October 19, 2010

Vantage Point: Fair Trade at the Civic Space Park

by: Taz Loomans


This afternoon I’m sitting at the Fair Trade Café at the Civic Space Park getting some work done before a meeting with Tony Arranaga, The Light Rail Blogger, Valerie Porter, and Suzanne Day of Valley Metro to help plan the next Valley Bike Month.  If you’re a regular here at Blooming Rock, you know that if I’m not working at Lux Coffeebar, I’m working or meeting with someone at Giant Coffee.  Rarely have I ventured south to this fair place, Fair Trade Cafe at Civic Space Park.

As I sit here facing the courtyard, I’m struck by how darn lovely it is!  I know some may have an issue with the subterranean nature of this venue, the argument being that if it were on the ground floor, it would do wonders for activating the park and the street.  And this is true.  However, let me make a case for Fair Trade being where it is, underground, and why it lends to a very unique and worthwhile experience.

First of all, we don’t have a whole lot of subterranean spaces in Phoenix.  For the most part, we are loathe to dig into our hard soils, even though, as a rule, it’s much cooler down here.  Experientially, there is something very interesting about being underground. And the way this space is designed, it’s not a dark, confining experience.  Because of the spacious courtyard in the front and the floor to ceiling storefront glass, there is plenty of daylight.  And the storefront also makes possible this incredible view that I have right now:

A sunny courtyard with a wall of water as a backdrop above which is a retaining wall strewn with green vines.  And above that is a welded wire mesh fence at ground level also robed in greenery.  My favorite part is that there are people using this underground courtyard, soaking up not the sun, but the shade.  And in contrast to the relative quiet view of the courtyard, there seems to be a steady stream (of mostly students) walking at grade level.  The green screen of the fence obscures my view just enough to make the flow of passersby intriguing.

There is something powerful about experiencing different grades at once, specially from a subterranean point of view.  It feels somewhat disconcerting being below grade, being underneath the real world, yet being able to watch it.  It makes you think twice about what is up and what is down.

That being said, I must say that I’m not a big fan of the interior of the café, it’s a bit too unremarkable and nondescript for a coffee shop.  A coffee shop needs personality.  But this space could easily be anything from an wireless phone store to a print shop.  It’s essentially a shell that hasn’t had a soul breathed into it yet.  The few distinctive moves that have been made, such as draping burlap coffee bags around the coffee counter and the bent stamped metal panels used to screen the electrical chases are just not enough to give the place the invigorating oomph that it needs.

However, I still think this place is special. If you look past the interior (literally),  you’ll see it’s special precisely because of the way it engages the street life and the park.  Now could the park and the street benefit from an activating use on the ground floor?  Most definitely!  But there is something wonderful about being in the bowels of the AE England building and stealing a furtive view of the world above.

Photo Credit: Janet Echelman’s sculpture “Her Secret is Patience” at the Civic Space Park as seen from the courtyard of Fair Trade Cafe.  Photo by the author.

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2 Responses

  1. I agree that the outdoor space at FTC Park is relaxing. The interior is plain, but who would spend time in there given the exterior scene? Unfortunately, the challenge seems to be getting people to realize that FTC is open for business and to descend the stairs (or elevator) to enjoy it.

    • Taz Loomans says:

      David, when I came today, I was happy to see the courtyard fully utilized by lots of people and the inside relatively busy with people on their computers. The only reason I sat inside on such a beautiful day is I needed to plug my computer in and I didn’t want to deal with the glare outdoors. But you’re right about actually sitting in the courtyard, it’s very very nice.

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