Gimme Shelter

Tempe officials need to keep thinking about the design of Tempe Beach Park

Phoenix wouldn't be Phoenix without its illusions about water. All its boats and pools and golf greens, all its fountains, irrigated farm fields and backyards have helped to turn some fairly extravagant wet dreams into everyday occurrences.

That may be why last week's formal opening of Tempe's Rio Salado project seemed more like an ordinary day at the Tempe Beach than the long-awaited première of the latest in the Valley's centurylong string of hydraulic wonders. That string began with dams and canals built to grow crops and has ended here at the brink of the new millennium with water features, like Tempe's downtown lake, built to cultivate new rows of downtown business.

It's a thoroughly urban idea -- the largest real estate venture this land-locked city has undertaken in quite a while. Tempe officials say the project has reclaimed more than 800 acres from the river's flood plain. Much of that will go to private development.

Visitors stroll past the gateway to Rio Salado.
Paolo Vescia
Visitors stroll past the gateway to Rio Salado.

And lots of people hate it for that. They fret that all the hotel, retail and housing developments planned for the lakefront will turn Tempe from a folksy place into a big ugly city -- a process that has been under way for some time. They fume about the project's cost, and how that money could have gone instead toward improving the city's existing social and physical fabric, which has frayed considerably in some neighborhoods.

Lost in the squabbling has been any sort of meaningful discussion about the design of the lakeside trails, parks and open spaces planned around the waterfront.

It's almost tempting to think the design of the area doesn't matter. So long as the water supply holds up, desert people will flock to the edge of the downtown tub just to stare at all its liquid and light. They've done that whenever floods have roared through. And last summer, when the lake began filling, flocks of people clambered nightly past the construction debris just to watch the dry river bottom change from kitty litter to sunsplash.

But Valley cities have done a fairly poor job of thinking about the identity of the landscapes surrounding rivers, washes and canals. They've often given the job of landscape design to quarry and land-fill operators. Or they've ceded the task to engineers who have devoted too much attention to how things work, too little to how they look.

There's no questioning the grand ambition of Rio Salado. At two miles long and 1,200 feet across at its widest spot, the new lake and surroundings -- stretching along the river bottom from just east of Priest Drive to just west of McClintock Road -- amount to the largest open-space project built on the east side of the Valley since the Indian Bend Wash.

The project includes trails that run almost continuously around the lakefront, with stops along the way for public art and places to picnic or to launch and tie up boats. The project also includes a significant expansion of Tempe Beach Park, the city's oldest park, with plans for a marina on the north side of the lake, near Rural Road.

The design for these spaces and amenities has been in the works for much of this decade -- a lengthy process with numerous starts, stops and changes in personnel. No fewer than eight different design teams produced general and specific plans for all aspects of the project.

The city initially developed a master plan for the area, which called for parkland, playgrounds, gateways, marinas, lighthouses and extensive landscaping. But the cost of building it in a single shot -- and fears that waiting for the money to do the work might delay the arrival of the lake -- prompted city officials to begin designing and building a variety of fast-track improvements.

The result is a project that began with the good idea of bringing people close to the water, but ends with some formulaic, thoughtless and occasionally preposterous solutions for doing that.

Other than the water, there's little here that you wouldn't find in a generic suburban park. You have the usual slalom of trails through a schizophrenic landscape -- still being installed -- of desert plants and sod. And a few essential things are missing. For instance, when the Rio Salado crew expanded Tempe Beach Park down to the water, it tore out the children's playground and didn't replace it. And at the park and elsewhere, the project is screaming for additional shade and trees.

The public art included as part of the package has been either sequestered in undesirable niches or incorporated as meaningless detail. The most unfortunate setting by far belongs to a tile mural slapped on the side of the Red Mountain Freeway's retaining wall, on the north side of the river between Mill Avenue and Rural Road.

Yet it isn't nearly as unfortunate as the redesign this project has brought to Tempe Beach Park -- what city officials have taken to calling the "jewel" of the waterfront.

The redesign began with the sensible idea of rerouting Rio Salado Parkway, which used to separate the park from the river. The road now runs along the south edge of the park. And the park descends all the way to the waterfront. The architectural firm Cella Barr chocked the area full of grassy knolls, planters, barbecue grills, some needed rest rooms, lots of concrete pathways, a large waterfront plaza and a gateway.

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