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

From the top floor, he points out the Mediterranean touches on a third building: "We dug through records over at the Scottsdale Historic Society, and it turns out early settlers grew grapes along the canal waters, so we built the concept around a grape-crushing house, then added an estate house where the family lived and, then, two newer buildings theoretically built later by the heirs of the original family."

The backstory plays to Unger's creative nature. It gives substance to his new project. The wrought iron around one door appears to be 100 years old. Some of the textured stonework looks equally dated. Elsewhere, a few bricks look awkwardly new. Near the footbridge, a stuccoed grate for the underground parking looks 1980s Phoenix.

Mixed-use is a term developers and urban planners employ to describe downtowns that have stores at street level with residences and offices above. SouthBridge aims for a mixed-use environment that feels as natural as San Francisco's or New York's.

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.

Soon Unger has wandered to the contemporary, Guggenheim-esque end of SouthBridge — where architects from Allen + Philp have set up shop on the top floor. Inside, Kenneth Allen, chief architect for SouthBridge, looks a lot like Steven Spielberg. Unger, who often calls Allen on Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons to tweak ideas, takes a chair next to the architect.

Like the other executives who office here, Allen bought his firm's space before SouthBridge had scratched the canal's dirt. "When people heard Unger was doing mixed-use in downtown Scottsdale, word spread. SouthBridge sold out before Fred could advertise," he says.

Those who bought office condos in SouthBridge grasp Unger's cultural concept. They've each been hunting for a piece of Boston or Portland for decades. Now they've found it in Scottsdale, of all places.

"As the character of the buildings unfolded, we knew we'd want to be in the contemporary building," Allen says. Fittingly, glass and lime-green walls climb from metallic floor tiles toward the intentionally unfinished concrete ceiling, where pipes and electric lines gape, exposed.

Allen points past a stack of magazines (Robb Report, Southwest Style, Architect Magazine, Architectural Record) to blueprints for the residential phase of SouthBridge. At question are the end townhouse units, which will overlook the canal and point toward Camelback Mountain.

"If we combine this space to make two units, instead of three, they'll really be amazing," Allen tells Unger. Fifteen minutes later, they've decided that the three penthouses will instead be two, each with 3,500 square feet and its own elevator to two-car garages below.

"This kind of attention to detail takes longer and is more expensive. No national builder puts this kind of touch on their projects," Allen says of Unger's perfectionism.

Outward beauty is never enough, even in Scottsdale. So critics have harangued the comely Waterfront towers that sit across the canal from SouthBridge. Like Kierland Commons and Desert Ridge farther north, Waterfront's street-level retail space is stocked with chain tenants, including P.F. Chang's China Bistro and Borders.

Unger hopes his handpicked local chefs and boutiques at SouthBridge will offer an alternative and give Valley urbanites what no one else ever has. By doing so, he's making a risky move that could pay off handsomely or echo the failure of the unanchored Galleria.

"You have to do what you think is right," Unger says. "To create something very special and unique, there's no guarantee. If we had put a McDonald's there, it would be guaranteed, and the banker would be happy, and I'd make money. Instead, we're hatching seven brand-new restaurants."

If Unger has his way, downtown Scottsdale will be known for original cuisine and shopping. As SouthBridge's restaurants continue to open this month, patrons won't find a single "market-tested" chain formula. They'll instead find new culinary concepts, concocted by Cowboy Ciao restaurateur Peter Kasperski.

Kasperski is just one of the Valley culture mavens employed to make SouthBridge a unique destination. Unger and his hired guns share one trait: They've all tasted local success, but none has bitten off a project as big or unique as SouthBridge before.

Catherine Hayes, the creative pulse inside the fantastically popular La Grande Orange in Arcadia, is charged with designing the seven restaurants in SouthBridge. She put a glass modeling runway in Canal, an eatery that features fashion shows under the same roof as high-end boutiques and a day spa. Canal is so new that one patron, making her way past hard-hat construction workers, says, "It's hard to tell what's open and what's not."

At The Foodbar, SouthBridge's lower-end eatery, shoppers can walk on 1918-esque subway tiles to select a $10 bottle of wine, a $2 coffee, or a $2 bottled beer.

Acclaimed boutique owner Jennifer Croll was the next creative force to be sucked into Unger's vortex. Croll owns boutiques in San Francisco, Newport, Dallas, and three more in Scottsdale. In the biggest undertaking of her career, she's assembled 25 locally owned shops for SouthBridge, aptly named The Mix.

Croll never showed up for interviews for this story. Her business partner, Abby Traister, 28 and blond, looks the part of the Scottsdale fashionista. Traister says she and Croll ("We share a brain") immediately thought of the ritzy Fred Segal stores in L.A. when Unger explained his vision for SouthBridge.

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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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