Visual Arts

Gimme Shelter

Phoenix wouldn't be Phoenix without its illusions about water. All its boats and pools and golf greens, all its fountains, irrigated farm fields and backyards have helped to turn some fairly extravagant wet dreams into everyday occurrences.

That may be why last week's formal opening of Tempe's Rio Salado project seemed more like an ordinary day at the Tempe Beach than the long-awaited première of the latest in the Valley's centurylong string of hydraulic wonders. That string began with dams and canals built to grow crops and has ended here at the brink of the new millennium with water features, like Tempe's downtown lake, built to cultivate new rows of downtown business.

It's a thoroughly urban idea -- the largest real estate venture this land-locked city has undertaken in quite a while. Tempe officials say the project has reclaimed more than 800 acres from the river's flood plain. Much of that will go to private development.

And lots of people hate it for that. They fret that all the hotel, retail and housing developments planned for the lakefront will turn Tempe from a folksy place into a big ugly city -- a process that has been under way for some time. They fume about the project's cost, and how that money could have gone instead toward improving the city's existing social and physical fabric, which has frayed considerably in some neighborhoods.

Lost in the squabbling has been any sort of meaningful discussion about the design of the lakeside trails, parks and open spaces planned around the waterfront.

It's almost tempting to think the design of the area doesn't matter. So long as the water supply holds up, desert people will flock to the edge of the downtown tub just to stare at all its liquid and light. They've done that whenever floods have roared through. And last summer, when the lake began filling, flocks of people clambered nightly past the construction debris just to watch the dry river bottom change from kitty litter to sunsplash.

But Valley cities have done a fairly poor job of thinking about the identity of the landscapes surrounding rivers, washes and canals. They've often given the job of landscape design to quarry and land-fill operators. Or they've ceded the task to engineers who have devoted too much attention to how things work, too little to how they look.

There's no questioning the grand ambition of Rio Salado. At two miles long and 1,200 feet across at its widest spot, the new lake and surroundings -- stretching along the river bottom from just east of Priest Drive to just west of McClintock Road -- amount to the largest open-space project built on the east side of the Valley since the Indian Bend Wash.

The project includes trails that run almost continuously around the lakefront, with stops along the way for public art and places to picnic or to launch and tie up boats. The project also includes a significant expansion of Tempe Beach Park, the city's oldest park, with plans for a marina on the north side of the lake, near Rural Road.

The design for these spaces and amenities has been in the works for much of this decade -- a lengthy process with numerous starts, stops and changes in personnel. No fewer than eight different design teams produced general and specific plans for all aspects of the project.

The city initially developed a master plan for the area, which called for parkland, playgrounds, gateways, marinas, lighthouses and extensive landscaping. But the cost of building it in a single shot -- and fears that waiting for the money to do the work might delay the arrival of the lake -- prompted city officials to begin designing and building a variety of fast-track improvements.

The result is a project that began with the good idea of bringing people close to the water, but ends with some formulaic, thoughtless and occasionally preposterous solutions for doing that.

Other than the water, there's little here that you wouldn't find in a generic suburban park. You have the usual slalom of trails through a schizophrenic landscape -- still being installed -- of desert plants and sod. And a few essential things are missing. For instance, when the Rio Salado crew expanded Tempe Beach Park down to the water, it tore out the children's playground and didn't replace it. And at the park and elsewhere, the project is screaming for additional shade and trees.

The public art included as part of the package has been either sequestered in undesirable niches or incorporated as meaningless detail. The most unfortunate setting by far belongs to a tile mural slapped on the side of the Red Mountain Freeway's retaining wall, on the north side of the river between Mill Avenue and Rural Road.

Yet it isn't nearly as unfortunate as the redesign this project has brought to Tempe Beach Park -- what city officials have taken to calling the "jewel" of the waterfront.

The redesign began with the sensible idea of rerouting Rio Salado Parkway, which used to separate the park from the river. The road now runs along the south edge of the park. And the park descends all the way to the waterfront. The architectural firm Cella Barr chocked the area full of grassy knolls, planters, barbecue grills, some needed rest rooms, lots of concrete pathways, a large waterfront plaza and a gateway.

Gateways are pretty popular among city planners these days. One reason is that with all the homogeneously ugly homes, offices and malls being developed, communities need gateways to assure people that they've arrived somewhere special. It works for McDonald's. And I suppose you could say it works here.

The gateway is basically a steel arch spanning two elongated pyramids done up in the river cobble. The bases are surmounted by a pyramidal cage of steel. And the whole deal is capped by a lanternlike structure.

The references in the work are fairly obvious.

The arch echoes the curved roofline of the nearby America West offices, which echoes the arched supports of the Mill Avenue bridges. The inverted pyramid echoes Tempe's other architectural wonder -- City Hall. The stones mimic the park's original river cobble structures. And the lantern feature is ersatz Frank Lloyd Wright.

This is just another in a long series of bombs the city has dropped on Tempe Beach in the past 40 years. It inflicted the greatest damage in the 1960s, when it razed the stately old bath house made of river cobbles -- much like the park's remaining 1930s-era walls and stadium bleachers -- and threw up a loathsome piece of Jetsons architecture.

In 1992, city planners tried to give away a portion of the park to private developers -- now involved in developing parts of the Rio Salado project -- who proposed building the Red River Opry there. An outcry forced the city to move the music hall and parking lot across the river.

Although Tempe has spent an estimated $3 million on the expansion of Tempe Beach, it hasn't spent a dime to prevent the continued deterioration of what remains of the park's original structures. In fact, the day city officials dedicated the new waterfront portion of the park, the old bleachers were strewn with trash and broken chunks of concrete and stonework.

This divide between past and present isn't unusual for Tempe, which, like other Valley cities, tends to incorporate real and false histories into theme-park opportunities and designs. The results are Old Town Tempe and the river cobble detailing that Cella Barr has sprinkled throughout the park -- designs that romanticize what the city has neglected and ignored.

People will flock to it and probably love it. But once its kitschiness wears off and they find themselves with all that concrete waterfront in August, they're likely to begin humming a few bars of "Gimme Shelter."

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow