Phoenix Interrupted: Downtown’s Full of Gleaming Progress Surrounded by Vacant Lots – Now What?

There's a development on the edge of downtown Phoenix that captivated me even before I moved into the neighborhood: the Chateaux on Central.

My interest wasn't a matter of good design — everyone from Will Bruder on down is on the record mocking the place, and rightly so. (With its fanciful turrets, shiny copper roofs, and that ghastly faux-French "eaux," the project's overall effect is Disney Does Brownstones in the Desert.) No, the Chateaux on Central were somehow personally evocative.

They made me homesick.

In the cities of my youth, the once-proud cities of the industrial Great Lakes — Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee — you'd often see old Victorians that covered half a block. They were monstrously grand houses, with gingerbread trim and gables and cornices and the occasional tower room. Even in those cities, these houses made no sense. What family needs eight bedrooms and 6,000 square feet, much less a tower? How could you possibly keep a place like that clean without a full staff of servants?

Indeed, by the time I was in high school, many mansions on the streets of Cleveland had fallen into Miss Havisham territory. The windows would be boarded up, or you'd glimpse squalor behind them: a tenant's grimy piles of laundry, a baby with a soiled diaper, rags shoved into a cracked pane to keep out the cold. You'd wonder what the house had been like when it was new and shiny, when its owners were flying high enough to think their fortunes would last forever.

And so as the Chateaux on Central started construction, right there in the Mid-Century Modern of Central Avenue, I wondered . . .

Who wants to pay $4 million to live in a downtown that goes eerily quiet around 6:30 p.m.?

Who needs a five-level condo with its own in-suite elevator?

Who's gonna buy one of these things in Phoenix, in 2009?

As it turns out, the answers are no one, no one, and . . . no one.

Four years after the Chateaux broke ground, the project is hopelessly stalled. Driving past it on Central, you might think these are habitable condos, but not if you get out of the car and walk around to the back of the building. From Palm Lane, it's clear that the Chateaux are frozen in time, unfinished.

The crisp windowpanes that front the building give way to gaping holes. Past the model units, there's no drywall inside, only a skeleton. Weeds grow in the entryway, invading whatever opening they can find, doing their best to reclaim the lot that was once theirs.

These condos could be rubble before anyone actually moves into them.

I know, I know. Someone could save this project. Someone could step in with the financing to finish off the units and sell them, and they could do it soon.

But I dare you to walk alongside these faux chateaus at dusk and not get the chills. It's the same eerie feeling I used to get, eyeing the painted ladies that had fallen into disrepair in the once-brawny Middle West.

It's even worse in this case. The Phoenix version of Miss Havisham isn't an old lady yet. She's been abandoned in her prime.

There are plenty of culprits for the Chateaux project's current state of dishabille.

You could blame the project's developers. They initially had grand dreams, but they ran out of money.

You could blame Mortgages Ltd. The Phoenix investment group came to the developer's rescue a few years into the project, only for its founder to commit suicide and reveal that the company was bankrupt and the money gone. As my colleague Ray Stern details in this week's cover story, the chaos in the wake of the company's demise is literally threatening downtown Tempe's skyline — and a host of other local projects, too.

You could even find a way to blame Bush or Obama, depending on your inclination. One president encouraged a terrible bubble; the other has been unable to move the country past the bubble's bursting.

Ultimately, though, the real problem is this: Even if there were a market for $4 million, five-story, 8,200-square-foot condo units in downtown Phoenix at one point, there is no such market today.

It's hard to imagine there'll be one at any time in the near future.

For a while, the Valley was booming. And with boring old McMansions in, say, Gilbert commanding a half-million dollars, you can see why developers decided that downtown Phoenix would be the next big thing. We'd sprawled out as far as we could reasonably go; the core of the city suddenly looked much more attractive.

Those were heady times. Cranes were everywhere along the skyline. We got downtown's first real high-end housing, the Orpheum Lofts. We got a city-subsidized Sheraton and a government-underwritten light rail. We got cool new restaurants — Sens and PastaBAR and Hanny's. We eagerly awaited an actual grocery store.