'Charm' A Tough Quality To Measure On Tempe's Mill Avenue

By Annika Cline
Published: Thursday, June 2, 2016 - 4:08pm
Updated: Friday, June 10, 2016 - 4:40pm
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Annika Cline/KJZZ
Mill Avenue in Tempe in 2016.

A new list of the 20 most charming college towns in the United Staes just came out from the apartment-finding website RentLingo. Both Flagstaff and Tempe made the list.

The most charming streets were Aspen Avenue in Flagstaff and Mill Avenue in Tempe. We took a walk down Mill to see if people in town felt the ranking stacked up.

“I really like it. There’s a lot of things to do, there’s a lot of bars, there’s a lot of people everywhere,” said Danielle Gajeski.

“Nothing really compares to it because it has so much color, like right here where we’re standing right now,” said Joe Pitts. 

Both stepped onto Mill Avenue for the first time this week. Gajeski just moved here and Pitts is visiting from Dallas. And that first impression was striking — lots of local stores, brick walkways lined with deep green trees and restaurant patios.

These factors are exactly what the creators of RentLingo use to measure a neighborhood’s charm. Co-founder Dan Laufer calls it the "Charm Index."

“Pulling in data on crime, data from maps so we can identify things like parks and bike trails. You know, things like libraries,” Laufer said.

Laufer finds areas with the most positive factors — like parks, and the lowest crime rates. He and his co-founder tested their algorithm on focus groups of people in different cities. But Laufer does admit, “We haven’t actually been to a lot of the places.”

So what Laufer and other outsiders might not know is that Mill has changed a lot over the past couple decades. In the 1990s it was known as an incubator for local music and art, and the street was lined with many locally-owned small businesses. Many people see it differently now.

Tucked in the back of a courtyard is a tiny shop called Yucatecan Imports. It has trinkets from dozens of countries, and it’s been here for 18 years. Barbara Poulson is behind the counter today.

“We’ve seen a lot of changes and I don’t think for the good, personally,” Poulson said.

Poulson said a lot of quirky, small shops have already left, partly because of higher rents — the price of Mill’s growing popularity.

“Well if you walk up and down the street, most of the businesses are bars and restaurants. There’s not that many little shops anymore,” she said.

As she sees it, the charm has been on its way out for some time.

In many of the old brick buildings now you’ll see chain businesses, and beyond those are new high rises.

“That’s something that’s to me kind of troubling because that also pushes people out who have lived here for years,” said Gabe Berry, who was walking down Mill with Emilie Johnson — both recently graduated from Arizona State University. The large campus a few blocks away is what makes this a college town. But Johnson points out that might be part of why the charm is hard to hold onto.

“I feel like student populations tend to be really transient,” she said. “So a student is not expecting to be here for more than their four years of education. The people who are going to be the most invested in maintaining the historical buildings are going to be people who have their roots planted really deep in this area.”

And those are the people who have seen Mill Avenue change, which may make charm a relative term — one that’s not so easily measured. 

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