Make The Canals Something Special Again


Ask native Phoenicians over the age of thirty, and they'll tell you the canals were really something once. The more gritty oldsters insist they used to water-ski the canals. My friend Steve recalls that he and another twelve-year-old once floated from east central Phoenix to around 52nd Avenue "just to see where they went." Other natives recall family picnics on the banks or fishing or just sitting under the trees watching the water roll by.

Unfortunately, as Phoenix grew and water got scarcer, the trees on the banks--cottonwoods and ash, mainly--were cut down because their roots sucked too much out of the canals. Perhaps that's what prompted other folks to see the canals as dump sites for bodies and old cars and rubber thongs. There are 45 miles of canals meandering through Phoenix. We want the city council to begin restoring them to their original loveliness. No other single project would make as significant a change in this city. Don't forget, the famous River Walk in San Antonio was once an ugly river the Chamber of Commerce wanted to pave over. Instead, it became the landmark in the home of the Alamo.

The Phoenix canals have an even greater possibility here, as they wander through neighborhoods and busy commercial streets.

And even the Salt River Project, which operates the canals as a water-delivery system, is ready to move from the "hands off" policy that long kept talk of canal redevelopment an academic exercise. SRP now says it's willing to lease the canal banks to anyone who has the bucks, the taste and the endurance to follow their rigid development guidelines. (The utility wants to be held harmless from any liability and wants to assure it has access to keep the canals clean.)

Imagine how great it would be to have landscaped jogging paths, bike routes and city parks on the canal banks. What's more, museums, shops, eateries and maybe some housing could easily face the canals. Of course all this takes time and money and can't be done overnight. So we suggest this council concentrate on inexpensive canal projects, just to get people all fired up about the possibilities. An example of an inexpensive project: The Art Mollen Fitness Path. Three years ago, the city teamed up with fitness celeb Mollen, the Arizona Biltmore, and SRP to develop the mile-long jogging trail that winds along the south bank of the Arizona Canal from the Biltmore to 32nd Street. Here's how they divvied it all up: The city put in lights, which are on from dusk to dawn; Mollen and the Biltmore split the lighting bill, which runs about $150 per month; SRP maintains the jogging path. Samaritan Health Service and the Biltmore kicked in a couple of drinking fountains. The final product is relatively inexpensive--and wonderful.

The fitness path is remarkably cheap, compared to other city projects we'd rather not name. You might be able to pinch a few thousand out of the general fund to develop a mile or two. And why not encourage other doctors, hospitals and insurance companies to help pay the bill?

What we're saying is sometimes it takes more chutzpah and imagination than it does money to dress up the canals. To see an example with your own eyes, we urge each and every council member to troop over to the southeast corner of Scottsdale and Camelback Roads to see the trippy fountain-bridge over the Arizona Canal. Architect Donald Ball converted a really ugly section of the canal--pipes and pumps hovered above a swirling eddy of garbage-laden water--into an incredible entrance to a building he'd just redone.

Ball and developer Bill Gunn decided to create a bridge over the canal. Next, they painted the yucky pipes and pumps the same grayish-blue color they'd used on the bridge and the building behind it. You don't even notice the garbage eddy anymore, because an eye-catching fountain of recirculated canal water shoots out of the side of the bridge farthest away from the garbage. Ball persuades your eye to look the other way. The cost, paid by the developer: $350,000.

If the developer pays the bill, it's not such a bad deal, right?
If you city council members want to, you can consult lots of local experts on canal-bank development. ASU recently completed a major study on canal development in the Valley. The architectural community is bonkers about the possibilities.

But most of all, seek the support of all those old natives who would love to get their beloved canals back in shape.

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Terry Greene