the reporters at the Arizona Republic think we should spend millions of dollars spiffing up the Arizona State Capital. What a waste of money!

Capitol a 'disaster' area Growing lament about Mall: It's crumbling, fading, uninspiring

Casey Newton The Arizona Republic Feb. 14, 2006 12:00 AM

Arizona turns 94 years old today, and if you need proof, just look at the Capitol.

The buildings are aging, the grass is dead, and some of the monuments are crumbling.

While state officials celebrate Statehood Day, a growing number of civic and academic leaders are lamenting the condition of the Capitol and its surroundings.

"A missed opportunity of cosmic proportions," one architect said.

"Disaster," another said.

So what's the problem?

Is it fountains with no water? The grim institutional buildings?

The homeless people sleeping on the lawn?

"I hardly know where to start," said Wellington Reiter, dean of Arizona State University's College of Design. "If you want the city (to) be believable as the fifth-largest city in the United States, you can't have a Capitol Mall that looks the way ours does."

Reiter quickly added that the area around the Capitol is filled with promise. With dedicated effort, he said, Capitol Mall could become a thriving extension of downtown Phoenix.

In November, a group of ASU undergraduates released a comprehensive plan to revitalize the Capitol Mall. Three professors and nearly 50 students participated in the effort, which calls for a new campus for the Legislature and added connections to downtown.

On Friday, the Phoenix Community Alliance will host state and local officials to discuss implementing another of the ASU group's suggestions: a "flag walk" that would place Arizona flags along Washington Street as a first step toward revitalizing the area.

"There's a growing sentiment that it is time for us to focus on the development of the Capitol Mall," said Martin Shultz, chairman of the alliance's Capitol Mall Commission.

The goal, Shultz said, is to transform the area before Arizona's centennial in 2012.

A plaza in disrepair

Critics say the dull pragmatism of the mall district has left Arizona with a Capitol that fails to articulate its natural beauty. Instead, they say, it is little more than an office park.

Particularly maligned are the Senate and House of Representatives, which opened in 1960.

Lawmakers don't like the buildings because they don't have enough office space. Architects don't like them because they crowd out the copper-domed Territorial Capitol, the one beloved feature of the area.

"It's like some sort of ordinary filing system for the mechanics of government, as opposed to a symbolic celebration and insight into what the state is all about," said Vernon Swaback, a prominent Valley architect. "We have more appropriate buildings for our baseball and football teams than we do for out seat of governance."

Swaback said the Capitol should articulate the state's rich, desert character: its wide-open skies and saguaro-dotted landscape.

Instead, the plaza between the House and Senate is landscaped with fading grass and plants that rarely flower.

Across 17th Avenue is Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, a large surface parking lot surrounding a garden that houses more than 20 monuments.

Although an estimated 20,000 workers commute to the Capitol district each day, the plaza is often empty of people.

"You'd never see government employees just hanging out in the park," said Benjamin Ayers, an ASU graduate student who worked on the study. "You usually see a couple homeless people, and that's it."

A large fountain at the foot of an anchor dedicated to the USS Arizona is dry.

To the west, the Ernest W. McFarland Memorial, which celebrates the Montgomery GI Bill, has fallen into disrepair. Some stones bearing stories of Arizonans who took advantage of the bill have faded to the point of being unreadable.

A nearby drinking fountain is broken, and a bust of McFarland is covered by cobwebs.

The memorial is 7 years old.

New campus is sought Brown grass, hot asphalt, a general sense of deterioration, together, they paint what architect Swaback called "a true picture of Arizona at its worst."

So what makes a good Capitol, anyway?

"It has to be functional," said Susan W. Thrane, author of State Houses: America's 50 State Capitol Buildings. "But it also has to be beautiful."

For the record, Thrane doesn't think Arizona's Capitol is half bad, though she would like to see more desert landscaping at memorial plaza.

Claudio Vekstein, an architecture professor at ASU, favors building a new legislative campus that would face 19th Avenue. The new House and Senate would be oriented to highlight the original Capitol, dedicated in 1901.

Shannon Dubasik, executive director of the non-profit Capitol Mall Association, said a sustained effort is needed to revitalize the area. The ASU study is a good first step, she said.

"There are so many people who stand on the sidelines and judge, but they won't do anything," Dubasik said.

Community groups hope legislators will fund improvements to the area in advance of the centennial six years from now. Until then, supporters advise patience.

"It took 40 years to get lousy," Dubasik said. "It doesn't get fixed in two."

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8155.

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