Until the 1960s, the banks of the canals that flow from the Salt River and fan across Phoenix were oases, de facto promenades bordered by shady cottonwoods. Phoenicians walked there and swam there, and, according to many an old wag, even water-skied. But in the 60s, swimming in the canals was banned, and the trees were cut down so they wouldn't suck up water and Salt River Project profits.

Even if the canal banks were turned into hot and barren sand strips, however, Phoenicians kept their jealous emotional and recreational bonds to them; they still walk, jog and bike there.

Last month, a Phoenix Arts Commission panel recommended a New York landscape architect named M. Paul Friedberg to redesign a mile-and-a-half length of the Arizona Canal and render it more hospitable. The stretch chosen runs along the southern border of the Sunnyslope community, roughly between Seventh Street and Seventh Avenue, and it will serve as a model for future development of the 78 miles of canals within the city limits.

Friedberg proposed shaving away the sand that had built up on the canal banks from generations of dredging. He wanted to put walkways right there on the water's edge, then plant trees atop the outer edges of the basin he'd carved out. As water evaporated from the canal in the hot months, he reasoned, it would cool the air just above the water; the cool air would sink into the basin, sheltered by the shade of the trees. According to Robert Ohmart at ASU's Center for Environmental Studies, "it could lower the temperature as much as five to ten degrees." As a landscape architect, Friedberg is an international name. He designed the Olympic Plaza in Calgary, Alberta, for the 1992 Winter Olympics awards ceremonies. He's had projects all over the United States, as well as in Japan and Israel. And though he's made his reputation by scenting out the character of a location and then building something appropriate to that time and space, here in Phoenix, an undercurrent of sour grapes and xenophobia runs beneath the surface of the placid canal waters--along with some realistic concerns that the proposal will sink into the canal sludge.

Two years ago, the Phoenix City Council set in motion a plan to find $1.6 million--a mix of public and private funds, including "Percent for Art Projects"--for the Sunnyslope/Arizona Canal Demonstration Area. Four other sites had been considered: the Grand Canal between Central Avenue and Seventh Street and again out at Pueblo Grande; the Western Canal at Central, just north of Baseline; and the Arizona Canal near 56th Street and Indian School. The city council settled on the Sunnyslope stretch because of the amenities already there: a school, a park, a wash and bridle trails that ended on its banks, a restaurant with outdoor dining along the water. Most important of all, the Sunnyslope community was eager and enthusiastic to get the project and nurture it along.

"People have not celebrated this river that runs through their backyards as much as they should," said Craig Hansen, former president of the Sunnyslope Village Alliance, and a member of the panel that chose Friedberg as project designer.

The initial master plan prepared by the city showed that the community wanted the canal changed for the better--but not changed too much. It was to be a neighborhood amenity, but certainly not the San Antoniolike river walk being built on the canal banks in Scottsdale.

So last September, the Arts Commission sent out the call for proposals from artists and architects. Of the 146 responses it received, none was deemed suitable. The second call went out after the new year, asking for team submissions only, because the Arts Commission realized that it was too large a project for an individual to handle. The resultant 53 submissions were culled down to four teams who then prepared detailed plans, and of those, the voting split four to three between Friedberg's team and a local group headed by landscape architect Christine Ten Eyck and architect John Douglas.

The Ten Eyck/Douglas plan was affectionately detailed, with pools and walkways beneath groves of blue paloverde trees, elegantly curving bridges, special treatments where the canal intersects with major thoroughfares, and silvery, fishlike shapes to flash and glitter near the water's surface under the bridges. It was a carefully specific and concretely written proposal, in contrast to Friedberg's, which was expressionistic to the point of being outright artsy-fartsy. "The water is the dominant experience," Friedberg wrote. "It gives life to the environment, it is expressive; it has mood, color, and is alive. . . . Our goal is to release and reveal the magic inherent in this powerful, yet seemingly simple, composition. Our goal is to heal some wounds, to provide some comfort within the desert canvas, and to emphasize the beauty of this singular place."

The four artists on the panel voted for Friedberg; it did not go unnoticed that two of them were from the East Coast.

"There's nothing going on here, but they want to bring in someone famous," says John Douglas. "They were going to pick it based on design. I don't think they did that. I just see it as people from New York who want to do business with each other."
Friedberg's proposal certainly was less specific, less finished than Douglas', but he won the panel over with his unassuming manner and clear thinking. Ignacio San Martin, a professor at ASU who served on the Arts Commission panel, said of the Friedberg plan, "In two simple lines, they were able to make a modification of the canal, so that even if very little happens, the canal will be totally different."

But of the Ten Eyck/Douglas plan, San Martin said, "[Their] proposal was a typical gardenesque, landscape approach. 'Give me a budget, I have a lot of taste and planting materials.' It would be a lovely walking experience, nicely done--but without vision." What is vision if it is not shared? Hansen, the neighborhood rep, voted for the Ten Eyck plan, but has warmed to the idea of having a famous designer come to Sunnyslope; the three city employees on the panel (one of them a nonvoting member) were less easily won over.

Bing Brown, from the Water Services Department, said, "My concern with the Friedberg proposal is that it called for some modifications to the canal structure that might take longer and more money to do than the Ten Eyck plan."

Joy Mee of the Planning Department, who did not sit on the panel but has been with the project since its inception, echoed that concern. "It's SRP's property," she says, "and if they don't agree, then it isn't going to happen."

Friedberg did consult with SRP officials before he made the pitch. Paul Cherrington of SRP told New Times that although his company would look carefully at any such plan, his engineers foresee no major problems with the proposal. In fact, he points out, it comes nowhere near the extent of modifications being proposed in Scottsdale, which includes building all the way to water's edge.

The greater scrutiny may come from the community. "How are these people going to interact with the public?" asked panelist Dan Matthews of the Street Transportation Department. Though Friedberg's team includes landscape architects from Phoenix and Tucson, the worry was that he would be calling the shots from afar.

"As fragile an ecosystem as the canal is, it kind of begs for someone who is local," says Councilmember Craig Tribken. "This isn't a statue in the park. Hopefully, it will be knit into a common-area amenity."
Friedberg's selection is not a done deal; the panel's choice has to be approved by the Arts Commission and the city council.

"I'm going to put pressure on the system to make sure these decisions are internally challenged before they get to my level," Tribken continues. "Is your objective to build something that people will read about in New York and decide to come visit Phoenix? That's not my objective, quite frankly."
Certainly, Phoenix is attracting attention from the art world. Last month, Newsweek magazine ran a flattering piece on the work of the Phoenix Arts Commission. Folks here in town, however, see art--like everything else--as a question of jobs.

Tribken would not go so far as to suggest that all local arts projects be commissioned from local artists--in the case of a close vote, he thinks it should go to the hometown boy--but other council hopefuls, still fuming from the tempest in the Squaw Peak teapot, have more strongly proposed as much. "If you believed in that," Friedberg counters, "you wouldn't have a Statue of Liberty." That symbol of America and apple pie, after all, came from France.

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Michael Kiefer