Artless Redesign

The 51 may soon become just another crappy little freeway

Squaw Peak Potfalls

The Spike almost hates to break this news since there's a good chance the uproar will again drown out the reality. But here goes: The Squaw Peak pots are probably coming down off the Highway 51 retaining walls. And, depending on how the state Department of Transportation rebuilds the walls, they may not go back up again.

ADOT has decided to add high-occupancy vehicle lanes to the Squaw Peak Freeway. A request for bids is expected to go out in March, and the work is slated to begin in November.

The Squaw Peak public art project, including these vessels along the east retaining wall, won national acclaim.
Kevin Scanlon
The Squaw Peak public art project, including these vessels along the east retaining wall, won national acclaim.

This according to the folks at the Phoenix Arts Commission, who are still somewhat gun-shy 10 years after the city's most notorious public arts project generated more noise then the tens of thousands of vehicles that race past the pots every day. The commission still gets calls about the pots, although public art program manager Greg Esser says people who have moved here from places with really crappy freeways (that's what? about two-thirds of the Valley in the past decade) are quite favorable toward the Disney-like oversize cups, Indian pots and what might be a giant blue toilet perched on the east wall.

For those of us who weren't here for the last media firestorm, a bit of history. When the 51 freeway (then naively deemed a parkway) was built, the city decided to make it look great. And it still is as aesthetically pleasing as any rush-hour commute you'll find in the country. And that's even after ADOT and city officials ripped out those giant oleanders from the median. The bushes, while gorgeous, also apparently tended to act as little launching ramps for the many, many cars that were straying across the center divide, shooting them over into oncoming lanes.

In the early '90s, when the economy was tanking much like it is now, the city spent about $473,000 on 35 pots, scattered on both sides of the road from Osborn to Glendale. Worse, the money went to an out-of-state artist. And, adding insult to injury, only a handful of the pots could be seen from the roadway; most, by design, were installed in the neighborhoods along the bike paths on either side of the highway, to provide some small measure of solace to those residents who had just had a giant honkin' freeway rammed up their middle.

The Spike was surprised to learn that most of the original pots are still there. You'd have thought they'd been shot up or ripped down by now, given the whipped-up state of the populace when they first went up. Esser didn't have 10 years of maintenance costs at his fingertips, but the cost of maintaining the art hasn't been cheap, given that the octopus pot at 18th Street and Claremont was just repainted for $5,000 and the sunflower vessel near Virginia Avenue was another $3,000 to restore. Esser notes that local artists have been the recipients of those gigs.

Despite the local outcry, the pots project won national praise. The Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American Art recognized the pots as one of the nation's most significant pieces of public art. Which, Esser notes, "puts them right up there with the Lincoln Memorial."

The Spike likes them, too. Yes, this newspaper did its share of pot-bashing at the time. But grow up. The wide-open freeway is a nicer ride than most, even at rush hour. The Spike couldn't imagine being stuck on the I-10 or the I-17 every day in 110-degree heat. Even the geometric etchings in the Squaw Peak's concrete walls are different from those of most freeways.

Now, those walls may prove to be a problem. ADOT is still trying to figure this all out, and Esser says the design-build nature of the HOV project makes it even tougher to predict what will happen. But it's looking like the walls will need to be increased in height to provide adequate noise protection for the neighborhoods. The pots that sit atop the walls were designed to scale -- i.e., the height of the wall. So a taller wall would mean the pots would be too small, artistically speaking. Esser says that may mean the pots would have to be taken down and possibly installed elsewhere. The neighborhood pots will probably be okay.

But the pots aren't the only public art along the Squaw Peak that are in danger. The murals along the McDowell Road underpass and the Thomas Road overpass, as well as the pedestrian bridge at Dreamy Draw, may all have to be removed or altered. Simply put, more concrete on the freeway means more weight that needs to be supported by substantially strengthened foundations.

In fact, the Squaw Peak may soon look a lot more like I-17 than the city planners who dreamed of the broad parkway ever envisioned. There's a good chance little or none of the current vegetation will survive a redesign. We might be left with nothing but taller, vertical walls that will turn this driving oasis into just another concrete canyon.

Oops, He Did It Again

Sources inside the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office say Sheriff Joe Arpaio's four-man "Threat Squad" has a new mission: Find Mr. Ooops! and his techno-savvy pals who are bothering America's Toughest Sheriff with their insensitive blatherings on, a popular Web site frequented by deputies and other critics.

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