Patriot Games

All summer long, I fantasized about bulldozers, which doesn't make much sense. After all, I'm one of those unfortunate souls who both live and work in the light-rail construction zone, a.k.a. hell. At least once a day, I make an illegal left turn after getting stuck behind some giant earthmover maxing out at four miles an hour. At least once a day, I come within seconds of hitting a fellow commuter, thanks to the orange barrels that funnel two lanes, abruptly, into one.

At least once a day, I threaten to move to Scottsdale. Or maybe even Apache Junction. Hey, they'll never take light rail that far, will they?

Suffice it to say that the last thing I want is more machines, and more mess, in Phoenix.

Yet, for months now, my dreams have focused not on wrapping up construction downtown, but on increasing it. And that's because I've been fixated on the beginning of an entirely different project: the destruction of Patriots Square Park.

This park is supposedly our Union Square, our Millennium Park. According to the city's Web site, it's "the heart of downtown Phoenix."

It's also about as ugly as a park can possibly be. Walk through its maze of scorched brick, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a single urban professional, much less a family, enjoying a picnic lunch. Last time I stopped by, a guy with three teeth asked if I wanted to suck his dick. (Call me frigid, but I declined. Every girl ought to have a four-tooth minimum.) It's no wonder that one of Mayor Phil Gordon's biggest applause lines ever was his 2004 pledge to tear the park down.

And Gordon is making good on his promise. On October 22, CityScape — the mixed-use project to replace the park and its two adjacent blocks — will hold its official groundbreaking ceremony.

Yet I'm feeling no elation. In fact, I'm having a second thought or two.

Not that we should save Patriots Square Park. Perish the thought. It still gives me goose bumps, in a good way, to think about bulldozers plowing into the hideous spider legs of the park's amphitheater, to imagine those cheesy banks of light plummeting to the ground.

The problem is what's taking its place.

We're trading a lousy park for little-to-no park — a park without enough grass, without enough trees. And though the new project will be stretched over three blocks, instead of the one block the park currently occupies, the open space barely increases. In fact, depending on whose numbers you use, it actually decreases.

The new concept has been panned by the Arizona chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Its 11-member executive committee, which represents 330 landscape architects, voted unanimously against the design.

"As designed," wrote the group's president, Jim Coffman, "the 'public' space is no more than a nearly hidden foreground plaza for the adjacent commercial buildings."

We're not getting our very own Union Square. We're getting another Arizona Center, minus the Hooters.

Don't get me wrong. CityScape, for the most part, looks cool. We need a grocery store downtown, and I love the idea of more apartments. The project's developer, RED Development, is widely considered a class act, even by people who hate developers.

But if we're going to endure all this construction, it's going to be depressing if the end result is losing a real park in the heart of the city.

Really, we're sacrificing our core public space — along with that hideous amphitheater — to the retail gods. And unlike the amphitheater, I think we're going to regret losing the park.

The problem with the new Patriots Square is that it's just not quite big enough for everything that it's supposed to be. CityScape — a good mix of apartments and retail and restaurants and even an AJ's Fine Foods — will take up a significant amount of space. On top of that, the park's new developers must make a public gathering place: The city mandated that they create an area open enough that we could shut down traffic and, say, start a marathon there. Or hold a rock concert.

All well and good. But you can't do all that in five acres and still have a lush, green lawn of any size. Or, it must be said, much in the way of trees.

And that means one thing.

The chief problems with the old Patriots Square — not enough shade, not enough grass — will be problems with the new Patriots Square, too.

The thing is, I'd gladly give up trees and grass if it meant doing a cool desert Xeriscape. My favorite place in the whole county is Paradise Valley's Goldwater Memorial, at the corner of Tatum and Lincoln Drive, and not just because I'm a unrepentant Goldwater Girl. The memorial is a small space on a busy corner. But even though it's outfitted almost entirely with shade-free indigenous plants — think saguaros and golden barrel cactus — it manages to feel like a serene, green oasis. Almost as good: the Circle of Life at Steele Indian School Park. There's not a shade tree in sight, but when you're walking its soft path, surrounded by desert succulents, the air feels 10 degrees cooler.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske