Does Roosevelt Row's Facelift Fall Flat in Downtown Phoenix?

Detail of the Shadow Play public art piece recently installed on a triangular traffic median in Roosevelt Row.
Detail of the Shadow Play public art piece recently installed on a triangular traffic median in Roosevelt Row.
Lynn Trimble

It’s been a year of big changes for Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix.

Baron Properties tore down a pair of buildings at Roosevelt and Third streets to make way for residential units. Local First Arizona founder Kimber Lanning saved a house slated for demolition by having it moved to the vacant lot west of her Modified Arts gallery. Greg Esser made plans to create a small artist live/work space by reusing shipping containers that were originally repurposed as galleries at the Roosevelt A.R.T.S. Market. Artists created fresh murals and graffiti during Paint PHX.

The City of Phoenix undertook several projects as part of what it calls “Roosevelt Row Improvements." The long list of improvements noted on the City's website includes narrowing the street, installing new curb and gutter, widening existing sidewalks, adding new bike lanes and bike racks, adding new lighting, and planting drought-tolerant shade trees in tree grates on the north side of Roosevelt Street. The completed changes are most evident on a strip of Roosevelt Street between First and Fifth streets.

The two improvements generating the most buzz these days involve an existing right-of-way triangle east of Fourth Street on the south side of Roosevelt and large planters used for small trees on the south side of Roosevelt Street. The City encountered “conflicts with overhead APS electric lines," and underground infrastructure prevented planting on the south side of the street.

More than a dozen of these pots line the south side of Roosevelt Street between First and Third Streets.
More than a dozen of these pots line the south side of Roosevelt Street between First and Third Streets.
Lynn Trimble

The fiberglass planters the City chose, which look like giant garden pots with a terracotta-colored glaze, raised some ire after rain caused them to leak onto the surrounding area. And they've already been targeted by taggers. The improvement chosen for the triangular median, near the heart of Roosevelt Row, is a public art installation some have described as resembling a giant meat tenderizer. It’s a work called Shadow Play designed by the Boston-based architecture firm Höweler + Yoon.

The 15 planters cost $2,800 each, including the soil and sweet olive trees they contain, according to Monica Hernandez, spokesperson for the City of Phoenix. The Shadow Play public art installation cost $415,000.

The changes have been met with various levels of outrage ranging from marches and petitions earlier this year aimed at saving buildings to recent rants shared via social media about the latest cosmetic changes. So we decided to ask five people familiar with two of the most recent changes to e-mail us their thoughts on both Shadow Play and the giant garden pot-style planters. Each seem to be making a big impression. Here's what they had to say. 

Julia Bruck
Co-founder, Halt Gallery

Perhaps no place in the Phoenix area was more deserving of a good public art piece than Roosevelt Row. The stretch between Central Avenue and Seventh Street is dense with galleries representing artists that are both emerging and established. On the “First Friday” of every month RoRo draws thousands of visitors who roam the galleries and munch on food truck delicacies. The City of Phoenix agreed that the area should include a public art work and commissioned J. Meejin Yoon to design a piece as part of the recent improvements of the district.

The best of public art is functional, contributes to a sense of community and oh yes, must also be aesthetically pleasing. It’s rare to find a piece that combines all three elements as well as J. Meejin Yoon’s Shadow Play does. The wide sidewalk spills into the space, inviting daytime passersby to stop and sit on surprisingly comfortable benches under large swaths of shade provided by the soaring geometric canopies. Yoon has created an abstracted oasis of comfort in the middle of a city street. By carefully positioning the benches and enveloping visitors in shadow and light, the passing traffic somehow becomes unobtrusive. At night, the canopies project a welcoming glow (from energy collected on solar panels) as a gathering spot for locals and visitors. Though still new, Shadow Play has already become a relevant space for the community where both daytime and evening visitors meet, sit, and stay for a while.

The City recently widened sidewalks on Roosevelt and added trees on both sides of Roosevelt Row. The new five foot tall pots on the south side of Roosevelt at beginning at Second St. were purchased to hold olive trees above ground, reportedly because that portion of the street could not have trees planted in the ground. The majority of the arts district does have ground planted trees on both sides of the street, which has certainly made the area appear generally more approachable. I’m not certain I’m a fan of the pots….yet. The ongoing construction on the street makes it impossible to know whether the pots will enhance the area’s appeal until the new buildings are completed. One also wonders why they would sit the large pots on the newly widened sidewalks, narrowing them significantly in some places.

Cindy Dach 
Co-owner, MADE Art Boutique and Changing Hands Bookstore; Co-founder, Roosevelt Row CDC

I like it and I respect Meejin Yoon's work. Is it the best thing we could have? I can't speak to that. I wasn't on the panel. I know local artists who applied to the panel, but were not selected. If we start to say artists from other states can't do public art here, other states will say the same — which excludes Arizona artists from projects outside their own state. If we wanted, we could have a discussion about whether some percentage of public art should be created by Arizona artists.

[The pots are] a missed opportunity. We could have done better — with objects that reference the culture of the district. I still question if we could've done a different a type of tree in the ground. Handing the project to the arts office rather than the streets office could have gotten us there. In terms of what to do now, we have two options: remove them or decorate them. Now that they're on the ground, the community is going to have to work with the streets department to solve the problem. We are one of the most nationally-recognized art districts in the nation, and what we got was a cookie cutter version of a cookie cutter thing. They do not add to our character; they mute it.

Bill Dambrova
Artist, Goat Heart Studio

My first thought after seeing Shadow Play was, who puts an "oasis" for people to hang out in in the middle of the street? I would rather see a huge non-functional iconic public art sculpture by a well-known artist in its place. A sculpture like Hammering Man or even a giant blue chicken would give people a feeling of being at an art destination. Instead we have what looks like a bus stop from the late '90s. I don't see anything that interesting about the shadows. They're just shaped like trees or umbrellas! Trees could do the same job and could help our heat bubble problem. Looking at how the seating is laid out, I can imagine the meetings between the artist and the City. The City saying something like, "Make it look like a cool modern oasis, but don't make it too inviting otherwise there will be vagrants congregating there." And that’s what we got.

The giant pots probably look great in a conceptual architectural rendering of a brand new modern building with them in the foreground, but in reality they are big blank canvases that will become a battleground between the City and taggers. I get that they can be used to break up the monotony of a long boring sidewalk and be used as pullouts for people to move out of the flow of pedestrian traffic, but they are lined up like soldiers and there are too many of them. Now there is a different type of monotony. It's an arts district, why not vary the look of them a little? Come up with something more clever than a large expensive version of cheap terra cotta pots.

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Kim Moody
Founding director, Alwun House

Trees in a pot, roastin' in the sun; trees with roots up against toasty plastic walls (anyone remember when downtown tried potting trees in concrete pots? yeah, they died a slow death too). Oversized pots may work in a misted outdoor mall, but [they're] overpowering on a sidewalk designed to be pedestrian friendly along downtown's densest resident intersections. We all agree need for shade — perhaps require future developers cantilever shade structures in this "prime" locale. Sad we can't plant trees like they do in Brooklyn along the sidewalk, even with infrastructure underneath.

Framing the entry into downtown at the Roosevelt and Third Street "Triangle" is the Roosevelt Row's triangulated public art sculpture, a bold brushed-metal triangulated public art sculpture. Driving past, it provides a perfect transformation from the art's districts bungalow past to it's present densifying urban core. Intriguing, place-making, not too cool to sit around, but a imaginative achievement by downtown creative core's collaborative relationships. To the resilient Roosevelt Row, long may she grow.

Kara Roschi
Artist; Chief Curator, Curator Engine

Both the shade tree pots and the public art (shade) structure strike me as visual examples of the difference between those two city planning buzzwords: "placemaking" and "placekeeping." 

What were the materials of the Row? The Row was built and held by young, artist-investors who aged in place and fostered a community for the creatives around them. It was built gambiarra-style: built of wood, brick, dirt, wrought iron, paint, plants, and salvaged materials. Placekeeping would see us using those materials with an aesthetic dictated by those "make-do" principles.

But what are the materials of the Row? The materials of new ownership, new development. Steel, concrete, powder-coating. Entertainment and amusement park materials. Materials that are durable rather than ephemeral. Invincible rather than repairable. To power wash not to patina. Placemaking tries to anticipate the people that will be there.

These sculptures are telling in that way.

Personally, my favorite bits of recent development on the row have been Paz Cantina — its food, its music, its color, its community; the colorful wooden way-finding signs; the boardwalk sidewalks, and the bike lanes. ::thumbs up::

Use Current Location

Related Locations

miles
Roosevelt Row

Roosevelt St. from 7th St. to 7th Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85004

www.rooseveltrow.org

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Roosevelt A.R.T.S. Market

408 E. Roosevelt St.
Phoenix, AZ 85004

www.rooseveltrow.org/a.r.t.s.html.

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MADE Art Boutique

922 N. Fifth St.
Phoenix, AZ 85004

602-256-6233

www.madephx.com

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Changing Hands Bookstore

300 W. Camelback Rd.
Phoenix, AZ 85013

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Alwun House Gallery & Gardens

1204 E. Roosevelt St.
Phoenix, AZ 85006

602-253-7887

www.alwunhouse.org

miles
Phoenix Center for the Arts

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