Tempe Transportation Center

Tempe, Arizona
Architekton and Otak

An urban landmark by Otak and Architekton plays a vital role in a sprawling city’s transit revolution.

By Jenna M. McKnight

With its expansive footprint and vast web of highways, the Phoenix metropolitan area is nearly impossible to navigate without a car. That could eventually change. In December 2008, residents in the Valley of the Sun celebrated the inauguration of a 20-mile starter line for a new light-rail system. The festivities included the opening of the Tempe Transportation Center, the first facility of its kind in Arizona. 

Tempe Transportation Center
Photo © A.F. Payne Photographic

Take a video tour of the Tempe Transportation Center.

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Designed by Otak and Architekton, the 40,300-square-foot building offers various services for rail and bus riders, cyclists, and pedestrians. Moreover, with its LEED Platinum certification pending, the mixed-use facility is an exemplar of sustainable design.


Located only blocks away from Arizona State University’s football stadium, the transportation center replaced a surface parking lot in downtown Tempe. (Tempe is one of roughly two dozen municipalities surrounding Phoenix proper.) Initially, the brief called for a large bus plaza and a 5,000-square-foot building with restrooms and a ticket counter. The program evolved, however, as the light-rail project gained momentum and the surrounding district saw a burst of construction activity.

Ultimately, the architects were charged with conceiving a bus plaza and a multistory building containing offices for the city’s transit division, leasable commercial space, a community room, and an indoor bike garage with shower facilities. “This place was an opportunity to show people that we can have alternatives to the car,” explains Bonnie Richardson, AIA, principal planner and architect for the City of Tempe’s transportation department. After teaming up for an RFQ, Otak and Architekton won the commission in 2004 and worked in tandem on the design.


Figuring out how to accommodate a steady stream of buses — approximately 300 a day — in a relatively tight space was “the first piece of the puzzle,” explains Ron Dean, an architect with Otak. The design team stretched a 52-foot-wide, curved driveway, lined by 13 bus shelters, across nearly the entire width of the 2.7-acre, triangular site. To the north is the light-rail stop, where a train arrives every 10 minutes during peak hours.

Edging the western portion of the site is a three-story, steel-framed box that reaches toward the street and houses most of the center’s programmatic elements. Its design is sensible and straightforward. Tucked farther back, however, is a 2,400-square-foot wing that was envisioned as “an expressive, sculptural counterpoint,” describes John Kane, FAIA, Architekton design principal. Its faceted roof is made of pearlescent aluminum-composite panels that appear gold in the morning and sage green in the afternoon.

This elevated wing, which contains the community room, rests on pilotis, forming a ground-level plaza with seating, landscaped beds, and gabion walls filled with glass slag and multicolored LEDs. At night, the walls, designed by artist Lorna Jordan, glow brightly and enliven the center. During the day, the deeply shaded plaza provides refuge from the scorching summer heat.

The sun is always a vital concern in Phoenix. In the case of the transit building, the architects couldn’t employ the optimal east-west orientation due to the bus plaza. And so, “every facade we considered, we were thinking about how to mitigate solar exposure,” says Dean. They clad most of the rectilinear volume in low-E, insulated glass and used various shading strategies. On the east, for instance, 18 motorized screens, each approximately 10 by 17 feet, are programmed to deploy at dawn and retract at noon. On the west, where the building core is located, the architects opted for an opaque facade with slit windows. Here, a ribbed concrete-masonry skin not only refers to the adjacent building (a police station) but also “provides a thermal break,” Kane explains.
The interior design feels modern and fresh. The finishes and furnishings were chosen for their ecofriendly attributes, from bamboo office doors to countertops made of recycled paper. Thanks to ample glazing and a fairly narrow floor plate, “You don’t have to turn on the lights” during the day, Kane says, adding that the facility is projected to consume about 50 percent less energy than a comparable building. Other sustainable features include an underfloor air-distribution system, a graywater-recycling system, and a green roof.


It’s exciting to see a project like this get built in the Valley. Unfortunately, the recession has pummeled Phoenix, and the transit center’s retail shell sits vacant, as does its leasable office space. Still, one can easily see the potential.

Economics aside, Otak and Architekton have succeeded in creating a dynamic and inviting transportation hub that seems to operate smoothly. Phoenix has a long way to go before being recognized as a green city, but projects like this suggest it’s on the right track. 

Owner: City of Tempe

Gross square footage: 40,300 sq. ft.

Cost: $18.1 million

Completion date: December 2008

Architect: Architekton and Otak
464 S Farmer Ave, 101
Tempe, AZ 85281
PH: 480.894.4637
FAX: 480.894.4638

17355 SW Boones Ferry Rd
Lake Oswego OR 97035-5217
PH: 503.635.3618
FAX: 503.635.5395

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