Park 'n' Schlock Feared at Indian School Site

Is Phoenix's potential "Central Park of the Southwest" going to become just a piece of little-used turf stuck amid yet another gaggle of shiny high-rises?

That's what some activists fear is inevitable as an eight-person team starts its job of overseeing the planning of midtown's controversial Indian School site.

"You mean, the late, great, Indian School site," moans Phoenix attorney John Moran, a member of a Citizens' Advisory Committee that discussed its ideas for developing the site for about three years and then issued a lengthy report. The committee consisted of a spectrum of Phoenicians from real-estate brokers to blue-collar workers.

"Basically, the council is going to do what the developer wants it to do. We spent untold hours on our document, and the council basically is ignoring it. It's worthless. We've been backdoored."

The source of Moran's anger is a recent Phoenix City Council meeting at which the council declined to adopt officially the committee's recommendations about the future of the site. Instead, the council thanked a committee representative and went on to its next piece of business. Moran and others fear that the city will kowtow to the Collier family of Florida, the site's likely developer.

"The city can control the development of that property through the granting of zoning," Moran continues. "They can tailor what this area will look like for the next hundred years. But at this point, they're not taking steps that I can see to take control of this situation. It's all in the hands of the developer."

Not hardly, says Councilmember Howard Adams, whose district boundaries include the Indian School site.

"We are going to come to the negotiating table with Collier down the road with several bargaining chips," Adams says. "We have our twenty acres to start with, and we have the ability to grant zoning that will determine exactly how the land is going to be used. It's not unusual that we didn't adopt the citizens' report. I've read it and I think they did a fine job of coming up with an excellent mixed-use proposal. We're just beginning this whole process."

It wasn't long ago city officials were touting the 104-acre parcel at the site of the century-old Phoenix Indian School as a potential "Central Park," an oasis in the midst of concrete and steel.

Many felt that still was possible even after Congress--urged by powerful House Interior Committee chairman Mo Udall--passed the Indian School-Everglades land swap last November.

The bill, signed into law by Ronald Reagan, allows the Colliers to buy 68 acres of the mega-valuable federal land at Central Avenue and Indian School Road, in return for turning over nearly 108,000 acres of the fragile Everglades.

The deal allows the Colliers first rights to purchase its piece of the property after the Interior Department appraises it. The Colliers also must pay the feds $35 million to establish an education fund for Indians.

Collier officials have said they want to build a mixture of "high-quality" offices, stores and condos on the site, considered one of the most lucrative pieces of underdeveloped urban land in the West. Most agree that such a project could take up to 25 years to complete.

As part of the massive swap, Phoenix received twenty acres for its long-desired park. Left to be decided, however, is the critical question of where the park will go.

If it goes in the northeast corner of the parcel, for example, detractors such as Moran fear it will have much less access and visibility than if it goes in the prime location at the southwest corner, which is the intersection of Central and Indian School. (Moran's group recommended the southwest corner.)

According to a 1987 agreement, a land-use team comprising four Collier and four city representatives is supposed to sort out the myriad of unresolved questions. It is expected to take more than a year to make up its mind and to send its game plan to the city council.

But who's on that "team" troubles some.
Moran contends that two of the four city representatives--Burton Barr and Tom Espinoza--are pro-developer deal makers who naturally will side with the Colliers. The other city representatives are Phoenix attorney Roxanna Bacon and Paul Winslow, an architect who formerly chaired the Citizens' Advisory Committee.

"I wish Burton was back at the legislature, where he did a great job and where he's needed," says Moran, referring to Barr's long stint as House majority leader and consummate mover and shaker. "There's a lot better places for him than on this committee."

Barr, the chairman of the newly formed team, bristles at the notion that he will be a yes man for the Colliers.

"Let me put it in proper perspective before I get mad," says Barr, who has been Mayor Terry Goddard's unpaid mentor on ValTrans and other local issues. "A yes man? This is going to be the most democratic process I've ever seen. It's all yet to be done, but everybody will get their say. This is an up-front, public affair. I want the press to stay all over our backs on this. Nobody is making any back-room deals. We have to strike a balance between the city's interests and the Colliers, who are quality people.

"It's not just that we have twenty acres to play with. The city is going to have to be prepared to spend the money to make it the best thing it has ever done. It's the chance of a lifetime."

Former Senate minority leader Alfredo Gutierrez, one of Barr's old buddies at the capitol and now a lobbyist for the Colliers, insists that what will go where at the Indian School site still is an open question. "I know that some people had hoped the entire property would be a park," Gutierrez says, "and they're disappointed that the process in Congress didn't end up to their liking. So it doesn't surprise me that they feel like they do. But this process is far from over, and I'm sure everybody's point of view will be heard and considered before it's all over."

But Moran says Mayor Goddard could have used the Indian School issue as a rallying point for his own political aspirations. That is, he could have argued that he fought D.C. and an out-of-town developer in an effort to get the best deal for the citizens of Phoenix.

"It doesn't look like it's going to turn out that way," Moran says. "You know, from North Mountain to South Mountain, you have fifteen miles of concrete except for 63 acres of park in Encanto. The Indian School is a big deal. Collier looks to make maybe $400 million or $500 million easy money on this thing. You'd expect our leaders to really fight for the city, wouldn't you?

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin