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

"The Waterfront people had been hounding us to put in a boutique. We didn't like that it was facing the parking garage. We started looking around, and the name Fred Unger kept coming up," Traister says. "Unger transferred his vision to create a true walking district, not just a Banana Republic, Starbucks, and Borders."

The concept of connected stores at SouthBridge grew into 22,000 square feet of designer boutiques, encompassing three categories: home, fashion and play. The boutiques, each at a different price point, just opened and are scattered among the street-level restaurants. One shop, Angelic Grove, operates a big-city-style flower stand. Another, the Grand Tour, sells the treasures of an owner who brings crates of antiques from Europe.

The Garage sells children's clothing, including onesies that say "I crawl the line" and "iPood."

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.

The new energy in downtown Scottsdale has lured Traister to all but abandon her McDowell Mountain Ranch home to live in a condo at the Valley Ho, just around the corner from SouthBridge.

"It's so nice to sit outside on a high-rise balcony at night. I never thought I'd get to feel that here in Arizona. I thought I'd have to go to New York or San Francisco. It's smaller, but it's here," Traister says. "This whole area is turning into a truly connected walking district, whereas 10 years ago, it was a lot of turquoise and Indian shops."

Traister admits it's difficult to create a top-notch collaboration of boutiques without a single national-chain tenant. "There's a reason all the other developers don't do this," she says. "It's hard."

Standing among the stacks of color architecture books in Unger's office, it's evident he is more Andy Warhol than Donald Trump. Most developers hire designers to create the look of their buildings. They spend their days with spreadsheets and executives and golf clubs. Unger prefers sketchpads.

For Unger, meetings are things to be endured — unless they relate directly to the finished look and feel of his vision. "I'm not a national developer who's hired a team for a remote project. I live here and work here in the Valley," Unger says. "I also have the luxury of not being beholden to stockholders at a public company, where earnings are the bottom line."

That luxury has afforded Unger a go at riskier endeavors. After the defeat of the Canals in 1999, Unger vested himself in two other projects that never materialized: The Monroe, an old hotel that Unger hoped to refurbish in downtown Phoenix, and Castle Hot Springs, a Valley resort with more history than the Royal Palms or Hermosa. Bankers backed out of each project.

"When I walked into the Monroe for the first time, it had been vacant for 22 years," he says. "Beneath the cobwebs and time, you could see the 38-foot ceilings. I thought, 'Gosh, wouldn't this make a great hotel?' So often, I lead with my heart and then I try, to the best of my ability, to put it together financially with lenders and equity partners, but it doesn't always happen because the costs of what I do are so much higher than building a normal new building."

Those high costs are reflected at SouthBridge, where nearly every door, doorknob, and functional window costs far more than the standard stucco, steel, and sealed windows found across the Valley.

"If we don't do unique spots," Unger says, "we're going to be like Anytown, USA."

Unger does own a handful of "Anytown" properties outside Arizona — apartment complexes and industrial parks across the Southeast. But he isn't particularly drawn to them.

"Those aren't the things you'd drive your kids to and say, 'I had a hand in this.' I'm certainly more proud of what we've done at Royal Palms and Hermosa," he says. "I'm sure hoping SouthBridge will be a similar success. [SouthBridge] is an opportunity to leave a lasting impression."

Only about half of Unger's projects work. "Often, conventional wisdom says they're not economically feasible. They take longer and cost more, so about half of what I try I'm able to pull off."

Such was the case with Unger's first run at downtown Scottsdale's canal. The vision was just too big and required too much politicking to pull off.

In retrospect, Unger says the defeat of the original and gargantuan Canals of Scottsdale project was probably for the better. He quotes a Garth Brooks lyric: "Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers."

But when Unger's dreams do get off the ground, they tend to work. And not just because they make money (which they do), but because Unger's properties offer an experience beyond concrete and metal — much the way a great film offers an experience beyond actors and sets.

"When I first thought of the Canals, I was up to my chin trying to get the Royal Palms finished. I was over budget and delayed. I was the laughingstock of some of the real estate community," Unger says.

Obviously, nobody's laughing about the Royal Palms now. Nobody's laughing about SouthBridge either, a concept that's on schedule and on budget.

Behind the circular glass table Unger uses as a desk, 11 giant seedpods are framed in a white rectangle on the wall. The pods, from a tree in Thailand, look like edamame, except that each is three feet long, with bowling ball-sized seeds.

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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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