East Valley

An overview of the cities that are a part of the East Valley region:

A glittering human-engineered lake, a crumbling flour mill and a mini mountain with a large letter “A” mounted near the top show that the city of Tempe values at least three things: technology, history and college pride.

Tempe Town Lake was dammed into a two-mile stretch of a dry riverbed in 1999 to beautify the north end of downtown and prompt real-estate development; its shores are lined with paths for running, biking and skating, and its depths are used for boating, triathlons and a holiday boat parade. Several grand bridges leap the lake. Two, strung with lights, are for cars and pedestrians. Others are exclusive to cargo and light-rail commuter trains, and yet another, erected in mid-2011, serves foot traffic to and from Tempe Center for the Arts.

Long-abandoned Hayden Flour Mill, spared for years by the wrecking ball, is finally getting the respect it’s due: The building that put the mill in Mill Avenue has been dusted off; the grounds have been raked and replanted; and the site is being reopened for picnicking, special events and self-guided exploration of exterior features. Of course, the mill and its grain silos will always stand out from built-this-century residential lofts and trendy clothing stores in the area.

Behind the mill, short-but-steep Hayden Butte (a.k.a “A” Mountain) offers a swift hike and a panoramic payoff. That “A” is periodically painted in school colors: maroon or gold by Arizona State University scholars headquartered in Tempe, or red or royal blue by rival jokers from University of Arizona in Tucson.

Points of visitor interest on ASU’s Tempe campus include Grady Gammage Auditorium, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and ASU Art Museum, a cool underground space devoted to art from the Americas and Mexico.

The city’s social lifeline of Mill Avenue is lined with the requisite shops and pubs. Tracks for light-rail transportation cut across Mill and continue east to Mesa and west to Phoenix.

South of downtown, the city trends toward suburbia. Large lots accommodate resort-style apartment complexes, subdivisions, sprawling shopping-and-entertainment destination Tempe Marketplace, discount destination Arizona Mills and Swedish home-goods retailer Ikea.

A surprisingly strollable downtown district lies at the heart of the third-largest city in the state. Despite its size, Mesa has managed to preserve its small-town personality with extra-wide sidewalks, bronze sculptures, street-side cafes and independent shops. And despite this cozy vibe, the very centerpiece of downtown Mesa is one of the grandest multimedia arts centers in the state.

Mesa Arts Center embodies four theaters of variable sizes, ceramics kilns, dance studios, and an underground contemporary-arts museum. The outdoor campus is ungated and accessible around-the-clock, allowing self-guided examination of the unusual building materials and landscaping features at any hour.

Beyond this downtown, the ’burbs are booming. Fiesta Mall hosts the usual shopping suspects on two interior levels. Mesa Riverview contains two major headliners, Bass Pro Shops and Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill. Dana Park Village Square has a cute day spa, a blend of local and national stores, and a dedicated boutique for philosophy, a hair-and body-products brand based in Arizona.

Farmland has always been a certain reflection of the times. In the town of Gilbert, however, it’s not the transition from planting to plucking that is most interesting to note, but the transition from rural pursuits to urban ones. A decade ago, Gilbert was primarily a farming and “bedroom” suburb. Now, with a population that has doubled since 2000, it’s one of the fastest-growing cities in all of America.

SanTan Village is a destination that was built in the likeness of a well-established downtown. Slow-speed inner streets provide direct access to locally hatched fashion boutiques and bistros, as well as broad-appeal brand names and menus.

The sidewalks of older Gilbert Heritage District are lined with businesses that remind visitors of the area’s not-so-distant agricultural past with a country kitchen, a barbecue joint and Hale Centre Theatre.

In 21st-century Chandler, planned communities and up-market centers rule most of the city’s acreage. But one of the most charming areas of town was established in the beginning of the 20th century. On San Marcos Place in old downtown Chandler, cheery sandwich boards and propped-open doors are the standard.

The area where Chandler, the Gila River Indian Community and Interstate 10 meet has experienced intense development, too. Rawhide Wild West Town—a depiction of the cowboy lifestyle circa 1880—neighbors the Indian reservation, the Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, and Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino.

And I-10 isn’t the only piece of cement meant for high-speed travel in the area. Three automotive endeavors sharing a freeway exit: Firebird International Raceway, a quarter-mile drag strip; the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving; and Local Motors, the microfactory of an off-road-adaptable vehicle called the Rally Fighter.