Change of Course

We need to embrace our desert culture - not shun it - if Phoenix is to become great.

Phoenix is at a crossroads in its history.

No major city in the country has such an unprecedented opportunity to boldly create a 21st-century urban landscape that capitalizes on the revolutionary technology driving the modern economy while embracing its own unique geographic character.

It is the merger of both place and technology that is driving the resurgence of urban areas throughout the world. The greatest embrace both. So far, Phoenix is only embracing the latter.

Phoenix leaders are pressing hard to immediately implement a massive multibillion-dollar development scheme in downtown led by Arizona State University's commitment to build a campus that will bring in more than 10,000 students and faculty.

At the same time, the city is also expanding its investment in a life-sciences center in downtown featuring a cutting-edge research facility at T-Gen, a planned medical school and a joint research campus featuring the state's three public universities.

There is no doubt that these are hugely significant projects that will provide an intellectual and cultural vibrancy long missing in downtown. The city is also investing a massive sum of public funds -- $1 billion -- to expand the downtown convention center and build and own a 1,000-room luxury convention hotel.

Not surprisingly, these publicly financed projects are generating significant interest from the private sector. Hundreds of millions of dollars are about to be poured into downtown to build high-rise mixed-use buildings, to rehab warehouses and office towers into chic residential lofts, and to create a Disney-esque entertainment zone along Jackson Street next to the America West Arena and Bank One Ballpark.

Mayor Phil Gordon believes that Phoenix is on the verge of becoming one of the greatest cities not just in the United States, but in the world.

"This is the creation of something unprecedented, not like anywhere else," he told several hundred citizens gathered at the Herberger Theater Center last week to see the city's long-awaited draft plan for downtown.

He's right.

But we are missing the proverbial boat.

So far, all the city has created is the impetus for another fast-buck real estate play that, while certainly improving one of the most abysmal urban centers in the nation, will do little to make this city truly world class. It's time to slow down the planning process, step back and carefully evaluate what we are doing. Whatever plans are implemented will soon turn into the steel-and-concrete downtown we will be largely stuck with for the next 100 years.

My suggestion is to simply reprioritize, take steps that will make residents and visitors cherish the Phoenix experience. That's right, cherish.

Buried deep in the city's draft plan is a paragraph that should be the guiding philosophy of future development. So far, no one from City Hall has seriously addressed the concept of making the Phoenix experience great, despite recognition that it is the linchpin for success.

"If there is one theme that runs through all the downtown success stories of the last 15 years, it is that nothing is more important than an authentic sense of place," the draft report states.

What is Phoenix's "authentic sense of place"?

The report never directly defines the essence of Phoenix. Instead, it offers literally a shady explanation of how the city can discover its true identity. Phoenix, the draft report says, should become the world's leader in the creative use of shade to make downtown livable 24/7. In other words, erect a bunch of canopies all over downtown, attach miles of misters and let the party begin.

The report says Phoenix should use shade and "desert-oriented design" to link downtown's small parks, plazas, open spaces and fountain areas. This, the report says, will create the "nation's leading 'connected oasis'" -- thereby infusing downtown Phoenix with authenticity.

Shade, the report suggests, will finally, at last, enable Phoenix to fulfill its lust to be included on the map of world-class cities.

Yeah, right. People from all over the world -- including the much-desired members of the so-called "creative class" -- are going to abandon their trendy downtown lofts in Austin, Boston and Seattle to stampede to Phoenix because we now have a shady downtown?

Folks, most of the world takes shade for granted. Yes, shade is important for those of us who live here. It is a no-brainer that awnings should line business districts and that trellises heavy with vines should shade our homes.

But the bottom line is, this city needs a lot more than shade and the current downtown development plan to rediscover an authenticity that's buried in the past.

Phoenix is unlike most major cities, which are located on rivers, bays, lakes and oceans. These are bedrock geographic features that serve multiple roles. They are economic engines that provide recreational opportunities and offer inspiration to residents and visitors.

The problem here is that we have destroyed nearly all of the authentic features that once graced the Valley of the Sun.

Believe it or not, there was once a mighty, wild, untamed river that flowed through the heart of this desert valley. Along the banks of the unpredictable Salt River once stood a magnificent riparian corridor of cottonwoods and willows. Stretching a mile on either side of this forest ribbon were thick mesquite boskets that gave way to the Sonoran Desert cactus and sage.

The desert and river are all gone now, and with them we have eradicated any trace of our "authentic sense of place."

We have created a harsh, disjointed city and Anywhereville suburbs. Along with the cookie-cutter development, we have nurtured a mindset that is at war with the desert, relegating one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world the throw-away line: "It's just the desert."

How can we create an authentic sense of place when we hate our desert environment, when we divert every last drop of water from our river into sterile canals that fuel the rampant urban sprawl?

What we must do now is reconnect with, and resurrect, a significant portion of the native landscape. Let it serve as the heart and soul of our urban center. This bold step will help spur the creation of an urban core that is truly one of the unique places in the world.

There's only one Sonoran Desert.

This isn't a pipe dream.

The first crucial step is already evolving with the Rio Salado Project stretching five miles in the Salt River bed from west of Sky Harbor Airport through south central Phoenix. The $100 million project financed primarily by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers features a low-flow stream that is nourishing an emerging riparian forest and mesquite stands across 550 acres, less than a mile and a half from downtown Phoenix.

"The Rio Salado is probably the untapped gem in terms of Phoenix and what it could represent in the future," Gordon told me last week.

And now is the time for civic leaders to take a giant leap forward and connect downtown to Rio Salado with a bold, daring and, need I say, an expensive investment.

Now is the time for Phoenix to build its version of New York's Central Park and San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. These 19th-century investments have become the heart and soul of two of the greatest cities in the world.

If Phoenix wants to join the elite, it must act like the elite.

Here's one idea. Let's build the greatest 21st-century civic space in the world featuring a Sonoran Desert landscape interspersed with manmade and natural shade, water, arboretums, performing arts venues, sculpture, skate and bike parks, equestrian trails and picnic areas that stretches from downtown to the Rio Salado -- the ultimate goal being to eventually connect with the nation's largest municipal park at South Mountain.

We could make the centerpiece of this park a landmark cultural center dedicated to understanding and promoting the native cultures that have long lived in the Americas.

The city's draft report suggests that Phoenix and ASU create a "grand public space" that integrates the university and the downtown in ways that are unique to the area. The report points to Chicago's $475 million, 24.5-acre Millennium Park that opened to rave reviews in July as a prime example of a culturally significant civic space.

I say Phoenix is selling itself far short, even if it were to build its version of Millennium Park. This is a huge, sprawling city that needs a powerful anchor -- one that would come with a revitalized downtown featuring high technology and education merging into a grand Sonoran Desert park that stretches for more than a mile to the banks of the emerging riparian wonderland of Rio Salado.

The city already is attempting to acquire a vast tract of an old neighborhood devastated by airport noise between Seventh and 16th streets, Buckeye Road and Interstate 17. Rather than turning this over to industrial warehouse developers as is currently planned, the city could use this area as the heart of the Valley's great Sonoran Desert park.

Creating an authentic sense of place on a grand scale that integrates the desert and river into daily life is what will cause Phoenix to be regarded fondly throughout the world, not to mention loved by those of us who actually live here.

E-mail john.dougherty@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8445.

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