Lake Eerie

Java magazine's mysterious architectural digress

Strolling the paved shores of Tempe Town Lake, I notice the water has changed in color since my last visit -- from antifreeze green to a sort of espresso-sludge brown. I stop amid a troupe of snowbird cyclists to watch a city employee methodically scoop garbage from the water with a pool-cleaning net from the back of a slothful, battery-powered pontoon boat.

"My God!" I exclaim, spreading my arms to extol the glory before us. "It's a miracle, isn't it?"

Five retired, seasonal residents gaze upon the freeways, the surrounding desert, and the billions of gallons of water trapped between two rubber dams. All for the bargain price of $150 million.

"A miracle!" I repeat.

"Good morning," one of the cyclists answers, smiling politely and edging ever-so-slightly away from me. Seconds later, she and the rest of her group remount and ride away.

Well, then. I'm a bit miffed. Evidently, these white-haired infidels had yet to be enlightened by the gospel of Tempe architect turned journalist-for-hire Michael Rumpeltin, whose center-spread cover story in the current issue of Javamagazine heralds the Town Lake as "Tempe's centerpiece and pride and joy; a two-mile-long miracle which announces the arrival of the city in a heroic manner."

Seven pompom-waving paragraphs later, Rumpeltin drops to his knees, opens wide and swallows: "This project is as much a testament to the human spirit as it is a miracle of modern engineering. The Town Lake was unconditionally the right thing for the city to do. Had it cost five times what it did, it would have been worth every last dime."

Every last dime? Oh, hell, if we're talking $750 million, let's just go big and say it would have been worth every last thousand.

And then let's say that figure together, again.

Seven. Hundred. Fifty. Million. Dollars.

That's how much brother Rumpeltin tells us Town Lake is worth.

But then, we are talking miracles here. Which I guess makes me the devil's advocate, for I bear witness to uneasy truths.

For example, Michael Rumpeltin has a direct financial interest in the success of Tempe Town Lake in luring developments to its shores and surrounding streets. Already he is being paid by one developer whose project he lionizes.

And Java's editor and publisher admits he knew of Rumpeltin's role before he printed a cover story that represents a whiplash-inducing U-turn for Java, the Valley's monthly chronicle of all things über-hip.

I read every issue of Java, and usually with pleasure, because it looks good, because it covers clubs I frequent, because it runs in-depth interviews with independent filmmakers, and because it has long stood against just the sort of generic aesthetic and crude megadevelopment reflected in the Town Lake's murky, malodorous, insecticide-laced depths.

In August in this space, I held up Town Lake as an easy target for eco-terrorists. Arizona Republic editorialist Doug MacEachern counterpunched, accusing me of being a wanna-be Edward Abbey and a button-puncher of "pot-addled, monkey-wrenching, eco-worshipping, useful idiots."

In the next issue of Java, the magazine's editor and publisher, Robert Sentinery, joined the brawl in my defense: "What starts as a quiet rumble in coffeehouses, bookstores and other meeting places, could easily build to a clamoring cacophony that leaves our ears ringing with the sounds of explosions. When New Timeswriter David Holthouse explained how easily the inflatable dams at the Tempe Town Lake could be blown up, some found it amusing, some were outraged and a few actually took it as a call to arms," Sentinery wrote in his column, "Buzz," which leads each issue of Java.

"Who knows, maybe it will even become trendy to be a radical again. In the late '60s, fashionable urbanites were inviting Black Panther members to their parties and salons. In New York penthouses, these Afro-sporting, gun-toting brothers were sipping champagne and eating hors d'oeuvres with the glitterati. Perhaps we can organize a little shindig of our own with a few Radical Chic friends and one of those luxury houseboats -- a party on the Town Lake. That would be the BOMB!"

That was the Robert Sentinery of three months ago.

Check out the Robert Sentinery of last week, after I asked him, essentially, what the hell was up with that cover story:

"I feel that the Town Lake is a rare civic project that happens once in a lifetime, and despite minor flaws, it has already become an important landmark in a metropolis that is searching for a clear identity."

Let's see, there's a certain phrase I'm searching for here . . . oh yes, I know what it is now:

Sellout.

Total sellout.

At least for the issue now on the stands, Sentinery sold his magazine's soul. The only question is whether he did it literally or figuratively. Rumpeltin's puffery reads like an advertorial -- the print publication equivalent of an infomercial -- yet according to Sentinery, "Java magazine has always maintained strict standards regarding the separation of editorial and advertising departments. It is not possible to purchase editorial space within the magazine."

If that's true, then Sentinery got ripped off for the $2,100 it would have cost Town Lake boosters like Rumpeltin, the magazine's newest writer, who -- conflict-of-interest alert -- has been hired by at least one developer to design a mixed-use project near the Town Lake.

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