Traffic — and traffic cameras — are the main view at Montelucia.
Traffic — and traffic cameras — are the main view at Montelucia.
Todd Grossman

The Illusion of Seclusion in the Valley's Mountainside Homes

I can imagine living at the foot of a mountain. Except in my fantasy, it's a lush green mountain, not one of the dull, tan piles of rock of the Sonoran Desert. My mountain would be a sloped, slate-gray, moss-covered monolith spilling colossal shade trees onto the landscape below. No cactus; no gray-green creosote or saguaros. And mine would be the only house around for miles.

That is why I'm so confused by local housing developments that butt up against a mountain landmark. They're there deliberately, I know; it's not as if the developer bought a plot of land and — oops! — there was a mountain in the way, so he stopped building.

I know that developments like Montelucia are built about as close to a mountain as anything is going to get around here. In October 2003, the Phoenix City Council weighed in once and for all about the ecological health of preserved lands, and new zoning codes have the put the kibosh — thank goodness — on anyone plopping another housing development too terribly close to a mountain.



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But every time I drive by one of these places — especially, just lately, Montelucia, the one at the southeast corner of Tatum and Lincoln in Paradise Valley that hugs the hem of Camelback Mountain — I'm reminded of my long-ago neighbor, Dan, who once attempted to sell all his belongings so he could go hear Andrea Marcovicci sing at the Algonquin Oak Room in Manhattan. When I told him this seemed like an extreme plan, that maybe he should just buy one of her albums or something, he rolled his eyes and bleated (Dan was a bleater), "But I'll be in the same room with her!"

That's what Montelucia looks like to me: an Andrea Marcovicci concert. Andrea is the mountain, and the houses, clustered together, jostling one another to get as close as possible to their favorite singer, are the audience. I don't see Morocco, which is what my spouse says he's reminded of when he drives past the tiled Villas next to the Montelucia Resort & Spa, the part of this desert enclave that is currently in foreclosure. And I don't see "the whitewashed villages and sun-drenched hillsides of southern Spain's Andalusia region," which are what Montelucia's Web site says inspired the developer. I see an Andrea Marcovicci concert. One where the sightlines are terrible and the audience members are standing too close together. Probably they're perspiring.

Is it just me? I believe that paying a gazillion dollars (because you know these faux Spanish villas don't come cheap) for the privilege of living at the base of a mountain should afford one a really magnificent view. Of a mountain. But as far as I can tell, most of these houses don't. Or maybe each and every one of them does offer a mountain view, but it's clear that, the way some of them are situated, that view is from a bathroom window on the second floor.

The house at the corner of Lincoln and Tatum especially bugs me; those poor people have an uninterrupted view of non-stop traffic on two of the city's busiest surface roads; the sign announcing the Intercontinental Montelucia Resort and Spa (the housing development's sister, right next door) and the traffic cameras that stands practically in their front yard. At that price point, I'd need a mountain right in my entry hall to make up for that kind of interference.

"But what you're seeing is the back of the house," Kirsten Schaefer, Montelucia's public relations flack, assured me when I phoned to ask a lot of dumb questions about why anyone would want to live in the shadow of a mountain they can't possibly see. "All of the homes are built courtyard-style, so they all face inward. They're looking toward the mountain and our resort."

But I've walked the perimeter of this development on more than one occasion, I told Kirsten. I've driven by it numerous times. There's no way a single-level home set that close to a mountain can actually have much of a mountain view, I insisted.

"Well," she politely demurred, "I would say some of the houses in our development probably have partial or obstructed views, especially those that are tucked back from the mountain. From their patios and terraces, they would have what we call a mountain presence."

Oh. Of course! A mountain presence. Because apparently Camelback Mountain emits an aura. You're in your kitchen, say, making a blender drink or buttering a scone, and you can feel Camelback Mountain loitering outside your service porch. Maybe it even makes an inaudible sound that only your parakeet can hear.

I figured that to be fair, I should drive out to Las Sendas, the "nationally acclaimed community of the year" out in Mesa. I visited this 2,500-acre planned community when it was new and marveled at the placement of its model homes and the proximity of the desert, which provided a kind of natural landscaping to the entire development. This place, in my memory, was the antithesis of Montelucia's crammed-together community. Las Sendas, I recalled, featured large lots and a real commitment to showing off the desert to people who dream of living like coyotes among the prickly pears.

Things have changed at Las Sendas. Apparently its several design awards and national notoriety have made it super-popular — more like a Bette Midler arena concert than an Andrea Marcovicci cabaret performance — because it's just as crowded as Montelucia. The desert is still out there, wrapping its big, hot arms around this sand-colored development. But the lovely model homes I remember have been filled in with less outstanding homes on postage-stamp-size lots. The only desert I saw was the landscaping in people's yards and along the roads there.

At least there are no traffic cameras.


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