Is the Solar Oasis a Mirage?

Unlike the crowds that amble through St. Peter's Square, few people ever venture to downtown Phoenix's grease-stained concrete piazza--the courtyard of the Phoenix Civic Plaza. In the summer, those inhospitable acres of cement stretching out from Symphony Hall are just too hot for human beings to endure. In the winter, they're too boring.

But an offbeat solution for the plaza's malaise was suggested three years ago by Carl Hodges, a University of Arizona ecologist and solar energy scientist. He suggested to Mayor Terry Goddard and the Phoenix City Council that it would be a great idea to rip out most of that cement wasteland bordered by Adams, Monroe, Second and Third Streets. In its place, he wanted to plant a two-acre oasis, the sort of oasis that you'd expect in the downtowns of places like Mauritania and Chad. Only Hodges wanted to make this a Solar Oasis, with an ecological theme and a Magic Kingdom flair. He wanted this downtown Eden to focus on the proper use of plants, sun, air and water to reduce pollution and utility bills. He envisioned quirky towers cooling a tented world of organically grown desert plants--including scarlet hydroponic "flying tomatoes." He wanted "harvested rainwater" waterfalls and ponds teeming with funky fish that thrive in the salt-laden waters of the desert. Sound too good to be true? It may be, unless a group of downtown kahunas recently assembled by Mayor Terry Goddard manage to obtain the $13 to $15 million needed to make this garden grow. And the Solar Oasis has already run into more than its share of snags:

* The groundbreaking was originally scheduled for June 1988, as city and state officials naively thought they had the money. But when it became clear they didn't, Mayor Goddard and the Phoenix City Council finally got around to appointing a Solar Oasis Advisory Committee to oversee the design and nail down the money. Now officials say the opening date may be delayed as long as June 1991.

* Officials said the oasis, and the subsequent resurfacing of the remaining Civic Plaza deck, has already more than doubled in cost from the original $6 million scheme to as much as $15 million.

* Although all the funds for the oasis have been "identified," officials say none of the money has been collected. Among the financial setbacks: Former Governor Evan Mecham withdrew $1.5 million that had been promised to the oasis by his predecessor, Bruce Babbitt. And Governor Rose Mofford now seems cautious about giving the oasis all the state money it wants. Nor is the city's share of the money absolutely certain. A key player in the board that will vote on giving the oasis $6 million in city bonds recently announced the deal would be approved "over my dead body."

* Civic Plaza tenants such as the Phoenix Symphony are unsettled by the lack of a firm groundbreaking date and fear that scheduling the messy construction in the winter--during the performance season--will drive away patrons. Tenants also complain there's no money--and no restaurateur--to complete a proposed eatery in the Solar Oasis, a feature they saw as a major benefit of the project.

What's going on here? Is the Solar Oasis, the only downtown city project that is even a metaphor for responsible desert living, going to get bogged down in the same disorganization as other doomed city projects like the stadium and the amphitheatre?

Oasis proponents get a little touchy when asked such questions. They don't want anyone to think their project is a boondoggle, or poorly organized, or a potential flop. They point out that any big project takes years to get off the ground. Just look at the Herberger, they say. That took ten years to fund and build. Even so, some oasis fans fear the project might be unfairly stigmatized by the city's recent fiascoes. Behavior Research Center pollster Earl de Berge says that Goddard and the city council are still enjoying substantial popularity, although there are "early trickles" that the public "seems to be looking at the entire council a little bit more than they have in the past, and asking questions about why some of these projects are running into such difficulty."

And Alfredo Gutierrez, an oasis advocate who is one of the state's most powerful lobbyists, says he has a "concern that the oasis not be dumped in with a lot of other controversial city projects." Unlike those other projects, whose promoters seemed driven by the bottom-line profit motive, the oasis supporters are utterly smitten by Hodges' dream. For instance, attorney Chuck Case almost croons when he says: "People care about this because it's magic." Case, who is the chairman of the committee and the husband of Goddard aide Athia Hardt, figures the Solar Oasis will draw one million visitors to the Civic Plaza each year. "It will be second only to the Grand Canyon in attracting visitors to the state," Case says. "I really think this is a wonderful project, and my job is to see that it's done correctly. I'd hate to see it gummed up."