Every time I pass them, I'm reminded of Italy. Their Tuscan-inspired curves and Venetian-centric palette bring to mind my favorite Italian village, Burano, known as "The Island Where the Rainbow Fell" because of its brightly colored, jammed-together old villas. But these villas aren't in Italy, and the only rainbow they know is the kind that appears in an oil slick. Because despite their handsome Italianate façades and their bold, earthy hues, the Berkana Townhomes are located mere feet from one of the busiest (and one of the ugliest) freeways in Phoenix.
I notice things like this. I always have. Growing up in Phoenix, my aesthetic has been informed by some of the most uninspired architecture in the country, a lot of it dropped onto some of the strangest locations imaginable. I've spent my whole life staring in amazement, thinking, Why that building? And why on that corner? I came of age in what appears to be the world's largest unplanned community, where new, weirdly moderne structures are jammed between dilapidated houses; where streets are lined with businesses housed in old, barely renovated ranch homes (Don't believe me? Take a drive down Indian School Road between 16th and 44th Streets; it's a visual primer for what not to do with a John F. Long three-bedroom).
I can't keep quiet any longer. I have to write about these dreary design hiccups; these lousy landscape flaws. I want to document things I like, too, like the impossibly cool Weaver and Drover-designed "mushroom bank" at 44th Street and Camelback (which, in typical Phoenix fashion, is currently targeted for the wrecking ball). I need to both laud and disparage design that's not architecture-specific, as well stuff that either mars or glorifies our landscape, like that big display of Virgin of Guadalupe beach towels that appears for sale from time to time at McDowell Road and the 51, or the preponderance of white Rubbermaid chairs on front porches across the Valley. I'm afraid if I don't write about these things, my head will explode.
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I'm starting with the Berkana Townhomes, my latest obsession. I watched them go up, passing them on my weekly Sunday drive to visit my parents on the west side of town. They rose quickly and, it appeared, inches from the busy Camelback Road off-ramp on I-17. The Berkanas were startling, for a lot of reasons. I was surprised to see something with such an obviously European influence going up on the west side, where sand-colored stucco and sun-bleached, monochromatic housing has long been the trend. I was delighted by their olive-, cocoa-, and tangerine-hued faces, but horrified by how they peered out onto big, dirty Black Canyon Freeway.
Who wants to live in any building, lovely or ugly, that fronts on an eight-lane highway? I knocked on some doors at Berkana, but the place is a ghost town; so far, no one appears to have moved in. I stopped by the rental office one recent Sunday (they're open 'til 6 p.m. seven days a week, somehow) and asked one of the pretty young things "working" there (they were mostly sitting around looking attractive, like bored models at a fashion shoot) to show me a model home one facing I-17 because, I said, "I like to be reminded I'm living in a city." (Apparently, young, good-looking real estate agents will believe anything you tell them.)
We started in the west-facing living room, which was "decorated" with what my friend Neil likes to call "piss elegance": velveteen Levitz-esque love seats; low, glass-topped mahogany tables; "starving artist" oil paintings. Very contemporary; very "I'm 27 and just moved here from Cincinnati. Let's go hang out down by the pool!"
It was loud in there. Really, really loud. As if I felt like I had to shout to be heard. As if I'd have to play my Patty Duke records at ear-splitting volume if I wanted to drown out the traffic din with music. As if I were standing not in front of a sheet of glass dressed in an elaborate poly-blend window treatment from Bed, Bath & Beyond, but rather right in the middle of a busy freeway. The third-floor master bedroom was even louder, but its view did take in all eight lanes of I-17's marvelous macadam.
"Well, but the city says they're going to put up a 20-foot wall in front to bring down the noise a little," Ryan, the nice young fellow who showed me the Berkana four-bedroom model, told me.
Okay. When? "They're saying they'll have it up in two to four years."
Huh. So Berkana residents who choose these attractive front-facing units have their choice: They can stare out their windows at a big, tan, cement wall, or for a couple of years, at least they can listen to booming traffic, night and day.
That's asking a lot when your floor plans start at $210,000. Berkana's 2,200-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-story Woodbine unit costs $315,000 (regardless of whether it faces the freeway or not) and features 31/2 bathrooms and a two-car garage, but I'd also need some sound baffles before I could live there. How do you sleep in a wind tunnel?
I stopped in to ask Floyd and Vera, the grandparents of an old grade school chum. Floyd and Vera have lived at the corner of Earll and I-17 since the early 1960s; I figured if anyone could explain why someone might want to live so close to noisy commuter traffic, they could.
"Lived on a farm until I was nearly 30," Floyd told me over the roar of his swamp cooler, which unfortunately did nothing to drive out the sound of oncoming cars. "It could get to be too quiet. I don't mind a little traffic noise."
Vera says the traffic sounds are really only bad in the kitchen, and since she hates to cook, she never goes in there.
Apparently, the world is just plain bursting with people who don't care where they live.
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I called my old pal Mario Romero, a bulldog of a real estate agent whose Romero Team sells more houses than just about anyone in town. Mario told me that this sort of "nice property, bad location" thing is happening all over the Valley because Phoenix is no longer an affordable market for most people. "You can't touch a four-bedroom in the Central corridor today," Mario explained, "especially when you're talking about new construction. The better the land, the more your home will cost you. One way to get around that is to find a nice home in a less-desirable location."
Like right on top of a busy highway, for example. To be fair, there are a whole bunch of Berkana units that don't front on I-17. I stood on the balcony of one of the interior units, and it was even louder out there.
"No one who's looked at the units is complaining about the noise," Ryan promised me. "People really like our model homes, and I think a lot of people will want to live here."
Yeah. Deaf people.