of an earnest effort to create places that nurture local art scenes and our creative economy,” he said.
Hyperallergic reached out to the City of Tempe, the developer’s attorney, and the Arizona Coyotes, one of the professional ice hockey teams that would use the arena, requesting specifics about the public art and music venue referenced in the development plan and the ways in which they expect the project to impact Tempe arts and culture. The arena would be home base for the Coyotes, an NHL team that relocated from Canada to metro Phoenix in 1996.
Brendan Ross, the city’s deputy community services director for arts and culture, responded that the Tempe Entertainment District “offers a unique opportunity to bolster public art in our community,” describing the public art component as “an unprecedented addition of art in one development” that can be “enjoyed by the whole community.” He did not weigh in on the project’s potential impact on the local arts community.
“It’s premature at this point to discuss the proposed art for the district,” wrote Rich Nairn, executive vice president of communications and broadcasting for the Arizona Coyotes. “We have to wait until hopefully the arena and development are approved on May 16 [public vote].”
Artist Kyllan Maney, a former Tempe resident who has completed several creative projects for the municipality, wishes officials would share more specifics about the art components in the plan. “It would be in the city’s best interest to put forward detailed information about how this development is going to engage with local artists and musicians,” she said. “There are ways to incorporate art that could really add excitement in the community.”
Beatrice Moore hopes that artists will pay close attention as proponents and opponents of the project appeal to voters in the coming weeks and months, despite her feeling that “all of the fights are skewed towards people of means, and in the end the developer will get to call all the shots.”
For artists living near the planned site, she suggests owning rather than renting property to avoid being priced out of the area. “These projects create a lot of speculation with people rushing in to buy up properties they just sit on for a long time, which pushes up their values,” she explained.
Moore said she remembers the artist community being split about the Phoenix arena project back in the day. “Some thought it would be great because they would sell more art when there were more people in the area,” she recalls. “We told them you won’t even be here — you’ll be pushed out.”