Walking on Water

Fred Unger's idea of gondolas on Scottsdale's canal went under. Now he's back with a bridge and $250 million

Touring Royal Palms after breakfast, Unger explains the artifacts. "This chest is from Peru," he says. "These are camel stirrups."

Unger is tall, about 6-foot-3. He hangs his head with a dose of humility. Conversely, his stride is powerful and quick, scissored by a rhythmic swinging of his arms — the gait of a man who knows where he's going.

For every relic, there's a story. The exposed ceiling beams are from a collapsed bridge at the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The floor in the cigar room is leather. The tiles are from the original Cook family house, built in 1929, where T. Cook's now sits.

Fred Unger bought the charred remains of Hermosa Inn in 1992. He rebuilt the Paradise Valley property into a historic landmark.
Brad Garner
Fred Unger bought the charred remains of Hermosa Inn in 1992. He rebuilt the Paradise Valley property into a historic landmark.
Next, he transformed the dilapidated Royal Palms into one of the finest resorts in the Southwest.
Brad Garner
Next, he transformed the dilapidated Royal Palms into one of the finest resorts in the Southwest.

Beyond a front door that looks like something from the Ming dynasty, Unger points to uneven paving stones lining the resort's entrance, now the stomping grounds of bellhops. "We were in Mexico on a weeklong buying trip," Unger recalls. "A small town was tearing these stones up to modernize. I bought them on the spot."

These are the touches for which Unger's high-end resorts are known. In a market filled with bland, brand-new buildings, Unger's attention to detail gives his projects personality.

In that sense, Unger is as much a typical developer as Chris Bianco, the pizza artisan, is a typical restaurant chef. True, Unger has traits of the normal developer: He owns multiple properties across the country — as well as not one, but two Paradise Valley homes. He also drives a $100,000 Cadillac sports car. But Unger's single-minded passion about his projects smells more like creative obsession than cold hard cash.

"Fred is a unique client," says Scottsdale architect Kenneth Allen, "a visionary for sure. He has an ability to see what other developers don't and an ability to gather talent around himself."

Unger seems part artist, part businessman — the rare ilk of right-brain/left-brain leader who can create a concept, assemble a talented team, and then work the numbers to build the dream. He'll tell you himself: It works only about half the time.

Unger insists he doesn't spend his restless nights pondering how much money he can make. Instead, he pours himself into what he most enjoys. For more than a decade, his dream has been to transform the area around downtown Scottsdale's canal.

Finally, the planets of Scottsdale politics have aligned.

In 1954, a 5-year-old, skinny kid named Fred moved from Chicago to Jacksonville, Florida — the first uprooting in a childhood of uprootings. About every two years, Unger's father's business-equipment job yanked the family from Jacksonville to Birmingham to Atlanta to Denver to Pasadena, California.

The moves would prove traumatic and life-changing. Ultimately, Unger's dad was laid off by the same company that moved his family cross-country. "Watching that difficulty, I decided I would start my own company, so if I wanted to watch my son's Little League game, I could," Unger says.

In 1967, he enrolled in the real estate and finance program at the University of Southern California. After that, he worked in a commercial real estate firm, learning the trade. On a blind date, Unger met a manager from a Big Four accounting firm. "We were playing tennis, and before the second set was over, I knew I was going to marry her," Unger says. The tennis partner is now Unger's wife of 30 years, Jennifer.

By 1982, Fred and Jennifer had three children and a fourth on the way. They walked away from their stable, well-paying jobs in real estate and accounting to start their own company in Long Beach. "We put together relationships with lenders and investors, with the goal of buying property, improving it and making a profit for our investors," Unger says, recalling the invigorating risk of that first venture.

With those original investor dollars, Unger bought George Lucas' former Star Wars headquarters in San Rafael, California. "Lucas' people had left all the computer screens. We had big robots in the lobbies. It was very exciting," he says.

Six years later, he sold the Lucas building at a profit, and today, a number of the same investors from that venture have staked their dough on Unger's Scottsdale canal development.

But Unger's journey wasn't easy. After the success of the Star Wars property, the real estate crash of the late '80s leveled his portfolio. "The low point was when we couldn't afford the rent and had to leave our offices in Long Beach. We lost all of our money. We didn't go into bankruptcy, but we had to start over," he says.

In 1987, Fred Unger, 38, was broke. To clear his office lease, he left behind his collection of antique furniture. Fred and Jennifer packed their kids (ages 9, 7, 5, and 3) into a van and drove to Scottsdale.

"Welcome to a new state," Unger recalls telling his young family as they drove across the Colorado River into Arizona.

With private-investor money, Unger purchased Scottsdale Manor, a 72-unit apartment complex. He set up a makeshift office in the property's maintenance garage.

"We had some very squeaky economic times," Unger says, "a lot of Hamburger Helper and tuna casserole."

To this day, Unger says he bets his own money on every project he does: "The investors need to know I'm willing to stake my net worth on my projects."

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your article on fred unger and scottsdale's recent planning missed mentioning of scottsdale's of pud's (planned use developments) and that is not many owners of million dollar plus condos want to wake up in the morning and serve themselves starbucks.

in 2006, scottsdal's planners made the deciesion that "workforce housing was too expensive to develop" in the downtown area. that concept alone would be more comical if today i hadn't spent 45 minutes driving south on hayden to go from thomas road to mckellips at 5:30 p.m. this is typical for any north/south route at that time of day.

why would i want to waste my time and gas when i can go online and find the same stores, but without the hassle?

arizona should consider charging scottsdale for the 101. this kind of poor planning (and greedy snobbery) not only makes scottsdale a valley pollution leader, but overlooks another important detail; the rich don't live very comfortably by themselves. they need others to serve them.

a stunning design isn't very impressive with a high budget. the real challenge would have been to pioneer a stunning plan for a truley mixed community development.

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