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

If all goes as Unger dreams, couples will buy wine and sit in the grass along the canal, à la Venice. Shoppers will peruse custom boutiques, à la Rodeo Drive. Young families will enjoy a water feature, à la Desert Ridge and Tempe Town Lake.

"I call him the Pied Piper of the little village down here," Jason Rose says. "For 10 years, I've seen him walking around, skirting around, talking to somebody here and somebody there, trying to get the jigsaw puzzle together."

Fred Unger
Brad Garner
Fred Unger
A rendering of SouthBridge, Fred Unger’s mixed-use village, which backs up to the Arizona Canal in downtown Scottsdale.
courtesy of Fred Unger
A rendering of SouthBridge, Fred Unger’s mixed-use village, which backs up to the Arizona Canal in downtown Scottsdale.

Geoffrey Edmunds is standing on the 12th-floor balcony of a $3.5 million Waterfront penthouse, where it feels more like Manhattan than Scottsdale. The view isn't of the Chrysler or Empire State building, but of four new SouthBridge structures in fresh dirt. One hundred fifty feet below, the Arizona Canal flows past landscaped grass and a curving sidewalk.

Edmunds is Unger's competition for high-end condo sales, the local force behind Opus Corporation's Waterfront towers, which sit across the canal from SouthBridge. "Fred Unger doesn't have anything but a positive effect on our project," he says. "You can see how great the canal looks on this side. It will look just as great over there but with tables and cafes lining the water. It's nice to know Fred Unger is doing the project because you know he'll do a good job. Just look at the Hermosa Inn."

Ask any of Unger's competitors, and that's the kind of comment you'll get — a synergistic optimism about his proven taste. "It's taken years to make something of the canal," Edmunds adds. "Old Town was depressed. Now the atmosphere has changed."

Architecture is a city's visible personality. From this penthouse balcony, you can observe just how unexciting traditional Valley design is: stucco strip malls lined up like train cars as far as the eye can see.

These days, you won't find stucco going up in downtown Scottsdale. Construction sites are stocked with glass, brick, and steel instead. This brownstone Waterfront tower looks almost pillaged from Manhattan, topped with columns from Rome.

In a sense, downtown Scottsdale's recent ignition completes a full circle back to the canal that birthed the city. In 1888, Civil War chaplain Winfield Scott bought 640 acres of desert along the brand-new Arizona Canal for $2,240. Scott saw the canal as a farmer's paradise. Soon, his town was named Scottsdale. Early settlement hugged the canal, a vein of life in the desert.

Fashion Square's first arm was built in 1961. Soon after, Scottsdale's development energy drifted north, away from downtown — first to McCormick Ranch, then beyond to Shea and then to DC Ranch, Pinnacle Peak, and Troon. The best shops followed the newest, most expensive homes north.

In 1991, the Galleria was supposed to infuse downtown Scottsdale with fresh energy. After its failure (in just under two years) and the closing of Los Arcos mall (farther south), downtown Scottsdale was no longer such a shopping destination. Successful boutiques like Electric Ladyland moved into North Scottsdale strip malls just as soon as they could afford the higher rent. Fashion Square marched onward in its bland success but failed to bring energy to the surrounding area.

Now, some say Scottsdale's cultural cachet has ricocheted back south. Edmunds points to the young professionals who've purchased $2 million condos in the Waterfront. "We expected a lot of second-home buyers," he says. "We didn't anticipate the young entrepreneurs. They want this location and don't need a single-family house."

The most recent Waterfront sale, a penthouse, closed for $4.2 million. Consider that the buyer could've had a Paradise Valley or Troon mansion with twice the square footage for the same price.

After breakfast at the Royal Palms, Fred Unger drives five minutes east on Camelback to downtown Scottsdale and parks his black hardtop convertible near the new canal footbridge on Fifth Avenue.

He's greeted immediately by a mustached project supervisor from the City of Scottsdale. A crew in hard hats is plumbing the waterfalls that will cascade 10 feet from the footbridge to street level. The falls come courtesy of the city's $10 million canal-beautification project, which includes bridges, landscaping along the water, and underground parking. (The city also built and owns the Fashion Square parking garage by Nordstrom. Additionally, Scottsdale landscaped the Waterfront side of the canal.)

Unger walks past a construction truck in front of SouthBridge. "From here, you'll only see water," he says, more like an artist than a developer. Above the bridge, Camelback Mountain.

The first four buildings of SouthBridge claim as much "waterfront" land as the brownstone Waterfront towers across the canal, and they're just one of four phases that will complete Unger's project. That is, this first $41 million phase is but a tip of the $250 million, 700,000-square-foot iceberg.

Unger and the City of Scottsdale wanted a historic look and feel, as if the SouthBridge buildings evolved naturally, over the course of generations. Unger has proved his hand at historic properties. Now he's putting his trademark historic aura on new buildings.

The designs of the first four SouthBridge structures hail from different historic eras. The newest building looks as contemporary as structures in the Tribeca district of Manhattan. Next door, an early-1900s-style building is trimmed with more curving staircases than an M.C. Escher sketch. This building also has an elevator, which Unger takes to the top.

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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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