Venetian Blind

Will Scottsdale voters preserve "The West's Most Western Town," or opt for "a little bit of Venice"?

Sheets of black plastic hang in hundreds of abandoned storefronts on the four levels circling the grand atrium, creating the effect of a sinister hive.

Hands with elegant fingers and gold bracelets, painted on the walls, point the way to Scottsdale Road.

Developers built and billed the Galleria as a Ralph Lauren vision of the Southwest: Rodeo Drive shopping, Biosphere style.

Canals of Scottsdale point man Fred Unger.
Canals of Scottsdale point man Fred Unger.
Canals of Scottsdale point man Fred Unger.
Paolo Vescia
Canals of Scottsdale point man Fred Unger.

Now, the Scottsdale Police Department uses the 415,000-square-foot complex as a training ground, running SWAT team simulations in the empty corridors.

The Galleria cost $120 million to build -- in 1987 dollars.

Excel Legacy Corporation purchased the building for $6 million in 1992. The Canals of Scottsdale deal calls for the city to buy the Galleria-turned-museum from Excel for $25 million.

For a decade, the Galleria has loomed over downtown Scottsdale as a monument to the dangers of excess. Ironically, the image-conscious city's worst eyesore would be one of the few structures in the Canals of Scottsdale zone left standing. Plans call for the pink monstrosity to be transformed into "The Museum of Progress."

Promotional literature from Unger's campaign group -- Great For Scottsdale, Great For You! -- describes the Museum of Progress as "a world-class cultural institution dedicated to chronicling the progress of mankind and the changes that have occurred in technology, nature, human nature, and the world's civilizations."

In addition to the Museum of Progress, the converted Galleria buildings will hold a sort of United Nations of mini-museums: the Arizona African Art Museum; the Asian-American Museum; the National Latino/Latina Museum, and the JFK Health World Children's Museum, featuring a crawl-through model of the human heart and "a virtual village where children learn first-hand about bike safety."

The planned centerpiece of the cultural complex, though, is a giant, interactive globe, 72 feet across, suspended from the ceiling of the Galleria's four-story, glass-topped atrium.

"Visitors will be able to walk on a cat walk through the giant globe and look down to see footage of such phenomena as a volcano erupting under the sea, or whales migrating," reads a Great For Scottsdale, Great For You! pamphlet.

"A sky scene that visitors can gaze at will be above the walkway. Rockets and airplanes are planned to 'fly' around the globe."

The hallways and former stores circling the atrium would contain the Museum of Progress' collection of "displays, exhibits, and artifacts from prestigious, rare and one-of-a-kind collections from across the United States."

The Galleria has already proved its usefulness as a mammoth display case.

In the fall of 1997, the City of Scottsdale hosted Icons, a traveling exhibit of cultural artifacts from the National Archives, including Abraham Lincoln's stove pipe hat, Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet and the ruby slippers that Judy Garland clicked in The Wizard of Oz.

Curated by the Smithsonian Institution, Icons was a huge success: 160,000 visitors, 60,000 of whom were Valley schoolchildren on field trips, came to the temporarily spiffed-up Galleria during the show's six-week run.

Mayor Campana heralded those numbers as "proof of the Galleria's tremendous potential as a cultural facility."

After the Icons show, Campana and other Canals of Scottsdale supporters began to drop the Smithsonian's name at every opportunity, boasting the project would "bring the Smithsonian to Scottsdale."

When the City of Scottsdale submitted its application for theme-park funding to the state Department of Commerce, it claimed the Canals theme park would include "a Smithsonian museum."

That misrepresented the truth.

Smithsonian officials had tentatively agreed to loan a future Scottsdale museum items from its collection -- not to open a branch of the Smithsonian in Scottsdale.

There were no plans to do so then, and there are none now.

Word of the name-dropping reached Washington, D.C. In March, the Smithsonian's director of affiliations asked Campana and other city officials to please stop using the Smithsonian's name as a political lock pick.

Despite the reprimand, Great For Scottsdale, Great For You! materials continued to wrap the Smithsonian and the Canals of Scottsdale into the same package.

This prompted an open letter from the Smithsonian dated July 12, which accused unnamed parties of implying the Smithsonian endorsed the Canals of Scottsdale, stated this was not the case, and announced the Smithsonian was taking its unique, prestigious, one-of-a-kind toys and going home.

Although the source of the world-class collection that would jam the Museum of Progress remains a mystery, Canals supporters continue to hammer on the idea of turning the Galleria into a museum.

A transformed Galleria would comprise less than 20 percent of the total Canals of Scottsdale project, but it's the central image of the Great For Scottsdale, Great For You! campaign.

Every newspaper ad and glossy mailer portrays the Canals project as the shining knight of progress, come at last to slay the Pink Dragon, a menace to the image of an image-conscious city.

"A lot of people think this vote is only about finally doing something with the Galleria," says Espinosa. "They don't understand the full scope of what will happen to downtown."

But what to do with the Galleria, if not the Museum of Progress? Some have suggested a hotel and conference center, others a new city hall. One popular idea is to make it a casino.

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