Phoenix's Vernon Avenue Pocket Park Opens This Saturday

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Two thousand square feet isn't all that large in the grand scheme of things. Put the number in perspective, and it's about a quarter of the size of an endzone in the NFL but more than five times as big as the average crosswalk. It's also the approximate size of the new Vernon Avenue Pocket Park, which officially opens this Saturday, January 18.

See also: Camelback Mountain Combines Beauty, History, and Adventure in One Fragile Phoenix Park

Hidden just off Central Avenue in midtown, the miniature oasis is situated between neighborhood walk-up coffee shop Shine Coffee and its extended indoor "living room" seating area. The location is purposeful. Connected by a broken-edged brick pathway, the park is designed to extend the flow of seating between the two outposts. The goal? Creating a true indoor/outdoor space -- the kind that has become a staple in the Valley.

Mayor Greg Stanton will cut the ceremonial ribbon shortly after 10 a.m. Saturday morning. David Anaya of Phoenix Renews project and Colin Tetrault of Arizona State University's School of Sustainability will also be in attendance. The park plans to partner with architecture students from ASU to design and create custom benches and additional lighting.

The park was the brainchild of Christiaan Blok and Layrn Callaway-Blok, the husband-and-wife team who own Shine Coffee. The couple turned to the public to create the space, soliciting donations through the crowd funding website Kickstarter. They raised over a thousand dollars more than the original goal of $22,000, with the average donation hovering around $75.

The pieces were beginning to fall into place when we reported on the project in October, and the park was slated to be open to the public by the end of fall. This weekend's opening date is the result of the inevitable delays that come with construction, Callaway-Blok said -- like finding the remnants of an in-ground pool in the middle of the landscape.

Still, the implementation has stayed true to design. Developed and donated by Kirby Hoyt of Edge Industries, who gave Biltmore Fashion Park a facelift back in 2007, the space was meant to mimic the Tuileries Garden in Paris. That sprawling urban refuge is known for expansive greenery and fluidity, as parkgoers are encouraged to rearrange and move benches and café tables to their liking.

"It's funny to have to explain these things in Phoenix," Callaway-Blok says. "A European sidewalk café."

Phoenix's pocket park operates under that same principle. Callaway-Blok says she plans to place half a dozen two-person tables throughout the space, but speaks adamantly about her desire for the public to move them around, changing the aesthetic at their leisure.

"People will tell the space how they want it," she says. "We want them to grow into it."

Those tables will weave among the eight Chinese pistache trees that dot the grounds. While today they look meek and skinny, these trees will thrive in the city's climate -- growing best in full sunlight and turning scarlet with the seasons. Once they bulk up the leaves will create a shade canopy, providing relief from harsh summers.

Three repurposed horse troughs line a short wall to the east, offset by the shrubbery. Christiaan Blok has turned each into a planter, hoping to create a community garden of fresh herbs and seasonal vegetables for the neighbors.

For now, the only green comes from a nearly 30 feet by 15 feet patch of grass set far back from the sidewalk, and a neon green sign declaring an upcoming liquor license hearing. The license is for Olive + Vine, a new brick oven pizzeria and wine bar scheduled to open in late spring. The restaurant would use part of the park space for its own outdoor patio, while indoor seating will be housed in the same building as Shine's living room.

With the addition of the restaurant and added foot traffic from Willo residents, Shine expects to embark on its own expansion. The couple not only plan on expanding their menu, but their sense of community, with events like farmers markets, car shows, and the already-in-place Short Leash Wednesdays.

But even the desert looks desolate in January. So while for now the park looks more like the dirt lot the couple was trying to transform last fall, Callaway-Blok remains optimistic that, come spring, the place will bloom into the outdoor reprieve she dreamed up.

"It's already better than I expected," she says. "We all want to go somewhere pretty and enjoyable. Everywhere needs to be a destination."

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