When ASU students return downtown this August, they’ll be greeted with a lot of construction blocking First Street.
About a month after classes start, the street will open back up, though the landscaping will take a touch longer. And once all of it’s finally done around Thanksgiving break, First Street will be a pedestrian Mecca.
Except for that pesky shade thing.
By the time students get back to ASU, possibly the largest, thickest shade tree in downtown Phoenix will be gone. In fact, it might even be gone before this piece is published. In its place will be a string of desert trees that “match the chosen design palette” and provide less than half the shade of this ficus.
“But we live in the desert and xeriscaping (a technique used to reduce the need for water) is what’s appropriate for the region” is an argument that we’ll hear from sustainability wonks who look at water usage in a vacuum. Asphalt and cars don’t belong in the desert either, yet here they are, and I don’t see any sustainability activists smashing up the roads and setting cars on fire.
The truth is, to combat the excessive heat and pollution caused by asphalt, concrete, and cars in our climate, we need leafier trees than what we’re likely to get from this project. Thick verdant shade is also needed to coax more people out of their cars, which is a much bigger sustainability win than xeriscaping.
Luckily, many in the community understand this. A number of people in the community have voiced their concerns via Facebook, Twitter, coffee shops, and emails to elected officials.
Aside from Phoenix’s insubstantial “design palette” excuse, city officials also argue that this tree is threatening a storm drain underneath. But utilities should be under the road, not under the sidewalk. So like any good streetscape project in any other major city, utilities (including that storm drain) would be relocated under the road. Doing so allows more vegetation by sidewalks and causes less disruption for nearby businesses when utility maintenance is needed. But since this isn’t a good streetscape project, the storm drain is staying put.
To my knowledge, the public meetings never made it clear that our mature trees were going to be razed. To be fair, they also never said that our mature trees weren’t going to be razed, but at some point I feel like I have to be able to trust City Hall to do the right thing.
And I’m not the only one. The community has littered all levels of city government with emails: councilmen, deputy city managers, the mayor, project managers and assistants to all of the above. Have any of them really been trying to integrate our tree into their streetscape plans instead of squandering First Street’s largest existing asset for a wispy sapling? Some haven’t even tried — but others have returned emails indicating a willingness to help.
Whether or not that willingness is in earnest is hard to ascertain. The only way you’ll know for sure is if, on your next lunch trip to Carly’s before JMC 402, you’re still able to find some refuge under the protective canopy of First Street’s most endangered neighbor.
Contact the writer at email@example.com
Sean Sweat is a downtown Phoenix community advocate and urban transportation expert.