Real Politics Built “Grand Canalscape.”

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EDITORIAL: If you let them, those who think they understand municipal politics might drone on and on about elections, statistics, and scandals (Take T.M.L.’s word for it).

but anyone who made it to the February 15th Canalscape dedication, would have witnessed a very good example of where real City politics begin and end. 

The official ceremony for the first two phases of the citywide revitalization project was held at the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Grand Canal between Brophy Jesuit College Preparatory and Central High School (approx. Central and Campbell Aves.)

It’s an area with a lot of significance for the Valley of the Sun – past, present, and future – which is why over two hundred people attended the ribbon cutting.

…there were also free niblets from area restaurants, including Melrose’s own Phoenix Burrito House on 7th Avenue just north of Indian School Road.

An Obvious Theme of “Team”:

Canalscape brought together neighborhood leaders, construction and engineering firms, three high schools, a university, a power utility, a city, and the federal government to address at least two public concerns: safety and underused public space.

“Partnerships really do mean a lot,” said Phoenix Street Transportation Department Director Kini Knudson. “Especially when they bring $10.3 million to the table.”

…and “partnership” was the buzz word of almost every speech.

The City of Phoenix teamed up with Salt River Project and Arizona Forward Economic Development Corporation – to name only two – to nab some federal highway funding.

“(Canalscape) is a recreational corridor,” Knudsen explained, “It’s (also) a way to get people safely across the City.”

The 22 mile long Grand Canal, built in the late nineteenth century, begins at Tempe Town Lake and ends in the Agua Fria River.

It runs through one of the most active areas for real estate re-development in the valley.

“The connectivity that you’re going to have between your neighborhoods, schools, and businesses is what attracted the (Federal) Department of Transportation to fund this,” said Karla Petty, Division Manager for the Federal Highway Administration. “I’m sure it’s going to attract more people and businesses to this growing city.”

Phoenix garnered the federal infrastructure development dollars in order to create alternative transportation projects in its urban core.

“We got funding from the (F.H.W.A.’s) most competitive Grant funding program,” said Mayor Kate Gallego. “And we put it toward bikes, canals, and walking.”

Gallego, who was elected 11 months ago, also thanked Salt River Project, who she said helped direct millions of Arizona public funds toward the project as well.

“We have more miles (of canal) than Venice,” Gallego said. “It’s fabulous to have a City Council that gets that these canals are gems.”

For context: Maricopa County has nearly 200 miles of man made waterways, whereas the famous Venice, Italy has under 30.

Not that size matters.

“The west is an example of collaboration,” said John Hoopes, V.P. for Salt River Project. “I’ve always had a fascination with our system … it is the system that provides the life blood of our valley.”

Hoopes said he was pleased the canals will become more than just utilities, but also places for people to appreciate art and each other.

“We all have an intrinsic and inherent fascination with flowing water,” he said. “To have these facilities … adds so much to our community.”

The first two phases of Canalscape – about 12 mileshave opened connections to neighborhoods in 17 locations, including Sky Harbor Airport, the Pueblo Grande Museum, Arcadia restaurants, and in Melrose.

“It was the indigenous people of these lands who taught us how to live in these deserts,” said District 8 Councilman Carlos Garcia. “It feels almost like a secret passage, so it’s a really cool project and I hope it continues to grow.”

The project has added pedestrian and bike paths, lighting, shade structures, and seating.

It was also designed to be handicap friendly, with ramps and entrances compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

(Yes, T.M.L. uses the word ‘handicap’ because it’s a science-based portmanteau that most people understand, regardless of the volatility of political correctness.)

At any rate, Canalscape will eventually link the eastern and western borders of Phoenix.

The western Phase Three is scheduled to begin later this year.

“Forty percent of people living in Maryvale are younger than 19 years old,” said District 5 Councilwoman and Vice Mayor Betty Guardado. “We can make them stop playing video games (…) They can get out to a canal and ride a bike.”

Nothing prohibited this prior to Canalscape, but Guardado hit the public health component on the nose.

Public Infrastructure Costs Money, and Also Invites it:

No civilization could have survived in this valley without canals, and this bird rose from the ashes to became the fifth largest city in the country because of outside investment.

Modern Phoenix still flies because of hard work, determination, and faith.

At the time of the Great Recession, Maricopa County was one of the most foreign-owned places in the country, in terms of who held deeds to properties.

Arizona distinguished itself at statehood, and continues to do so, as a place where it is relatively very easy to transact property, even from afar.

This was part of why we were hit so hard in the recession, as well as how we bounced back relatively quick (as opposed to other American cities).

People have continued to move here in droves over the decades, staking claims to relatively affordable real estate.

If home sales is all about “location, location, location,” then development is all about “place-making.”

Whether it’s a house, a skyscraper, or a canal, it affects the value of everything around it.

Canalscape is an attempt to mitigate the unintended effects and psychological barriers – crime and blight – public utility ways cause in a city with more area than Los Angeles.

These problems weren’t highlighted specifically at the ribbon cutting because they didn’t need to be.

Neighborhoods have been complaining about trash, homeless, and crime for decades.

Meanwhile, central Phoenix is enjoying staggering residential real estate prices, and a lot of commercial property has changed hands in the city core the last 5 years.

Neither trend is in any small part due to public-private-partnerships between developers and government.

Sometimes, the only difference between the two is that the latter are elected, and owe the public some face time every once and a while.

To quote no less than Phoenix’s own Christine Mackay, Director of Economic Development for the nation’s fifth largest city, “Anyone can make a difference.”

As ubiquitous as those words may seem, the woman knew what she was saying, especially while standing at Canalscape, the love child of neighborhood and business leaders.

Though not directly involved with the ceremony, Mackay was perhaps one of the most influential people in Phoenix City Government not at a podium.

She didn’t even wear a name tag.

Instead, she was in a City t-shirt, handing out brochures with general information about infrastructure and neighborhood services.

She was joined by about twenty “volunteers-and-or-staff” of the Street Transportation Department, who were there to seek info from, as well as provide it to passersby.

And while Mackay’s department more appropriately deserves credit for projects like the overhaul of Park Central Mall – Arizona Forward did most of the leg work on Canalscape – it is collaboration between communities and government that can create some of the demand that is eventually captured by private investment.

Who knows exactly how any one home or business will be affected by Canalscape?

The hope is that it will serve as an asset to both.

Either way, bringing private and public together is the kind of stuff that economic development does in a modern city.

Especially because local government still owns a lot of land here.

The first cranes to return to Arizona’s skies after the recession erected privately-owned buildings on Phoenix City property.

And just about everything built along Tempe Town Lake is, or was, owned by that city or Arizona State University.

Back in the capital, Phoenix gets to brag that it has more acres of mountains that are municipal parks than any in the world, at least by U.S. definitions of municipalities.

New York City may have Central Park, but Phoenix’s South Mountain Preserve is larger than Manhattan.

Think about that, and what it implies about our local priorities, if not also the City budget.

In any event, none of these realities begin or end in office buildings.

If you want to understand why just about the whole darn City government got together to stand next to dirty water on a weekend, in addition to the fine weather, you must first understand how things get decided in the largest city in America…

…that is no longer located on a natural body of water.

Still a Small Town…Kinda

Phoenix is famous for transplants, as is its government. 

In fact, neither Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego nor Councilwoman Laura Pastor, in whose District 4 the Canalscape dedication was held, were born in the city they represent.

(…though Pastor did graduate from St. Mary’s High School). 

Daughter of Arizona Congressman Ed Pastor, Laura touched on the fluid nature of Phoenix politics just before she thanked Salt River Project and The F.H.W.A. 

“When I entered (office), this was already moving,” she said. “I get the glory of saying ‘hey we did it!’, but it was many before me that were part of this.”

Pastor is also on the Board of the Phoenix Union High School District, headquartered about five hundred feet away.

“Because of this project, Central (High), Brophy and Xavier (College Preparatories) have been working collectively together on projects for this canal,” Pastor said. “It has opened a whole dialogue, and I’m very, very grateful the youth have been a part of this.”

Across Central Avenue and around the bend a bit, it was romantically Arizonan to observe City employees seek casual public input on future infrastructures projects.

(Insert geeky giggle here.) 

Street Transportation Department staff were asking people to rate possible ideas for reducing traffic on “collector streets,” such as Third Avenue, which is bisected by the Grand Canal.

“It’s just to get a feeling,” one woman staffer told a couple who were discussing the options listed on a display. “We wanted to let people know what we’re thinking.”

The Department proposed eight possible improvements for traffic which ranged from time regulated parking to bike lanes with buffer spaces.

“We’re opening up the things we have to weigh to the public,” the staffer continued. “We need more robust input from our residents.” 

Anyone who drives through midtown during rush hour knows there’s a traffic problem.

The addition of millions of square feet of apartments isn’t going to help, no matter how many politicians are happy the voters saved the light rail from being scrapped.

Pastor acknowledged the problem publicly during a zoning hearing last year for an apartment complex that will be built At Indian School and Central Avenue. (Read more).

Meanwhile, we’ll have to wait and see how Street’s, street-level data stacks up against the fancy math of the so-called “experts” come decision time, but no one can rightly accuse them of lying when they say they asked for public input.

(Insert a knowing chuckle here.)

And despite whatever the hell may come out of the mouth of an elephant or a jackass these days, it’s a pretty strong inference that Phoenix would look exactly the same as it did in the last Millennium, if not for those who reconcile public desire with need.

Phoenix is, by far, the largest American city to operate under the “weak-mayor, council-manager” form of government, what is much more common of small towns.

Its council districts are themselves more populous than most American cities.

This means elected officers handle a lot of public engagement on issues that run the gamut.

As Canalscape demonstrated, it takes a while for elected representatives to distill those opinions and needs into public policy, and pass the ball on to those who turn them into facts.

That’s why, day to day, neither our Mayor nor Council members call the shots.

In this system, Mayor Gallego could be equated with the President of a corporate board of directors, while the Chief Executive Officer would be Phoenix Manager Ed Zurcher.

This doesn’t diminish the role or leadership of any of the elected officials.

Quite to the contrary, the Mayor and Council approve the City Budget, pursue moneys for projects, and their formal public decisions become law.

Still, policy is only as good as the people who enforce it, and most day-to-day solutions come from the City employees who interact with the public.

…and/or do the actual work.

Hierarchy aside, Canalscape brought together every stakeholder in the municipal process: residents, small businesses, economic developers, private developers, educators, police, City staff, and elected representatives.

…and even the Feds showed up.

It was a who’s-who of the daily operations of American government, and an opportunity for the public to meet the doers who work in, with, and outside City Hall.

Some of them made speeches.

Others handed out brochures, food, or swag.

Several were on bikes, and one was even on a skateboard.

If you didn’t get a chance to learn from, or influence any of them, don’t worry.

There should be plenty more events as public and private re-development moves west.

…and there are always public meetings going on in this City.

Not to mention, the City wants the public to help keep Canalscape clean.

Literally, they want the residents to organize and pick up the trash.

Neighborhood Services and Street Transportation are gathering volunteers.

You will certainly see Staff involved in those activities too.

So, the point is, if you really care about politics, get off social media and get involved.

Then vote.

…and buy some property if you can.

Brian Mori is a Phoenix native, Realtor (R), developer, journalist, and teacher. He lives in the Carnation section of Melrose. He can be reached at bmori.realestate@gmail.com or by calling 602-575-1170.

*Special Thanks to David Jenkins for many of the excellent photos.