Will Museum Square Save the Old Town Arts District?

Checking out signage in Old Town Scottsdale.
Checking out signage in Old Town Scottsdale. Lynn Trimble
For years, the creative class has been lamenting the demise of the Scottsdale gallery scene — and wondering what it might take to bring fresh life to the cultural landscape in the Old Town arts district.

Now, the city could be close to approving a project called Museum Square, pitched by the developer as a way to revitalize the area by bringing in more people — and their money.

The project includes a 150-foot-tall hotel, plus four residential buildings with about 346 total units and an open-space plaza, according to a 204-page plan submitted to the city of Scottsdale on August 23.

In the plan, ARC Scottsdale Holdings and its partner Macdonald Development say the project will “help reset and jumpstart the identity and brand of Scottsdale’s arts and culture.”

But not everyone is buying it.

“I don’t see how building condos will help the galleries and museums,” says Lisa Sette, a gallerist who relocated from Old Town to midtown Phoenix in 2014. “Everybody wants to latch onto the arts scene to promote their project.”

This isn’t the first time a developer has embraced the arts as a vehicle for plying its wares.

Consider the case of Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix. Desert Viking pitched a project called The Blocks of Roosevelt Row using renderings laced with murals, and True North Studio is touting its plans to have an indigenous artist create work for a seven-story parking garage.

click to enlarge Here's a rendering for the Museum Square development. - SWABACK ARCHITECTS + PLANNERS
Here's a rendering for the Museum Square development.
Swaback Architects + Planners
The name Museum Square stems from the proposed development’s proximity to Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, by the way. Mike Fox, the museum’s CEO, says he began having conversations with the developer a few years ago.

In February 2018, the developer agreed to pay just over $27.5 million for the city-owned property that will help anchor the project, according to Assistant City Manager Brent Stockwell. It’s located around the intersection of North Marshall Way and East Second Street, near Scottsdale Artists’ School and Stagebrush Theatre.

The Scottsdale Gallery Association has supported the project from the outset, according to French Thompson, a jeweler and Old Town gallerist who heads the group’s board of directors.

Even so, they’ve had some reservations.

Bob Pejman, who owns Pejman Gallery in Old Town, worried that an influx of people would “cannibalize” parking spaces near his gallery. But the developer agreed last week to create more on-site, street, and hotel parking, according to representative Jason Rose.

Meanwhile, Scottsdale Arts CEO Gerd Wuestemann is taking a broader view.

He’s looking ahead to a November bond election that could mean several improvements to the campus that includes Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Although it’s located just a few blocks from the Museum Square site, it doesn’t get much ink in the Museum Square plan.

click to enlarge Entrance to Scottsdale's Museum of the West. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Entrance to Scottsdale's Museum of the West.
Lynn Trimble
Fox hopes to undertake a 30,000-square-foot expansion for Scottsdale’s Museum of the West in the next five years, but says he won’t reveal details until after the Scottsdale City Council approves the Museum Square project.

He’s expecting Museum Square to generate more foot traffic, creating “a new vibrancy and interest in the arts.”

But Pejman has his doubts. “We’re two blocks from the Valley Ho, and we don’t get much traffic from them,” he says. “You can’t expect a hotel to bail out local galleries.”

For now, all eyes are on a pair of meetings that could determine the fate of Museum Square, and its ripple effects throughout Old Town.

This week, the planning commission reviewed the project. Now, it goes to the October 15 City Council meeting, where members of the public can weigh in.

Whatever the outcome, it’s likely some skeptics will remain.

Bentley Calverley, who relocated Bentley Gallery from Old Town to the Warehouse District in downtown Phoenix several years ago, is among them.

“Everyone was saying that the canal development would bring more business to the arts district, but that didn’t happen,” she says, “and I doubt this development will make a difference, either.”
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble