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Phoenix Rising? A Laser Is

December 7, 1990

PHOENIX (AP) _ A 6-mile-tall beam of turquoise light will stab the sky, and laser images will cavort on fabric screens as a way for this city to project a high-tech image and celebrate its downtown revival.

In a ceremony Saturday night, Mayor Paul Johnson is scheduled to touch a console to publicly open a permanent laser show in Patriots Square Park.

After the weekend festival ends, anyone with 25 cents will be able to manipulate the beam or activate random selections from up to 150 computer- driven images.

The 2.1-acre park is in the city’s civic center, near where a new high-rise commercial block called the Arizona Center already is bringing new life downtown for the first time in years.

But it is the laser action that boosters see as the crown of downtown renewal.

″What this evolved into,″ said architect Ted Alexander, the park and laser concept’s creator, ″was a very strong statement stylistically for Phoenix, a Number 1 entrepreneurial hotbed. This symbolizes Phoenix as a high- tech city that looks to the future.″

The park caps a five-level underground parking garage - a combined $15.4 million project that began in 1981 and officially opened in December 1988.

The laser portion - delayed by City Council’s reluctance to provide financing - cost $355,000, half of it in donations, and will take an estimated $40,000 a year to keep up.

One laser can be moved to slice the sky from the vertical to the near- horizontal, though one high-rise north of the park limits the effect in that direction.

The beam ranges in width from 3 to 5 feet. Visibility depends on the air - particles of dust and moisture help reflect the light.

The other laser operation projects images on one of the five sail-like triangular screens intermeshed with the park’s 115-foot central spire of steel rings and rods.

These images - holiday messages, representational shapes like ornaments, submarines and spaceships, and abstract designs - can be made to zoom larger or smaller, stretch or fatten, spin and tumble and flicker.

Alexander and former Mayor Terry Goddard say the laser show can come to symbolize Phoenix, a desert city of sometimes searing heat that has as its logo the fabled fire bird rising from ashes.

It can be ″our own version of the arch in St. Louis or the Space Needle in Seattle,″ said Goddard, the Democratic candidate in Arizona’s still-contested gubernatorial election.

Like Alexander Eiffel’s tower in Paris, the park’s spire debuted to critics’ sneers. One called the park ″a boil that needs to be lanced.″ Even Goddard suggested the evolving park looked like a landing pad for UFOs.

″We’re trying to create a symbol here that reflects Phoenix’s growth,″ Alexander said during the earlier stages. ″And anytime you make a bold statement for a community, there’s no way to please everybody.″

Alexander spent six months studying what makes urban spaces work before he began his redesign of what was a grassy area crisscrossed by concrete walkways with a fountain where transients bathed.

The new park has about 160 trees, lighted low columns of glass bricks and curving rose-brick planters and walls. Every horizontal surface is designed for sitting, making the park popular for office workers’ lunches. At its heart is a 45-foot-high dome shading an 800-seat amphitheater.

The park, was designed ″to delight the spirit,″ Alexander said.

At night, the glass-brick columns and white globes atop twisted lamp poles add illumination to the glow of colored lights and the sparkle of fountains.

The argon lasers, though powerful beams of light, won’t slice the wings off planes, skewer people or punch holes in nearby buildings, Alexander says.

The beams are computer-controlled to stay above the skyline, but even if a beam dipped out of control it would do no more than cast shadows, officials say.

″The heat dissipates very quickly as a function of distance,″ Alexander said. ″You’d have a real hard time lighting a cigarette at 10 feet.″

And the beam will be shut off by a technician if a plane flies within 500 to 1,000 feet, he added.

″It will not shine into people’s homes, nor will it light up the night sky and interfere with astronomers,″ Alexander said. ″It reflects Phoenix ready for the 21st century.″

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