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Lake Eerie

Snowbirds on the path to glory along Tempe's $150 million "miracle."
Paolo Vescia

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 Java magazine 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'seditor 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 Times writer 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.

Rumpeltin is a contract employee of attorney, ASU professor and developer Grady Gammage Jr., who is developing Studio 5c, a three-story structure on Fifth Street and College, just east of Mill Avenue. Not coincidentally, one of the primary sources quoted in Rumpeltin's article on the Town Lake and accompanying development is, surprise, Grady Gammage Jr. One of the images that accompanies Rumpeltin's prose is a schematic drawing of Studio 5c. Another is of a baby kissing the pavement near Town Lake on its opening day, and a third is a conceptual aerial view of Town Lake at some hyper-optimistic point in the future, showing the fakey-lakey ringed with the more than $1 billion in high-class developments the City of Tempe has assured its taxpayers will eventually materialize and cover the operating expenses of maintaining a massive, manmade stock dam of standing water in the Sonoran Desert.

According to Sentinery, all the images that accompanied Rumpeltin's article were supplied by the author. Sentinery says he and Rumpeltin conceptualized the Town Lake article together, and that he read it carefully before it was published.

Java associate editor Patrick Scott, who also occasionally writes for New Times, calls Rumpeltin's article "a little embarrassing to have my name associated with." Scott says he phoned Sentinery the day the issue hit the streets and asked, "Who's this guy in the cheerleader outfit? . . ."

Sentinery describes Rumpeltin as "a Tempe insider and a friend of the mayor."

I asked Sentinery how, if he knew this, he could let Rumpeltin take Java for such a joy ride.

"I am aware that Michael is acquainted with many of the people whom he interviewed and quoted in the piece," Sentinery replied. "His contacts within city government and among developers allowed him to gather the necessary facts and to complete the article with as much detail and accuracy as possible."

Oh, of course. I mean, who could possibly want to make sure the public has access to all the details about Tempe Town Lake more than Tempe politicians and developers?

Back to Rumpeltin, who writes: "When a city manages to reclaim absolutely useless space and turn it into the most valuable land in town, it's tough to wage a coherent negative argument."

Well, let me take a shot at it. Let's put aside any reliance on the encephalitis-bearing mosquitoes drawn to downstream seepage; the Airline Pilots Association's stated concern that the lake, which was built directly in Sky Harbor Airport's flight path, will attract waterfowl that could get sucked into a jet engine and cause a crash; or the spiritual and ethical question of whether spending $150 million to build a lake you can't swim in that loses two million gallons of water a day to evaporation is really "a miracle of modern engineering," or a huge middle finger thrust at Mother Nature that should not go unpunished.

Instead, I offer the following "negative argument":

The most potentially devastating flaw in the planning of the Tempe Town Lake is the City of Tempe's binding agreement with the Belz Corporation, which owns, among other things, a national chain of five-star Peabody Hotels. In 1997, the Belz Corporation agreed to build a 1,000-room luxury hotel on the lake's south shore. The City of Tempe believed the construction of this hotel would trigger the tsunami of simultaneous development needed to save the Town Lake from becoming an embarrassing economic albatross.

Unfortunately for the city, it looks more and more as if the Peabody Hotel project is dead in the water. Twice, the Belz Corporation has missed deadlines to come up with the $220 million in financing needed to build the hotel. Tempe gave them more time. The next, and, according to the City of Tempe, final deadline is February 1, and there is no indication that Belz Corporation will be able to show the dough.

Question: Why won't a major lender front Belz Corporation $220 million to build a 1,000-room luxury hotel on Tempe Town Lake?

Answer: We can only guess.

Maybe the money men think the lake is too cheesy for the Peabody's ritzy clientele. Maybe they're concerned with Tempe developer John Benton's parallel failure to break ground on a planned 275-room hotel (along with an eight-story office tower) on the same shore. Maybe the banks are wary because Belz Corporation has failed to find a nearby golf course willing to guarantee it tee times for guests (Arizona State University denied the corporation's request for priority access to its respected Karsten course). Maybe the banks simply don't have faith in Tempe as a major urban draw for people willing to pay $300 a night for a room (the most recent newly built Peabody hotel is adjacent to Disney World and the Orlando, Florida, convention center, one of the busiest in the nation).  

From the Arizona Republic'sNovember 5, 1999, Tempe community edition:

"A Peabody Hotel at Tempe's Town Lake may be years away from getting off the ground -- if ever -- but the ducks that made the inns famous will be in town today. Hotel owner Marty Belz is flying in five ducks from Tennessee to a Tempe elementary school for a brief walk across a red carpet, similar to the parade Peabody Ducks make every morning to a designated fountain in the hotel. About 600 students at Holdeman Elementary School will get the special treat this morning, Peabody spokesman Robert Johnson said. The visit by the ducks is a way of kicking off festivities for Saturday's Town Lake grand opening. The ducks will perform the ceremonial march down a red carpet to a fountain brought to the school especially for the visit."

Thus far, that's all the Belz Corporation has delivered on its commitment to Tempe Town Lake. Five ducks, a red carpet and a temporary fountain.

Financing for the cornerstone of development along Tempe Town Lake is, at best, stalled, at worst, doomed. There is no mention of this in Rumpeltin's article for Java. He didn't even mention the ducks.

Now, what happens if it becomes clear there will be no Peabody Hotel on Tempe Town Lake? First of all, Belz Corporation is supposed to pay the City of Tempe $300,000. Chump change.

After that, plausible worst-case scenarios get nasty, fast. You see, in their eagerness to bring in a luxury hotel with international name recognition, Tempe's leaders gave Belz Corporation development options on other land around the lake, whether owned by Belz Corporation or not. Which means that even if Belz doesn't build a five-star hotel on Tempe Town Lake, it can still build on the lake shore.

And guess what Belz Corporation builds, besides Peabody hotels?

Outlet malls. Lots of them.

Am I sounding coherent yet?


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