Drivers leaving the Squaw Peak Parkway to head west on Bethany Home Road quickly find themselves running a gauntlet of graphic signs. The signs will never be featured in a City of Phoenix public relations brochure.
"You Are Now Entering the Worst Run City in the Galaxy."
"Vote 'NO' on new road taxes. Don't give Phoenix the money to do this to somebody else."
The most belligerent of the signs shows a man with a large screw through his body. The screw is labeled "Squaw Peak Parkway." Next to him, the city council and former mayor Paul Johnson hold a screwdriver.
This short stretch of road, the 1600 block of East Bethany Home, is itself home to a group of residents who have been fighting city hall since the 1980s. The residents claim the city government ruined their neighborhood by building the Squaw Peak Parkway and dumping traffic onto their once-quiet street.
They still want what they have always wanted: a city buyout of their homes.
For years, the city told the residents they were fighting a battle that was lost long ago, during the highway's planning stages. For years, city officials complained that the residents were refusing to take advantage of assistance the city repeatedly offered them.
Now, though, it seems that the residents' persistence and nasty signs are about pay off.
Two new city councilmembers want to reverse the city's long-standing refusal to buy the Bethany Home houses, and it appears that a council majority favors a buyout.
If the nine-member council approves a buyout, it would mark a stunning change of direction for the city. Such a policy change also could inject long-running animosity over the Squaw Peak Parkway into city and state elections this fall.
That animosity first arose in the 1980s, when the Squaw Peak Parkway was in its planning stages. At that time, the Phoenix City Council decided not to use bond funds earmarked for freeway "mitigation" projects on a Bethany Home buyout.
Instead, the city paid $1.2 million to purchase 13 homes on Highland Avenue similarly impacted by the parkway. Linda Nadolski, then a councilmember representing the area south of Bethany Home, supported the Highland purchase. She said Bethany Home was already a major artery prior to the parkway's construction; Highland Avenue, she said, was not.
"The houses on Highland were isolated, had no connection with a neighborhood and suffered high traffic from the freeway, as well as from the commercial development across the street," she said.
Bethany Home was hardly ignored. More than $2 million was spent to mitigate pollution and traffic by lowering the parkway below street level from the Highland Avenue exit to the Glendale Avenue exit, by constructing noise walls and by making only a "half-intersection" at the Bethany Home exit.
But that "help" never meant much to the Bethany Home residents. They saw the city buying houses on Highland and spending $400,000 on a controversial public art project--large ceramic pots along the Squaw Peak--and wondered what happened to Bethany Home.
It did not matter to the residents that the pots were purchased with funds earmarked specifically for public art. The traffic-pattern differences between Bethany and Highland also seemed ephemeral to the residents. Back in the 1980s, they were interested in only one thing: a buyout. And after a long series of letters to, meetings with and promises from city officials, they began posting graphic, nasty signs demanding a buyout.
"The city came in and placed the highway on the corner and got us into this mess," said Bernard Feldman, 77, a 30-year resident of the block and a retired Air Force captain. "Now the city should help us move out." Most of the block's eight homeowners have lived there for years, even decades, and have seen their street change from a two-lane neighborhood road to a five-lane thoroughfare.
Now, Bethany Home residents are sandwiched between the parkway to the east and commercial development along 16th Street to the west. More than 31,000 vehicles a day use this short stretch of Bethany, which serves as a conduit to on- and off-ramps for the Squaw Peak.
"It was a quiet neighborhood before the completion of the highway," recalls Vickie Limparis, an eight-year Bethany Home resident spearheading the neighborhood's protest. "People spent many evenings in their front yards chatting with each other."
The eight families who still live there say depreciation has kept them from moving out of the noisy, filthy, traffic-packed block. No one will pay anywhere near what the homes were worth before the Squaw Peak was built.
And if they sell the houses for less, many residents claim, they will not have enough money to buy homes elsewhere.
"I still owe about $50,000 on my house," Limparis said. "The city has ruined our neighborhood."
Until the last few weeks, the city's official position was that a buyout would be impossible.
"There's no money for it," Peter Atonna, Phoenix's deputy planning director, said just two weeks ago. All the money allocated for mitigation of the parkway's impact was used for other projects, he said then.
And until recently, city administrators contended that the Bethany Home residents had been refusing to take all sorts of other help the city had offered them. Specifically, the city had been urging the residents to rezone their property so it could be used for low-density offices.
After rezoning, the city staff claimed, residents would be able to sell their homes.
David Richert, the city's planning director, bristles at accusations the city had not helped the Bethany Home residents.
"These people may make it sound like there hadn't been any efforts to solve their problems or to minimize their problems," Richert said. "And not only did we do that, but also we encouraged them to convert their properties to low-density, commercial use."
Last week, however, councilmembers Peggy Bilsten and Sal DiCiccio, who represent the affected residents on East Bethany Home, decided to change the city's response to the Bethany Home problem.
The two new councilmembers say they will formally propose that the city undertake a buyout, and councilmembers Craig Tribken and Frances Barwood said last week that they will support at least some form of buyout. A spokesperson for Councilmember Salomon Leija said he also favors it, and Mayor Thelda Williams seems to be leaning toward a buyout, as well.
During the parkway's planning stage, the city promised the residents it "would mitigate these types of problems," Williams said.
"We have an obligation to live up to those promises," she said, denying that the purchase could set a costly precedent for the city.
"We did something very similar to this to the people on Highland," she said.
The Bethany buyout, expected to run in the $1 million range, apparently would be financed with part of an $8 million freeway mitigation fund that had been intended for use on an extension of the Squaw Peak and on other planned highways.
A buyout would not just change long-standing city policy. It would also play directly into several hotly contested election battles this fall.
Bilsten, a sponsor of the proposal, was appointed to the council this year to replace former councilmember Skip Rimsza, who is running for mayor. Rimsza has come in for harsh criticism from the Bethany Home residents, who claim he made a series of empty promises to them.
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In recent weeks, Rimsza has offered statements of sympathy, but no support for a buyout.
"I sure don't feel good about what happened to those folks, and I don't feel that I did all I could do. All I can say is . . . it happens," Rimsza said. In the mayoral race, Rimsza is facing Nadolski, the former councilmember who opposed a Bethany Home buyout during the Squaw Peak planning process. She recently reiterated her belief that a buyout is not financially feasible for the city.
And former mayor Paul Johnson, now engaged in a tough race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, continues to be a target of the Bethany Home residents' wrath. Johnson is running on a record as mayor of "The Best Run City in the World," a claim the Bethany Home residents have lampooned in their protest signs.