Friday, October 31, 2014

Paving the Way

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Downtown’s Centennial Way Project transforms a busy Phoenix thoroughfare into ground zero for Arizona’s 100th anniversary celebration.

More than a year ago, Karen Churchard pitched an idea to the Arizona Department of Transportation: Give Washington Street in Downtown Phoenix a facelift.



“Do you know how long it takes to do a project like that?” officials asked her.

In fact, she didn’t. But as the executive director of the Arizona Centennial Commission, she did have her convictions. “Well, we only have one Centennial,” she pointed out. “Is it worth a shot?”

Since that day, Churchard and her action committee, the Centennial Way Project, have  busily transformed Washington Street  – home of numerous government buildings and the de facto gateway to the state Capitol – into Arizona’s Centennial epicenter.

They’ve placed steel panel markers representing all 15 Arizona counties and small, sculpture-type markers representing its 22 resident American Indian tribes. They’ve planted more than 100 trees and built dozens of shade structures, all while widening the street, improving bike lanes, fixing lighting and revamping the landscaping from Seventh to 19th avenues. Each shade structure is inscribed with an Arizona-oriented theme and historical tidbit. 

Washington Street is itself a historical tidbit: In 1912, it was the site of several of Arizona’s Admission Day celebrations, including its first parade. George W.P. Hunt strolled down Washington Street to the Capitol to take his place as Arizona’s first governor.

Back then, the thoroughfare was more rural, lined by homes and trees. Today, it’s a buzzing corridor of businesses and government, culminating with the Arizona Capitol Museum, Wesley Bolin Plaza and the Senate Building.

Churchard calls the revamping a right-place, right-time moment. The state had federal transportation funds that needed to be allocated. With the city kicking in about $300,000 as part of the agreement, Phoenix obtained the $7.1 million grant to renovate the street before Arizona’s Centennial.

The groundbreaking took place in May, and since then the Centennial Commission has been working to keep construction on time while inconveniencing locals as little as possible. Still, one cannot make a Centennial omelet without breaking a few historical eggs. In April, the Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum – which was founded in 1884, pre-dating the state itself, and featured 3,000 fossils and artifacts – was forced to vacate its longtime address on Washington Street to make way for the project’s Centennial Museum.

The official opening of Centennial Way is slated for December, with a celebration parade planned for the day of the Centennial, February 14, 2012. Officials hope it will drive home the idea of continuity between past and present.

“The dynamics of the area have changed a lot,” says Vince Murray, a historian at Arizona Historical Research and consultant on the Centennial Way project, adding that the changes – like high-rise development and the disappearance of private homes – usually have not engendered a stronger or firmer connection to Arizona’s past.

Until now, that is. If the Centennial Way Project fulfills its mandate, what’s new will be old again.

 

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