The Big Cheesy

I have to admit it. When I heard that Mayor Phil Gordon was in New Orleans last week, announcing that Phoenix city planners will "help" that stricken city with planning and redevelopment, I laughed.

Hey, it's better than crying, right?

Now, it's true that New Orleans needs help, by the shovelful. And it's certainly true that we all ought to be pitching in.

But the city of Phoenix offering its planning services?

Maybe Lindsay Lohan can give New Orleans some sobriety tips while we're at it. And George W. Bush can help them run a military invasion.

Here in Phoenix, we're living in what's got to be America's worst-designed major city, a hideous grid of expensive new buildings with no curb appeal. Even worse, we're all gnashing our teeth, daily, as we navigate a post-apocalyptic wasteland of torn-up roads, orange barrels and giant, gaping holes in the ground. Eventually, we're going to have light rail and a new Sheraton, but downtown is such a mess these days that I get déjà vu watching CNN — minus the car bombs, the dusty streets of Baghdad look just like my freakin' neighborhood.

The worst part is, I don't think we're enduring all this trauma en route to a better place. Instead, if this city's history is any indication, we're going to end up with some crappy project that we'll replace in a few decades.

Before you write me a nasty e-mail, go walk around the convention center. It's new. It's also on my list of buildings that need to be bulldozed. The place has the hulking utilitarianism most often associated with Soviet Bloc architecture from the 1970s. You don't linger on the sidewalks in front of a design like this. Instead, you hustle to your car.

In other cities, planners are moving away from this kind of oversized ugliness. They're talking about scale, and creating neighborhoods you can walk in — two things we seem intent on ignoring even in 2007 in downtown Phoenix.

But there's no point in keeping up with the times. This is Phoenix, and we're in a constant state of reinvention, a perpetual teardown with little incentive to get things right. Trolley doesn't work? Build a road on top of it. Too much traffic? Hey, take out the road and the trolley tracks — we're building a train!

Or, let's talk about Central Avenue. In 1989, the city spent $10 million to "beautify" the stretch of road south of downtown's Burton Barr Library. We were supposed to get our very own version of the Champs Élysées. Instead, we got slightly wider streets, a few palm trees, and a confusing turn lane of schmancy sandstone bricks.

The late New Times columnist Deborah Laake wrote about the debacle at the time ("Let's Fight Over Central Again," April 19, 1989). And, as her story noted, the construction problems plaguing Central business owners had "some council members" vowing that there would be "no more construction on Central during their lifetimes."

I really wish Laake had named names. Because I'm betting a number of the council members in question aren't dead yet — and yet, here we are, removing $10 million of beautification to make way for light rail.

There's no silver lining to this do-over. Take those pricey sandstone bricks. The spokeswoman for the light-rail project, Marty McNeil, tells me that they're headed for the junkyard. The city had originally been hoping to use them somewhere else, but, McNeil says, "they crumble when they're pried up."

It's $10 million, crumbling before our eyes. And, once again, guess who's bearing the brunt?

It isn't the council members Laake talked to. Their promises are forgotten to time.

It's the business owners, dozens of whom are pleading with the city for assistance as they struggle to stay alive.

Terry Goddard, who's now the state attorney general, was mayor when they "beautified" Central. He's also the mayor we have to thank for Patriots Square Park. It's a horrible place: Not only miserable in the summer, but an uncomfortable brick slab even in the nicest weather. I have yet to find anyone who's enjoyed a single picnic lunch under that Cirque du Soleil-style awning. Even the winos aren't having any fun there.

The city spent a few million "renovating" this hideous park to current conditions less than 20 years ago. (With the parking garage below, the project was $12 million, city officials tell me.) But it's such an unmitigated failure that, when the city announced we were handing over the park to developers, there was hardly a shout of protest.

So, now we're getting an AJ's Fine Foods and some chain restaurants. But no one should be too concerned by the content: No matter what we build, I'm predicting a shelf life of 20 years, tops.

This is what we're exporting to New Orleans.

I'm done laughing. In fact, I feel kind of sick.

The thing is, I'm pretty sure that Mayor Gordon's trip to the Big Easy was merely a good chance for a campaign photo-op. And I don't begrudge the guy for going. Hardly anyone is giving City Hall much attention these days. (TV news only covers the weather and Sheriff Joe's grandstanding; the Republic rarely bites on a story that doesn't feature Jordin Sparks.) Hizzoner's gotta get the headlines when he can.

But the bigger question is why he even needs to be campaigning.

Despite the fact that his city sometimes feels too screwed up to be in the First World, Gordon faces no real competition in September. He was practically guaranteed to win re-election in a landslide even before his chief competition, Jarrett Maupin II, was knocked off the ballot last week for failing to collect a valid number of signatures.

As it turns out, Maupin used a number of convicted felons to collect signatures for his petitions. That's not allowed. Any campaign veteran will tell you that petitions get scrutinized with a level of detail seldom applied to development plans. Maupin shouldn't have been surprised when Gordon's people caught his error and moved to have the petitions in question thrown out. And he shouldn't have been surprised when the city clerk agreed. That's the way it goes.

Maupin is threatening to sue — which is, of course, also the way it goes. But even if the 20-year-old Al Sharpton protégé manages to overturn the ruling, he still doesn't have a chance in hell of winning.

After all, Gordon has raised 70 times more campaign cash than him. Seventy! This isn't so much an election as a Phoenix version of the Anschluss.

And even though Maupin has managed to raise only a piddling $11,000 to date, he's done better than the third guy in the race, former nightclub owner Steve Lory. Lory has elected not to raise any money so far. According to his most recent campaign filing, Lory's financing comes entirely from his own pocketbook.

Clearly, there's no reason in the world for Phil Gordon to be raising nearly a million bucks. And there's no reason he needs to be gunning for the front page.

Except, of course, that Gordon is really running for governor. Or maybe even Congress. That's why this campaign is more about building his brand than beating back any nominal opposition.

I can't fault Gordon for his ambition. But I hope that he understands one thing: Almost all of us are going to be voting for him this time around because, well, he isn't Al Sharpton's protégé and his main qualification isn't that he used to own a nightclub shuttered by the city.

He's not doing a bad job. But there are a lot of people in this town who are wildly frustrated by the traffic, by the construction, and by the sense that we just keep throwing money into projects without a good plan to make this city better.

If Gordon really wants to be governor, or congressman, I'd really like to see him get this disaster of an urban area cleaned up.

And no, I'm not talking about New Orleans.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske