Is the Solar Oasis a Mirage?

Unlike the crowds that amble through St. Peter's Square, few people ever venture to downtown Phoenix's grease-stained concrete piazza--the courtyard of the Phoenix Civic Plaza. In the summer, those inhospitable acres of cement stretching out from Symphony Hall are just too hot for human beings to endure. In the winter, they're too boring.

But an offbeat solution for the plaza's malaise was suggested three years ago by Carl Hodges, a University of Arizona ecologist and solar energy scientist. He suggested to Mayor Terry Goddard and the Phoenix City Council that it would be a great idea to rip out most of that cement wasteland bordered by Adams, Monroe, Second and Third Streets. In its place, he wanted to plant a two-acre oasis, the sort of oasis that you'd expect in the downtowns of places like Mauritania and Chad. Only Hodges wanted to make this a Solar Oasis, with an ecological theme and a Magic Kingdom flair. He wanted this downtown Eden to focus on the proper use of plants, sun, air and water to reduce pollution and utility bills. He envisioned quirky towers cooling a tented world of organically grown desert plants--including scarlet hydroponic "flying tomatoes." He wanted "harvested rainwater" waterfalls and ponds teeming with funky fish that thrive in the salt-laden waters of the desert. Sound too good to be true? It may be, unless a group of downtown kahunas recently assembled by Mayor Terry Goddard manage to obtain the $13 to $15 million needed to make this garden grow. And the Solar Oasis has already run into more than its share of snags:

* The groundbreaking was originally scheduled for June 1988, as city and state officials naively thought they had the money. But when it became clear they didn't, Mayor Goddard and the Phoenix City Council finally got around to appointing a Solar Oasis Advisory Committee to oversee the design and nail down the money. Now officials say the opening date may be delayed as long as June 1991.

* Officials said the oasis, and the subsequent resurfacing of the remaining Civic Plaza deck, has already more than doubled in cost from the original $6 million scheme to as much as $15 million.

* Although all the funds for the oasis have been "identified," officials say none of the money has been collected. Among the financial setbacks: Former Governor Evan Mecham withdrew $1.5 million that had been promised to the oasis by his predecessor, Bruce Babbitt. And Governor Rose Mofford now seems cautious about giving the oasis all the state money it wants. Nor is the city's share of the money absolutely certain. A key player in the board that will vote on giving the oasis $6 million in city bonds recently announced the deal would be approved "over my dead body."

* Civic Plaza tenants such as the Phoenix Symphony are unsettled by the lack of a firm groundbreaking date and fear that scheduling the messy construction in the winter--during the performance season--will drive away patrons. Tenants also complain there's no money--and no restaurateur--to complete a proposed eatery in the Solar Oasis, a feature they saw as a major benefit of the project.

What's going on here? Is the Solar Oasis, the only downtown city project that is even a metaphor for responsible desert living, going to get bogged down in the same disorganization as other doomed city projects like the stadium and the amphitheatre?

Oasis proponents get a little touchy when asked such questions. They don't want anyone to think their project is a boondoggle, or poorly organized, or a potential flop. They point out that any big project takes years to get off the ground. Just look at the Herberger, they say. That took ten years to fund and build. Even so, some oasis fans fear the project might be unfairly stigmatized by the city's recent fiascoes. Behavior Research Center pollster Earl de Berge says that Goddard and the city council are still enjoying substantial popularity, although there are "early trickles" that the public "seems to be looking at the entire council a little bit more than they have in the past, and asking questions about why some of these projects are running into such difficulty."

And Alfredo Gutierrez, an oasis advocate who is one of the state's most powerful lobbyists, says he has a "concern that the oasis not be dumped in with a lot of other controversial city projects." Unlike those other projects, whose promoters seemed driven by the bottom-line profit motive, the oasis supporters are utterly smitten by Hodges' dream. For instance, attorney Chuck Case almost croons when he says: "People care about this because it's magic." Case, who is the chairman of the committee and the husband of Goddard aide Athia Hardt, figures the Solar Oasis will draw one million visitors to the Civic Plaza each year. "It will be second only to the Grand Canyon in attracting visitors to the state," Case says. "I really think this is a wonderful project, and my job is to see that it's done correctly. I'd hate to see it gummed up."

CARL HODGES wouldn't like to see anything gummed up, either. For three years, he's clung to his Solar Oasis dream despite numerous setbacks. This scientist is the mastermind behind Biosphere Two, that famed world-in- a-bubble near Ajo. He's also a shrewd and savvy salesman.

In the past three years, he sold dozens of politicians and two governors when they visited the Environmental Research Lab in Tucson, where, as director, he was able to erect a mini- solar oasis to give a hint of what he wants at the Civic Plaza. It looks a little like a botanical version of Golf N' Stuff, but leaves a visitor with a wonderful sense of hope for future generations stuck with toughing it out in a polluted world. When he gives his mini-oasis tour, he acts like a rumpled Mr. Wizard, patiently answering dumb questions over and over. He explains the strain of rice that thrives on polluted air; the high-protein tilapia fish that love eating trash and swimming in salty water; the tall solar-powered towers that cool the hot desert air by swooshing it through pads moistened with "harvested" rainwater. And he explains how such turrets will cool the plaza by at least twenty degrees in the summer or could cool an average house for just $5 a month.

He thinks Phoenix, with its "terrible environmental problems," is ripe for these displays of sensible desert living. "We gotta wake up," he says. "It's time to start paying attention to our future." Hodges is good at getting people fired up about ecology, but he's learned the hard way that even fired-up people don't always hand over the cash. Hodges first pitched the Solar Oasis to the City of Tucson in 1986. But the city where he lives and works turned him down, saying it didn't have the money.

So he tooled on up to the next logical place, Phoenix. He says he was happy to learn that "Bruce and Terry had the available funds." Although he'd have a rude awakening about those promises, he so believes in the validity of the project that he has adopted a remarkably patient attitude.

It's no wonder that former Governor Bruce Babbitt and Mayor Terry Goddard offered their support. The Civic Plaza is Phoenix's albatross. Locals and conventioneers stay away from the barren facility, even though the city plunked over $65 million into plaza renovation in 1985, and pays about $20 million per year to keep it maintained. (And these days, even city officials are staying away, judging from how they preferred to let the recent Fiestaval food fling clog seven blocks of a major thoroughfare instead of putting it at the logical Civic Plaza.)

Babbitt, known as an environmentally conscious governor, jumped at the chance to bring an oasis to one of the nation's hottest summer cities and perhaps give his presidential bid yet another environmental gold star. So he committed $3 million from a little-known cache called the state Energy Restitution Fund. That money, which now totals nearly $40 million, was paid by court order to the citizens of Arizona by the oil companies, which had been caught overcharging us back in the 1970s. The money can only be spent on energy-related projects.

Back in 1986, no one thought it would be difficult to obtain those oil-rip-off funds from the statehouse. And no one figured the city would have a problem getting another $6 million worth of Civic Plaza bond money. But they figured wrong.

The oasis suffered its first setback when Evan Mecham took office. The new governor at first refused to let Hodges have a penny of the money Babbitt had promised. Then, after taking The Tour at Hodges' lab, he released $1.5 million, only half of the Babbitt commitment.

With the Mecham money, Hodges built a mini-solar oasis in the summer of 1987 in the plaza near Symphony Hall. The so-called "Summer Invitational" drew over 100,000 people in two months, says Hodges. The visitors included his old buddy, actor Marlon Brando. He claims the public's response was so positive that officials felt pressured to get a permanent Solar Oasis started quickly. So supporters started bragging that groundbreaking could commence as early as the summer of 1988. But there were some citizens who left the Summer Invitational with apprehensions. Cluttering up the city's pristine Civic Plaza with such frou-frou was an abomination, some groused. One complainer, Carefree architect Fred Osmon, felt compelled to write Hodges a letter after visiting the mini-oasis. "The placement in front of Symphony Hall was strange," he wrote. "Why impede the dignity of the hall? This is also true of the proposed Plaza redesign. It is not appropriate for a civic center. If you want people and movement, do it in a commercial area.

"Does the Plaza need `street furniture' and `fun things'?"
Hodges thanked Osmon for his thoughts, but kept adding more and more "fun things" to the plans, items that eventually doubled the cost of the project. "The scope of the project keeps changing because Carl Hodges keeps finding new and exciting things to do," says David Schupbach, who will coordinate the construction of the oasis for the Civic Plaza.

What's more, because Hodges had a hand in designing the Land Pavilion at EPCOT Center in Florida, he conjured up a $1.5 million "Mini-Theatre of the Mind," a tunnel-like pavilion called "Desert Imagical," with special Disney-like effects and games that would teach ecology.

Then he dreamed up an eleven-story, $4.5 million Tower of Many Suns that would naturally cool much of the Solar Oasis by at least 20 degrees from the outside's scorching temperature. There would also be several 45-foot-high towers for cooling, he said, but this giant tower would be like a museum. People could climb inside and learn about solar energy and natural cooling and organic gardening. Problem is, to this day, no one knows for sure what the tower will look like because the Solar Oasis's Tucson architects, NBBJ Group/Gresham Larson, won't work on the design until there's money in the bank to pay them.

WHEN THE OASIS didn't show up on the Plaza deck in the summer of 1988, some started wondering if this were just another pipe dream from a city council notorious for bungling projects.

Finally, in the fall of 1988, Terry Goddard appointed seven civic leaders to the Solar Oasis Advisory Committee. Some wonder why City Hall waited so long. "I don't have any idea," says Chuck Case, who heads the committee. "Time slips by before you get to doing things.

"This required a lot of spade work, which was maybe not projected from the beginning and not fully appreciated." The group includes Valley honchos Dino DeConcini (brother to the senator), Richard Mallery (lawyer and major backer of the downtown Herberger Theater), planner Peter Drake, Richard Goldsmith (a high-powered Phoenix attorney), arts advocate Betsy Stodola, and Henry Sargent of Pinnacle West, the parent company of Arizona Public Service. Alfredo Gutierrez is advising the advisory committee on how to maneuver the legislature to get state funds. (He's working for free, but his services may well benefit one of his clients, the Hispanic group Chicanos por la Causa, which is hoping to build a downtown hotel that might draw more visitors if the oasis were in place.)

The first thing the committee did was tone down the oasis's design a bit, hoping that critics like the architect Osmon wouldn't be quite as put off. Then, with Alfredo in the lead, they settled down for some serious politicking. Minutes of a March 22 committee meeting say that a "low- profile" effort to build "a strong constituency among the legislature, the city and the Civic Plaza [board]" was discussed.

Everyone soon discovered the slam- dunk $6 million in Civic Plaza bond money wasn't as easy to get as they expected. By law, that money must first be released by the Civic Plaza Building Corporation Board. Board chairman Tracy Thomas has reportedly told several the oasis would go in "over my dead body." Thomas did not return New Times' phone calls.

Newton Rosenzweig, another member of the board, says he thinks he'll probably vote against the project because he doesn't believe it will lure out-of-town visitors to the plaza. "Tracy's not for it," admits DeConcini, but he hastens to add that "the majority of the board appears to favor the Solar Oasis." If it nixes the $6 million, DeConcini says, "then we'll have to fund it from a different source."

The problem now existing at the statehouse is just as tricky. Officials want the state to contribute $3.8 million from the oil-payback fund, which is now carefully guarded by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee--a defensive move the legislature installed during Mecham's reign because it feared how he would use the lucrative fund. If the budget committee gives its okay, then Governor Rose Mofford has to agree. She has indicated she's ready to give the oasis $1.8 million, with the other $2 million released only if supporters can raise $2 million in matching private funds. In the meantime, some members of the grassroots Arizona Solar Energy Association say that the Solar Oasis may be getting too much of the oil funds. So they are lobbying the legislature to lend oil-payback money--not give an outright gift. But if the Solar Oasis has to borrow, officials say they may have to charge admission to the Imagical pavilion to pay off the loan.

What's more, Case figures the committee will have to round up about $4 million from the private sector anyway. He says donors have been "identified," but they haven't handed over any cash yet.

He also needs to identify a restaurateur who has the roughly $650,000 it will take to finish off the inside of the Solar Oasis restaurant.

Despite all these hassles, Case says, "We're not having difficulties, there are no roadblocks." Even so, the money for the oasis probably won't be in the bank for another year, according to a tentative timetable prepared by Case's committee. It says all the funding won't be "in place" until April 1990 and schedules groundbreaking for the next month. The tentative completion date: June 1991.

All this tentativeness and schedule changing has the Phoenix Symphony and other Civic Plaza tenants a bit addled. They'd like to know just when the construction is going to start, because they'd like to notify their patrons about things like the parking garage being ripped out for a year. Or to warn people that for three months, the Civic Plaza deck will be torn up all the way to the front steps of Symphony Hall. "On behalf of all the arts organizations, we need to know as soon as possible when they're going to start," says Dick Conti, who directs the symphony. "It all sounds exciting as hell, but the bottom line is they don't have a timetable yet. We were once told it was going to start the day after the Grand Prix.

"The project will happen," he predicts a bit wearily. "But when it's going to start and how long it's going to take depends on when they get the money.

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Terry Greene