Scottsdale’s SkySong Is One of the Few Phoenix Development Plans That Will Actually See Completion – Too Bad It’s So Ugly

I'm always whining about how city planners here appear not to have any real success at continued development; that we're a community continually launching long-term development plans that peter out before they're realized. So you'd think I'd be happy about SkySong (1475 North Scottsdale Road), that monstrous, ASU-affiliated international business center that's just opened at Scottsdale Road and McDowell, where Los Arcos Mall used to be. I mean, at least the complex is pretty much on schedule, and it appears that they're actually going to finish the thing. I'm still waiting for the other half of the Viad Center, which went up in the '80s, to be built. And remember how Patriots Square Park was going to be the centerpiece of a revitalized downtown? Now it's being treated as a vacant lot in an entirely different downtown plan. And please, don't even mention the Mercado to me. I was at the grand opening party in 1989, which was the last time anything interesting took place in that location.

But I'm not so happy about SkySong. And that's because I think it's ugly.

I know. SkySong is poised to make a real impact on the southern end of Scottsdale by attracting businesses and technology students from all over the world. Michael Crow and company have figured out a way to give ASU a real presence in Scottsdale, while making that city a hub of technological training and employment and a magnet for like-minded companies that, let's face it, now rule the world.

I've read the reports; I've talked to the developers; I've watched the thing go up, one phase at a time. Still, I have to drive by the place from time to time. And it just doesn't look so hot.

Probably I'm just a sentimental suburbanite, one who'd rather drive past an old mall (even one that I almost never went to when it was open, and that I always got mixed up with Papago Plaza, that faux adobe strip mall across the street) than a 1.2 million-square-foot mixed-use facility. I've heard that SkySong's proposed blend of office, research, retail, residential, and hotel space can't help but pump up Scottsdale's purse, if not the entire state's global profile, which sounds great — for ASU; for the ass-end of Scottsdale; for local and global economy. I guess my problem with SkySong (besides its name, which makes it sound not like a business mall and campus so much as a cheesy '70s pop band) really is just the way it looks.

At least the place is prettier than it was when it opened last spring. Back then, concerned that SkySong was going to be another of those half-finished eyesores that have become a Valley tradition, I called the project's media rep, Michele Irwin, to ask why the completed complex looked so different from the widely published renderings, which featured a trio of large-ish buildings grouped around a giant, sail-like umbrella structure in the center's plaza. I wanted to sit under that umbrella, I told Michele, shielded from the sun on even the hottest July day, and eat lunch with a friend — maybe an ASU student studying something so complicated and futuristic that I wouldn't understand what it was. She'd excuse herself and head back to class, only a few yards away, and I'd wander off in the opposite direction to buy an iced coffee and do a little banking. But at that point, there was only one building and no shade structure, and the place looked about one-third completed.

"SkySong looks like it's not finished because it's not finished," Michele told me at the time. "But it will be. Meanwhile, you have to keep in mind, when you're looking at what's standing now, that these buildings were not meant to be unique in and of themselves. Lead architect Harry Cobb of Chicago's Pei Cobb Freed and Partners intended them to be a component of a larger complex that would provide a background for the 125-foot shade structure, which is SkySong's dominant architectural element."

Maybe it's because, like me, Michele is a transplanted Midwesterner, or maybe it's because she never laughs at my most dimwitted questions, but I believed her. I understood that SkySong was being built not from its prettiest point (the shade structure, my "giant umbrella") out, but rather in a way that allowed the complex to be immediately useful, as a university campus and a business complex.

So I waited. And about six weeks ago, the installation of that giant umbrella was completed. And though it looked pretty much exactly like the rendering, it was somehow really disappointing. I kept thinking of Clive Owen, who's really handsome in photos, and then you go see one of his movies and realize he can't act, which makes him suddenly look more like a nice-looking guy you'd hire to cut your lawn. Somehow, seen from the street, SkySong's shade structure looks less swooping and birdlike in person. And from below, it looks kind of like an especially clean circus tent.

I called Michele again the other day, and she seemed surprised that I don't like SkySong's shade structure. Pretty much everyone else has been turning somersaults, she swears. But she's a press flack; she's supposed to tell me things like that. So I called an expert.

"The real value of the SkySong project is that it's distinctive," according to Ken Lowell, author of Sun and Sand: The Art and Influence of Southwestern Design, a forthcoming e-book about commercial architecture on this side of the continent. "There are other mixed-use facilities in the Valley, and more and more desert structures are employing shade structures in their designs. But there are none that look like this one."

I'm glad. Because there's something very early 21st-century about this taut, colorless shade device that suggests it will look dated and, in 20 years or so, will be taken down and replaced with whatever materials are considered cool (sorry, bad pun) in 2029.

Meanwhile, SkySong's landscaping is being installed, and its plaza dedication is scheduled for April 29, after which its third and final phase — the last of the three buildings, plans for which have just been submitted to the city — will be launched.

"We're anticipating a similar response to the parking garage," Michele confided. "It will be tucked behind the residential component of SkySong, so there will be brownstone-type condos in front of it. But in the meantime, it's just the garage, and I expect people will be saying 'Oh, no, it's so ugly!'"

Imagine that.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela

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