In the past, there have been many reasons to avoid visiting a city’s downtown. There was never anything to do, parking was a nightmare and walking around the area was something to be done only when necessary.

In recent years, the Valley’s downtowns have become the hottest places for folks to live, work and play in (yes, that tired old cliché) as communities around the country have strived to be just such a place.

There was a time when Downtown Phoenix was such a place, but the addition of the Light Rail, ASU’s Downtown campus, Roosevelt Row turning into a popular arts district and a thriving entrepreneurial environment allowed Downtown Phoenix to enjoy a renaissance.

But Phoenix isn’t the only downtown in the Valley that has been turned into a walkable and vibrant place where people want to go.

In recent years, Downtown Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert and Tempe have seen plenty of growth. This growth didn’t happen overnight, as the revitalization of these downtowns has been in the making for a long time.

Success starts early 

But these successes didn’t happen overnight, and many of the downtowns’ futures have been years in the making.

Gilbert’s Heritage Square District is often referred to as the 30 year overnight success.

The town council started buying parcels of land 30 years ago, which allowed the town to guide future development in the area, said Amanda Elliott, Heritage district Liaison, Town of Gilbert.

During this process of acquiring land parcels within the Heritage District, Gilbert moved forward by including community input on what to do with the area, Elliott said.

For 30 years, Mesa had plan after plan to revitalize its downtown, but it wasn’t until after the 2008 election when four new city council members, and former Mayor Scott Smith were elected when downtown Mesa started moving forward, said Jeff McVay, manger of downtown transformation, Mesa.

Having a strong leadership to make difficult choices like bringing the light rail through the center of Mesa’s downtown had a huge impact on moving the area forward, he said.

“There was a very strong contingent that wanted to move (the light rail) off main street and divert it north or south of our downtown,” McVay explained. “That would have been the wrong choice.”

At the start of the new millennium, both the public and private sector saw a need for investment into Downtown Chandler, said Jeff Kulaga, executive director of Downtown Chandler Community Partnership.

A lot of interest started to buzz around Downtown Chandler. Key investments into the area, such as SanTan Brewery setting up shop in Chandler made the area gain traction, Kulaga said.

“(SanTan brewery) was a key tipping point, turning movement to say, ‘yeah, downtown Chandler is a good place to invest and prosper,’ and that is continuing slowly but surely,” he said.

While other downtowns benefitted from new leadership, or land acquisition, Tempe benefited from water.

The addition of Tempe Town Lake lead to the success Downtown Tempe has enjoyed, said Kate Borders, executive director of the Downtown Tempe Authority.

The lake has drawn office development, such as Marina Heights, which is one of the largest office developments in Arizona, and lots of retail to the area.

Not only that, but Tempe Beach Park is host to a string of events from Jazz Festivals to Oktoberfest that bring students, families and everyone in between to the area for a day full of fun and festivities.

Walking around town 

No one likes walking past litter. And people definitely don’t like walking down a dark street at night, which is why one part of a successful downtown has been keeping it beautiful.

Kaluga believes safety and beautification are the nuts and bolds of keeping a nice downtown. People have to want to walk around the area, and be able get around easier.

So making downtowns a beautiful place with decorative building façades, community art installations, lights during the holidays and of course litter free streets help create a sense of place.

Kaluga likes to call this the “jewelry” of downtown, and the Community Partnership is in charge of Chandler’s jewelry.

Downtown Tempe, and Mill Avenue by association have a very eclectic personality. There have been issues with transients, and a party perception surrounding the area because of Arizona State University and its students in downtown Tempe, Borders said.

Borders and the Downtown Tempe Authority makes sure to keep Downtown Tempe’s streets clean while also having safety patrols along the lake and downtown areas in order to make the area more walkable and clean looking.

Creating an environment where folks feel like the downtown is their own is a huge deal, McVay said. With the new light rail extension, Mesa had to make the area nice so people would get off the train and walk around, McVay said.

There had been areas where there were impediments on the sidewalk, so they had to fix them so folks could travel easier, he said.

Access for everyone, from mothers with strollers to folks with wheelchairs is an important factor in creating a walkable environment for a downtown.

“If I see mom pushing her stroller on the sidewalk, or if I see mom riding on the bike lane on the street, then I know we created a comfortable and safe environment that everyone will use,” McVay said.