Before getting to the preliminary plan for the remake of the deck park, I want to linger over the most important recent story you may not have read.
According to the Phoenix Business Journal, the Department of Justice has sued Barron Collier Co. over $66.5 million the government claims it is owed for parcels the giant land owner and developer has along Central Avenue north of Indian School Road.
You should read the story and try to make sense of it, but this gets at one of the most curious and outrageous events: Breaking up the old Phoenix Indian School and conveying the most attractive parcels of this public property to a private entity for private gain.
And make no mistake, there has been gain. Despite the company leaving the land a barren waste and claiming it is "not economically viable" to pay its obligations to the feds, this property has no doubt been quietly adding paper value like all the banked land in Midtown Phoenix.
Throughout my young life, the Phoenix Indian School, although now seen as politically incorrect and an instrument of cultural genocide by right-thinking people, was a lovely oasis with flood irrigation. After I left town, the school was closed and eventually this rococo deal was cooked up involving a swap of Florida Everglades swampland. The only thing missing is Carl Hiaasen's sure touch making it into a novel.
Perhaps somebody can clearly explain what happened and, oh, if the local media would delve into which palms were greased. In any event, the result was that the city received some land from the feds that became the disappointing Steele Indian School Park. But Barron Collier took the choicest pieces — and never developed them.
By comparison, the federal government conveyed what became South Mountain Park to the city of Phoenix in 1924 for $17,000 (less than $232,000 in today's money). During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps built most of the trails and improvements enjoyed today (the park was expanded by the city using bond proceeds). A more complicated series of actions resulted in Papago Park.
With the old Indian School, the city got screwed and the screwing continues to this day. And public property was, at the least, badly overseen. By 1996, when the deal was consummated, the Central Corridor boom was already over. Another skyscraper will never be built in Midtown.
Receiving all the land would not alone have assured the success of Steele Indian School Park. It sure would have helped, allowing an inviting pedestrian entrance from Central and Indian School and bringing the park close rather than set back. Or the entire property could have been developed as a branch of, say, the Centers for Disease Control with potentially thousands of research jobs. But the hustlers won, as usual, and the heart of the city continues to suffer the wound.
Now to the "interim master plan" for the deck park (it pains me to use "Hance Park" considering that Margaret Hance did so much to destroy central Phoenix when she was mayor).
If I can read through all the process gibberish, it appears to be a constructive start. Then a well-meaning Viewpoints piece in the Arizona Republic goes over the top in implying that it can be Phoenix's Central Park, Millennium Park or Hyde Park.
I'm all for Daniel Burham's "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood..." But Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted (and the Millennium Park designers) were backed by the richest individuals and corporations of each city in which they worked their magic. The first two operated during the golden age of civic design.
The city of Phoenix, by contrast, is rapidly becoming the hole in the donut, with no real corporate giants or stewards who even go near the deck park, much less feel compelled to leave a timeless mark of beauty in the city's heart. Today's Phoenix is the home of the stray dog packs of Maryvale, continuing budget shortfalls and "Better Call Sal" DiCiccio railing against those vile public workers.
An example of the quiet and gathering crisis: Phoenix's long-time Mercedes dealership is closing at Third Avenue and Indian School in Midtown. It is moving to Scottsdale, "where my customers live," as the owner put it. This might not matter — cars, begone! — if thousands of well-paid software engineers were moving into the core, riding light rail (WBIYB). But they're not. In addition to costing the city a huge sum of sales tax, the loss of the dealership is a sign that a growing majority with means don't live in, or care about, the central city and its parks.
It is also telling that the "big" act of supposed civic philanthropy was the rich guy endowing a musical instrument museum — but out at Desert Ridge, on private property, far from mass transit or public cultural assets.
The people who love and fight for the city's core aren't rich, aren't powerful, can't muster 18,000 people at their downtown headquarters or donate millions of dollars for the deck park.
They also can't assemble the essential element for an urban park's success: Plenty of residents, workers and activity nearby (this is one of the many stones around the neck of Steele Park). Without this, one ends up with wastelands populated with vagrants and drug dealers.
I'm not trying to sun on the parade. I am the biggest fan of The Resistance and a member myself. But some reality is essential.
Starting and continuing the process is important because it can perhaps get into the funding stream and then a better park will start to become reality. Remember: The park's very existance is something miraculous in tear-town, bulldoze Arizona. Planners originally wanted I-10 to run 100 feet in the air over central Phoenix. So good things are possible.
But we also must not forget that the freeway claimed the enchanting Moreland Parkway — like its surviving sister on Portland, laid out in the City Beautiful Movement, but much shadier. Both were lined with pleasant one-to-three story apartment buildings. Talk about human scale, fine grain...
I go back to some necessary markers:
- Shade trees and grass are worthy and essential investments even in (especially in) a time of drought and climate change (especially in the historic oasis and to tamp down the heat island).
- Employ a healthy skepticism of today's park designers and great respect for — and learning from — the great parks and public spaces of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
- Have a minimum of concrete and no rocks or gravel.
- Ensure safety, beauty and attention paid to the surroundings.
- Understand that most Phoenicians don't understand the appeal and joy of great public spaces (just as they don't "get" urban). If you can succeed on even a small scale, you will win some converts.
Regarding the latter, the entire effort is hurt by an empty hulk of a motel and vacant land on the south side of the park. And I know the portion of the park directly over the freeway cap can't handle tree roots, but do something — use planters, etc. And on the edges, plant abundant shade trees (not palo verdes).
Another delightful park full of lessons is only about a mile away: Encanto Park. It's not huge, and that may be one advantage.
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