Let's Fight Over Central Again

It's time for the next round in the fight over Central Avenue. And if the final appearance of the city's "grand boulevard" concerns you, be advised that you stand a greater chance of satisfaction if you keep your expectations under control.

"They compare it to the Champs Elysees in Paris and the major streets in Washington, D.C., that are lined with cherry blossoms," muses Carol Shuler, a landscape architect and member of the Central Avenue Design Review Committee appointed by Mayor Terry Goddard. "But those were planned that way from the beginning. The Champs Elysees has got forty-foot sidewalks.

"The design aspect of Central Avenue is an afterthought. And you are stuck with some limitations."

Consider it a warning. When the Design Review Committee took its plans and model to the Phoenix City Council last week, it was fighting for the aesthetics to make Central "very nice," in the words of Shuler, who is not a woman given to overstatement. (It also dares to suggest the one thing nobody in town could stand: tearing up parts of Central yet again.)

But because of the street itself, and because of design battles still to be waged, and because money is tight, Central may never be a show place in the heart of the desert.

With the committee's report, at least one thing has become beautifully clear: The eye-opening extent to which the city council handed the widening and beautification of the city's main street over to the California-based consultant firm of Gruen Associates.

The consultants acted without many checks and balances, either from the council or the city staff, says Craig Tribken, also a member of the ad hoc committee that has been working since late last year revising Gruen's designs. (Shuler gives a kinder interpretation, saying the Gruen reports were presented in ten-minute segments during busy council meetings and the concepts were too complex to be effectively understood in that forum.) Wherever the blame is placed, Tribken says if Gruen had been allowed to follow through with its ideas for beautification without the last-minute interference of citizen review, "The odds were very good that you would have said, `This is beautiful?'|" You may recall that those were the sentiments of Terry Goddard himself when late last summer he turned accidentally onto a Central Avenue as torn apart from construction as though it had been bombed. As he inched his car along the barricaded street, he realized the scenery creeping past bore little resemblance to the tony redesign plans he and his council had approved nearly two years before. Hadn't those plans emphasized palm trees lining a slightly widened street, and wasn't a row of nineteen palm trees now earmarked for removal because the street was far wider than anticipated? Hadn't the city forked over a million bucks for a raised pink-granite median that was now too flat to be anything more than a universal left-turn lane?

Aggrieved as hell, Goddard publicly chided Gruen officials and then appointed the design review committee to oversee the rest of Gruen's plans before "beautification" could further ruin things. Chaired by Edward Jacobson, the city's premier arts supporter, and enlisting such committee members as prominent architect Benny Gonzales, the group has now come up with recommendations that shelve nearly everything the city has paid Gruen about $500,000 to dream up.

And it should surprise no one that the fight over the committee's report promises to be a brawl between the advocates of urban life and desert landscapes and the numbskulls--in this case business owners--who want the signature street of Phoenix to look exactly like a daily Grand Prix race unfolding against the leafy vistas of Des Moines.

Brace yourselves. Central Avenue may no longer be a snarl of construction, but realizing its future promises to be anything but a smooth ride.

If the committee has its way, Central will take on a simpler appearance than has been planned by Gruen. For instance, the committee is recommending that Gruen's plans for artist-designed inlays at major intersections be nixed, and that a complex sidewalk design be replaced by long ribbons of colored concrete with an elegant sandstone border near the street.

The rationale, according to committee members, is that other cities have found intersection art almost impossible to maintain as zillions of cars a day whiz over them spewing oil and fuel. As for the sidewalks, the committee decided that Gruen's concept of complex designs in stones and tile would have soon deteriorated to junk. As new buildings go up on Central, sidewalks are cut by utility crews seeking access to power lines beneath the street--up to 100 cuts a year, according to the information available to committee members. As sections of the sidewalk were destroyed and replaced, the designs would have been difficult to match exactly. Not to mention the fact that the sidewalks along Central are too narrow in places to accommodate the full-blown Gruen design, and committee members felt that anything less would have looked goofy.  

If those changes just sound like common sense, a couple of the committee's other proposals are bound to become controversies. Highest on this list is the strong suggestion that, just as the construction nightmare is calming down, Central Avenue be torn up again. (Some councilmembers have already vowed no more construction on Central during their lifetimes.) The committee, in all seriousness, wants Central narrowed by 10 feet north of Thomas, with another 5 to 10 feet of easements given over to the city by the individual property owners on Central. The committee would also like to eliminate all but the most critical bus bays. These acts would provide room for the landscaping and wider sidewalks most committee members feel are vital to a pedestrian emphasis. (In some places along Central, the sidewalks are as narrow as two feet since its widening to six lanes last summer.)

"To make a city you have to enhance a person's ability to walk in that city," says Tribken. He points out that the recent widening was only concerned with expediting traffic, a priority that transformed Central Avenue into the stark mess that it is. But there are signs that giving priority to pedestrians will not easily fly with the business owners along Central, who will, after all, be footing the entire $9 to $10 million bill for beautification, and who must back the final design plans with a majority vote. "When you have got 110 degrees, people just are not going to walk half a mile or a mile. You cannot create a pedestrian emphasis because you want it," says Armen Ervanian, chairman of the Central Avenue Property Owners Association. "If you go to great urban centers, they have not de-emphasized traffic to encourage pedestrian activity." And pedestrian activity, if it is possible in Phoenix, is not dependent on sidewalks anyway, Ervanian says: "If you have interesting things and places, you are going to create as much activity as possible."

In this case, the property owners' concern is survival: They're afraid that business patrons will avoid the "grand boulevard" if it takes them forever to poke along to their destination. When it comes to another point that promises to flame into a brouhaha, the conflict is one of taste. More specifically, it pits the preferences of Old Phoenix--which has always sought to re-create the look of the Midwest in a land it considers godforsaken--against New Phoenix, which finds pleasure in the desert's spare beauty.

Which is to say, the committee wants to line Central with palm trees and palo brea trees, a desert plant that bursts into a million yellow flowers in the spring. And the business owners want--this is the truth--something along the line of evergreen elms. Says Ervanian, "From day one, the membership has been 100 percent behind saying, `We are going to pay $9 million for this project. What is wrong with having a green trunk, some color, and having deciduous plants along Central?'"

The problem with it, according to the committee members, is that elms add nothing to a sense of Southwestern identity. The problem is that it's uninformed thinking to equate desert vegetation with an environment that's devoid of shade. (The committee members say that palo brea provides shelter from the heat perfectly well, and they have recommended that where the width of the sidewalk permits, the palo brea should be doubled up to provide even more protection.)

It's hard to know how this particular bugaboo will be resolved, although one committee member who requested anonymity has an idea. Pointing out that palo brea trees are in short supply, the member says, "I think you will see the property owners smile and say, `We think the palo brea tree is a fine tree.' And then you will begin to see them hide behind supply issues: `We just can't get enough of them.'"

As if these snags aren't enough to slow progress, the small business owners along Central are likely to set their jaws in opposition to the entire $10 million plan. Saying that only the larger business owners can afford their share of the taxes for improvements that the city will levy over fifteen years, the little guys have been noising around their intention to vote against the project.

When all the aesthetic questions have been hammered out; when the lead-footed schedule has dragged on and finally produced "beautification" (probably about the end of 1991); when Central Avenue is finished: Will it be the jewel in the crown?  

Some onlookers in the know say it's not possible. They point to the elaborate, well-funded streetscape that's in the works for Monroe Street downtown and say the problem with Central is not Gruen nor questions of taste, but skimpy cash. From the beginning, the budget for Central's beautification has been $10 million, tops, for more than three miles of improvements. The Monroe Street project will spend about $3.2 million primarily on the three blocks from Second to Fifth Street. That design is so sophisticated that the models and sketches communicate practically the creation of another world. Whether or not you like the very stylistic plans for distinctive shade structures and lighting fixtures and forests of palo breas and fountains, you will know they're there and that they mean to say something positive about Phoenix.

The Monroe project's architect, Olemuel Cox of the NBBJ Group, explains the designs have shade and a sense of place as their primary goals. Even though the budget outstrips Central's enormously, NBBJ had to decide nonetheless where to concentrate its efforts. A lot of the money is going into trees and a pricey underground excavation system that will allow the trees' roots to expand. (Most streetscape trees are merely plunked into holes in sidewalks where, like potted plants, they soon outgrow their containers, says Cox. And as soon as it happens, the trees are no longer lovely.)

Ah, but the funds for that kind of far-reaching thinking are not available on Central. When all is said and done there, here's the kind of result you can expect. Says Shuler, "It'll look a lot better than it does now.

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