Patriot Games

The grass has got to be greener someplace else

Both places are indelibly Phoenix.

This is not, I'm sorry to say, what we're getting at the new-and-improved Patriots Square. Instead, the concept plans I looked at have that sterile pleasantness that's already too pervasive downtown. It's a nice enough design, but it's one that could go anywhere in the country. It's even got a giant water feature.

As it turns out, the water feature is part of the problem. Delia Ortega-Nowakowski, one of the more outspoken members of the city's parks board, questioned the developers about the park's absence of grass and trees at a recent meeting. The developers responded that the water feature needs to be chlorinated, so that kids can jump in and splash around. But the chemicals eliminate the idea of putting grass too close to the water; the chlorine would just kill it. Add the necessity of having a public gathering space, and grass gets pushed even farther to the margins.

Did I mention that this space is already pretty small? So you've got the water feature, and then a buffer zone for the chlorine, and then some room to gather — and what you've got left is a strip of grass surrounding pavement. The new-and-improved Patriots Square is going to look less like Central Park than like the patch of grass in front of Saks Fifth Avenue at Biltmore Fashion Park.

When Ortega-Nowakowski raised that issue at the August parks board meeting, it fell on deaf ears. When the rest of the parks board declined to join Ortega-Nowakowski in pressing the developers, she realized the battle was lost.

"I was hoping they'd say, 'We want more grass,'" she tells me. "That didn't happen."

Jim Holway, an associate director of Arizona State University's Global Institute of Sustainability, was the only other parks board member to vote against the redesign. He's also no fan of Patriots Square, but he's disappointed that the city thought its only fix was to farm the park out to a private developer — and then reduce the open space, throw a bit of landscaping along the edges, and call it a deal.

"Here we sit in the fifth-biggest city in the country, and yet we cannot afford to maintain a viable park the core of our downtown?" Holway asks.

That, too, is the question asked by the landscape architects association.

Coffman, the group's president, remembers when downtown Phoenix featured not only Patriots Square but also Civic Plaza, a public square in front of the convention center. But then, he says, the city started using the space for temporary convention exhibits. And then a permanent convention tent.

Finally, of course, we lost the space entirely. It's all building now.

"That was another public space given up," Coffman says, "and it happened without a whimper."

And for what? A bigger convention center, in that instance, and in this one, shopping.

It's depressing, and not just to me.

"In the end, what's going to be there is better than what was there," says ASU's Holway. "But you can't look at it that way — you have to look at what the opportunity was."

That, I'm sorry to report, is what we'll be losing when city officials and RED Development executives hoist their ceremonial shovels next Monday.

We could have insisted on keeping the full, two-acre space as a park. We could have insisted on grass, and trees, or even a desert landscape.

Instead we're getting chlorinated water, and we call it progress.

RACE TOWARD A RUNOFF

Unless you've been living in the Patriots Square amphitheater, I'm guessing you've heard that we have two very interesting council races in Phoenix this year. And, in both cases, the fun continues, even as the mayoral race officially ended in a landslide in September. Thanks to a glut of candidates in both council districts, the winner will be decided in a November runoff.

In District Seven, we're getting a head-to-head contest between two very different candidates — Laura Pastor, the daughter of a longtime Arizona congressman, and Michael Nowakowski, a former acolyte of C├ęsar Chávez who used to be an insider but has been forced to run as an outsider, thanks to Pastor's entry into the race ( "Daddy's Little Girl," August 23, 2007).

Michael Nowakowski, coincidentally, is married to the parks board's Delia Ortega-Nowakowski. He tells me that they fell in love while working on Congressman Ed Pastor's campaign. So cute! But this council race has gotten nasty enough that it's hard to imagine everybody will ever be on the same team again.

But as ugly as the Pastor/Now-akowski race is, the really fascinating gossip comes from District Three, the competition to replace Peggy Bilsten in North Phoenix. In that district, if the September preview was any indication, they'll be getting as a councilwoman someone who's got to be an absolute first in Phoenix civic politics: the ex-girlfriend of a celebrity.

Today, Maria Baier is a good Catholic wife and mother and a respected lawyer. But back in the day, she was a gorgeous ASU student who went off to interview Hunter S. Thompson for the college paper and, legend has it, never returned to complete the assignment. She'd fallen in love with the much-older gonzo journalist.

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1 comments
Steve Weiss
Steve Weiss

Regarding Patriot Games story: The writer of this story is quite the Jill Come Lately.It was obvious from the start that CityScape would be a commercial center with a speck of public space. RED's experience is primarily building shopping "Power Centers", not designing a functioning and people-beneficial public park with shopping amenities. The best description still rests with artist David Therrin's public comment that our city center park is now "a walkway to P.F. Changs". Too bad New Times and the City were too hung up on what the park was, rather than what it could have been.

 
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