Let's Fight Over Central Again

It's time for the next round in the fight over Central Avenue. And if the final appearance of the city's "grand boulevard" concerns you, be advised that you stand a greater chance of satisfaction if you keep your expectations under control.

"They compare it to the Champs Elysees in Paris and the major streets in Washington, D.C., that are lined with cherry blossoms," muses Carol Shuler, a landscape architect and member of the Central Avenue Design Review Committee appointed by Mayor Terry Goddard. "But those were planned that way from the beginning. The Champs Elysees has got forty-foot sidewalks.

"The design aspect of Central Avenue is an afterthought. And you are stuck with some limitations."

Consider it a warning. When the Design Review Committee took its plans and model to the Phoenix City Council last week, it was fighting for the aesthetics to make Central "very nice," in the words of Shuler, who is not a woman given to overstatement. (It also dares to suggest the one thing nobody in town could stand: tearing up parts of Central yet again.)

But because of the street itself, and because of design battles still to be waged, and because money is tight, Central may never be a show place in the heart of the desert.

With the committee's report, at least one thing has become beautifully clear: The eye-opening extent to which the city council handed the widening and beautification of the city's main street over to the California-based consultant firm of Gruen Associates.

The consultants acted without many checks and balances, either from the council or the city staff, says Craig Tribken, also a member of the ad hoc committee that has been working since late last year revising Gruen's designs. (Shuler gives a kinder interpretation, saying the Gruen reports were presented in ten-minute segments during busy council meetings and the concepts were too complex to be effectively understood in that forum.) Wherever the blame is placed, Tribken says if Gruen had been allowed to follow through with its ideas for beautification without the last-minute interference of citizen review, "The odds were very good that you would have said, `This is beautiful?'|" You may recall that those were the sentiments of Terry Goddard himself when late last summer he turned accidentally onto a Central Avenue as torn apart from construction as though it had been bombed. As he inched his car along the barricaded street, he realized the scenery creeping past bore little resemblance to the tony redesign plans he and his council had approved nearly two years before. Hadn't those plans emphasized palm trees lining a slightly widened street, and wasn't a row of nineteen palm trees now earmarked for removal because the street was far wider than anticipated? Hadn't the city forked over a million bucks for a raised pink-granite median that was now too flat to be anything more than a universal left-turn lane?

Aggrieved as hell, Goddard publicly chided Gruen officials and then appointed the design review committee to oversee the rest of Gruen's plans before "beautification" could further ruin things. Chaired by Edward Jacobson, the city's premier arts supporter, and enlisting such committee members as prominent architect Benny Gonzales, the group has now come up with recommendations that shelve nearly everything the city has paid Gruen about $500,000 to dream up.

And it should surprise no one that the fight over the committee's report promises to be a brawl between the advocates of urban life and desert landscapes and the numbskulls--in this case business owners--who want the signature street of Phoenix to look exactly like a daily Grand Prix race unfolding against the leafy vistas of Des Moines.

Brace yourselves. Central Avenue may no longer be a snarl of construction, but realizing its future promises to be anything but a smooth ride.

If the committee has its way, Central will take on a simpler appearance than has been planned by Gruen. For instance, the committee is recommending that Gruen's plans for artist-designed inlays at major intersections be nixed, and that a complex sidewalk design be replaced by long ribbons of colored concrete with an elegant sandstone border near the street.

The rationale, according to committee members, is that other cities have found intersection art almost impossible to maintain as zillions of cars a day whiz over them spewing oil and fuel. As for the sidewalks, the committee decided that Gruen's concept of complex designs in stones and tile would have soon deteriorated to junk. As new buildings go up on Central, sidewalks are cut by utility crews seeking access to power lines beneath the street--up to 100 cuts a year, according to the information available to committee members. As sections of the sidewalk were destroyed and replaced, the designs would have been difficult to match exactly. Not to mention the fact that the sidewalks along Central are too narrow in places to accommodate the full-blown Gruen design, and committee members felt that anything less would have looked goofy.

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Deborah Laake