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Patriot Games

AP/Wide World

All summer long, I fantasized about bulldozers, which doesn't make much sense. After all, I'm one of those unfortunate souls who both live and work in the light-rail construction zone, a.k.a. hell. At least once a day, I make an illegal left turn after getting stuck behind some giant earthmover maxing out at four miles an hour. At least once a day, I come within seconds of hitting a fellow commuter, thanks to the orange barrels that funnel two lanes, abruptly, into one.

At least once a day, I threaten to move to Scottsdale. Or maybe even Apache Junction. Hey, they'll never take light rail that far, will they?

Suffice it to say that the last thing I want is more machines, and more mess, in Phoenix.

Yet, for months now, my dreams have focused not on wrapping up construction downtown, but on increasing it. And that's because I've been fixated on the beginning of an entirely different project: the destruction of Patriots Square Park.

This park is supposedly our Union Square, our Millennium Park. According to the city's Web site, it's "the heart of downtown Phoenix."

It's also about as ugly as a park can possibly be. Walk through its maze of scorched brick, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a single urban professional, much less a family, enjoying a picnic lunch. Last time I stopped by, a guy with three teeth asked if I wanted to suck his dick. (Call me frigid, but I declined. Every girl ought to have a four-tooth minimum.) It's no wonder that one of Mayor Phil Gordon's biggest applause lines ever was his 2004 pledge to tear the park down.

And Gordon is making good on his promise. On October 22, CityScape — the mixed-use project to replace the park and its two adjacent blocks — will hold its official groundbreaking ceremony.

Yet I'm feeling no elation. In fact, I'm having a second thought or two.

Not that we should save Patriots Square Park. Perish the thought. It still gives me goose bumps, in a good way, to think about bulldozers plowing into the hideous spider legs of the park's amphitheater, to imagine those cheesy banks of light plummeting to the ground.

The problem is what's taking its place.

We're trading a lousy park for little-to-no park — a park without enough grass, without enough trees. And though the new project will be stretched over three blocks, instead of the one block the park currently occupies, the open space barely increases. In fact, depending on whose numbers you use, it actually decreases.

The new concept has been panned by the Arizona chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Its 11-member executive committee, which represents 330 landscape architects, voted unanimously against the design.

"As designed," wrote the group's president, Jim Coffman, "the 'public' space is no more than a nearly hidden foreground plaza for the adjacent commercial buildings."

We're not getting our very own Union Square. We're getting another Arizona Center, minus the Hooters.

Don't get me wrong. CityScape, for the most part, looks cool. We need a grocery store downtown, and I love the idea of more apartments. The project's developer, RED Development, is widely considered a class act, even by people who hate developers.

But if we're going to endure all this construction, it's going to be depressing if the end result is losing a real park in the heart of the city.

Really, we're sacrificing our core public space — along with that hideous amphitheater — to the retail gods. And unlike the amphitheater, I think we're going to regret losing the park.


The problem with the new Patriots Square is that it's just not quite big enough for everything that it's supposed to be. CityScape — a good mix of apartments and retail and restaurants and even an AJ's Fine Foods — will take up a significant amount of space. On top of that, the park's new developers must make a public gathering place: The city mandated that they create an area open enough that we could shut down traffic and, say, start a marathon there. Or hold a rock concert.

All well and good. But you can't do all that in five acres and still have a lush, green lawn of any size. Or, it must be said, much in the way of trees.

And that means one thing.

The chief problems with the old Patriots Square — not enough shade, not enough grass — will be problems with the new Patriots Square, too.

The thing is, I'd gladly give up trees and grass if it meant doing a cool desert Xeriscape. My favorite place in the whole county is Paradise Valley's Goldwater Memorial, at the corner of Tatum and Lincoln Drive, and not just because I'm a unrepentant Goldwater Girl. The memorial is a small space on a busy corner. But even though it's outfitted almost entirely with shade-free indigenous plants — think saguaros and golden barrel cactus — it manages to feel like a serene, green oasis. Almost as good: the Circle of Life at Steele Indian School Park. There's not a shade tree in sight, but when you're walking its soft path, surrounded by desert succulents, the air feels 10 degrees cooler.

 

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 César 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.

This was no meaningless fling. At one point, as the two were contemplating marriage, Thompson even sat down to dinner with Baier's father — and fired up a joint right in the middle of the restaurant ("Uncle Gonzo," Paul Rubin, March 3, 2005).

With moments like that, I suppose none of us should be surprised that the relationship eventually ended. But Baier's second act can hardly have been anticipated. She ended up working for Republican pols, including then-Governor Fife Symington.

Campaign records show that Symington and his wife have since anted up generously for her council campaign — and that, in fact, Baier has the support of virtually the entire power elite in Phoenix.

Strangely, for someone who used to be known as an archconservative, Baier has also won the support of the powerful firefighters union. One reason may be her connections: Baier's brother, Bob Khan, is the Phoenix fire chief.

But it gets a lot more complicated.

Baier's opponent in the runoff is a guy named Jon Altmann. Altmann, who's making his first bid for elected office, has spent recent years writing and editing a Web site, www.firetimes.com, that's owned in part by Pat Cantelme. Cantelme was president of the firefighters union for 20 years and still has considerable throw-weight within the organization. Now in the private ambulance business, Cantelme has also discussed, in recent years, entering the Phoenix market — taking work currently performed by members of his old union.

Cantelme and his partner in the ambulance business, Bob Ramsey, have provided much of the juice for Altmann's campaign. Cantelme threw a fundraiser for Altmann earlier this summer. And the two men, their wives, and their employees kicked in close to 40 percent of Altmann's total contributions.

Oddly enough, District Three isn't the only competitive race where Cantelme is on the opposite side of his old union. In District Seven, the union endorsed — and is campaigning heavily for — Michael Nowakowski. But Laura Pastor's Web site touts an endorsement from "former president of the Phoenix Fire Fighters Association," Pat Cantelme. (There's no mention of Cantelme's current job.)

The firefighters union used to be the most powerful force in city politics. But these days, I can't help but think of the Biblical adage about the house divided against itself.

If you haven't been reading the Gospels lately, let's just say it doesn't end well for the house.


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