November 1, 2012 Leave a comment
My recent travels have taken me to Casa Grande, Arizona. It’s a small town between Phoenix and Tucson. It started as a mining town on a railroad line and only recently exploded as a place for snowbirds, like my grandma, to spend the winter. While there is a lot of new suburban-style development, there is still a traditional core that has some interesting strengths, and a few weaknesses to develop.
The first thing I noticed was that there are some great bulb-outs in the core of Casa Grande, but what stood out about them is that they are now at sidewalk level, but at street level. I’m not sure why this is. My best guess is that by doing this is might have been cheaper than to build it up to sidewalk level, or that it might have been better for drainage reasons. Although Casa Grande is in the middle of the desert, it is subject to Arizona’s regular monsoons which cause a lot of quick, heavy rain. There were a variety of these bulb-outs, from mid-block trees to full pocket parks. There were also a few more traditional bulb-outs with benches and trash cans.
There was an area called “The Alley” that was painted up in an interesting way. It seemed that it was an area that could be used for art events, although it was pretty dead while I was there.
Something I noticed after a while was that all of the stores had large awnings covering the entire sidewalk. This is important, especially considering the low density of trees, to create shade and cool down the desert. With summer temperatures as high as 120 degrees, unless there is shade you will never get pedestrians.
Another thing I thought was interesting was that some of the street trees were actually fruit-bearing lime trees. I wondered why the city chose to use these trees when they would come with the additional cleanup duty. I also wondered how they did such a good job, because the sidewalk below the trees seemed spotless.
One issue with Casa Grande’s traditional core is that it is virtually all retail. The residents of Casa Grande could drive there and then walk, but they can drive to the suburban strip locations as well. It would be good for them to create some small, affordable units, aimed at artists or even some more active empty nesters. There’s even a grocery store downtown already, so it would be pretty easy to live there.
Where the traditional town center meets the suburban arterial lies Peart Park. This is a pretty nice traditional town park. It has a number of both active and passive uses, as well as the all-important shade. I think it’s especially important to have parks in desert climates because you need an oasis from the heat, and if you’re going to be blowing a lot of water on something, better it be a public park than a whole bunch of private lawns. That being said, there were some issues. For instance, there was a path on the south side of the park that was exposed to the sun. If they planted a row of trees on the south side of the park, it would make it a more comfortable place to be.
Casa Grande is home to some interesting civic buildings. The city hall terminates a vista and has a nice, green plaza in the front of it. If anything, it could be improved by a lot more trees. The main approach has only a few, and if they were replaced with two rows of palms and a bunch more around the edges, a la the Nevada Statehouse, it would have a much more stately approach and the shade it would need to make it a desirable place to spend time. Heritage Hall is a great example of early Spanish colonial architecture, and it is flanked by a plaza made up of native plants, which shows that you don’t necessarily have to have grass to make a comfortable place.
Casa Grande is a booming little town with some good retail, parks, and public buildings. The recent development has not been going in the same direction, unfortunately, but hopefully some future development can be brought back to its more urban roots.