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'Dilapidated' Scottsdale Papago Plaza Set For Major Redevelopment

Cars whiz by on Scottsdale Road, crossing McDowell. To the south is Tempe. Just north of here is Old Town Scottsdale. A half-mile to the west, condos and apartments are springing up.

Across Scottsdale Road, you can see construction cranes and the sails of SkySong. But here, on the southwest corner, it’s a different story.

"Well, I mean if you look around — I know this is radio, so people can’t really see Papago — but it’s literally falling apart," said Andrea Alley.

Alley lives across the street from Papago Plaza and has been involved in the process of its redevelopment. She met me at the shopping center, which opened in the late 1950s.

"I have found very, very few people in the neighborhood who don’t agree that this needs to go. I mean, there’s stuff hanging off the rafters, there’s birds that’ve made their home up in the wood up there. I mean, it really needs to go, so the fact that they’re gonna be taking this down with a well-designed property is, I think, gonna be really good for everyone," she said.

The center is now mostly vacant, and does not appear to be in good shape.

Jeff Berghoff has a front row view from his office window across McDowell. He owns Berghoff Design, in an old car dealership, and uses words like "dilapidated," "unsightly eyesore" and "urban decay" to describe Papago.

"We bought this land in 2010, and it was bad then — and it’s worse now – Pagago Plaza," said Berghoff. "And, I think it’s time, I’m excited about the change, I’m excited about the possibilities and I think it’s gonna add a new vibrancy to the area."

The plan is to turn the plaza into a mixed-use space, including a grocery store, some retail, restaurants and outdoor space. It’ll also have a hotel and around 260 high-end apartment units. And, while many neighbors are excited about the project overall, it’s those last two that’ve generated controversy, partly over the height of the hotel and apartments. But even though the proposed height didn’t change through the evolution of the development, Andrea Alley says some design aspects did, which should help the plaza’s neighbors.

"If we were looking at a development in Old Town, and I’ve worked with some people in Old Town on some of their projects, height there makes sense, because it isn’t invasive into people’s homes. On my street personally, we have three-story condos that are behind my neighbors across the street, in their backyard," said Alley. "And that’s been frustrating for one of my neighbors who tried to sell his house. Height like that, when it’s that close to a residential neighborhood, has a real effect on real people. So, that challenges me. But it’s one of those things where if it’s a requirement for the developer to do the rest of the things — I mean, let’s work with him to make it as painless as possible for those neighbors."

And, Alley says, the developer has been willing to work with neighbors — she says this project has been an anomaly, in the sense that it hasn’t become an “us versus them” situation.

Attorney Jason Morris with the firm Withey Morris is the zoning attorney and land use consultant for the developer. He says this is one of the busiest arterial intersections in the city, which helped formulate the development plan.

"There’s a recognition that you wouldn’t want to put single-family homes at this intersection, it makes sense to have a higher density. If you already have a vacant shopping center, then saying we need more retail probably isn’t going to solve the problem, because if there was thriving retail, this wouldn’t be a vacant shopping center," said Morris.

I asked Morris how critical the housing component is to the developer. Is having people living on site here making everything else happen?

"[It's] critical," said Morris. "It becomes, really, a catalyst for being able to get the retail and the restaurants. Because the people who are leasing space in a center like this want to know that there are a mixture of uses. That they’re relying on people who, every night, will come home and be hungry, and be interested in getting their nails done or getting their hair done or, in this instance, go grocery shopping."

"It sounds as though the process of getting to the plans that are in place now — it was kind of an evolution," I said.

"True. In terms of the design, it was purchased as a shopping center, with originally the thought of being redeveloped as a retail shopping center, because that’s what the zoning allows," said Morris. "In looking at how much square footage there is, and really, how the world has changed with the Amazons and the online retailing, the thought was to do something different, a little bit more dynamic with the site."

If the site won't be turned into a shopping center, such as it is, I asked Morris about the thought process behind the project — in terms of what people want and what would financially make sense?

"I think the thought process really involved right-sizing of the project. If this is too much retail, and we’ve seen vacancy time and time again in this shopping center, what can we do to breathe new life into this corner, and yet make some retail appropriate and successful?" said Morris.

Adrienne Knauer and her fiancée, Jay Gurcsik, moved in a few blocks away from Papago Plaza almost a year ago. 

"I’d hope it’d be someplace where, I think one of the architects or developers said, you go have a drink at this restaurant then you go have dinner over here, and it’s kind of a place where you just say, ‘Let’s go to Papago, Plaza and we’ll figure out where we want to eat,’" said Knauer.

Knauer and Gurcsik  say they’re both looking forward to what’s coming, although Knauer is concerned about increased traffic in her neighborhood with the new apartments and hotel.

"For sure, I’m excited that the restaurants are going in, because walkability, to me, is really important and it was a factor in us buying this house, so I’m really excited for the restaurants to go in there. Not as excited for the apartments and the hotel because I feel like there’s a lot of housing around here, and I’ve been in college, I understand people have to rent, but I chose to live in a more residential community," said Knauer.

There’s construction across the street from where Knauer and Gurcsik live, but nothing like what’s likely to come. Gurcsik says he’s concerned about that, but believes it’ll be worth it.

"I think it’ll be a keystone in this area, along the McDowell corridor, as well as Scottsdale Road, south from there to Tempe, I mean, it’s just ripe for development at this point," said Gurcsik.

And, some of that development has already been happening. Jeff Berghoff points out a number of the old car dealers that used to line McDowell west of Papago Plaza are being turned into apartments, condos and townhomes. Berghoff is also chairman and founder of the South Scottsdale Alliance, and thinks increased density in the area will help attract more people, both residential and commercial. He also believes it’ll change the perception of this part of Scottsdale as a ‘pass-through’ area.

"I heard an architect once look at new urban projects, he kind of gave the analogy almost like Chinese acupuncture: you could go in and just push in a certain area, and if new buildings are built in one specific area, the pain goes away, and that starts to develop a whole new vibrant community," said Berghoff. "And I think that’s what’s happening here, with the new buildings, the new design, with SkySong, with the brewery – this little pressure point’s being pushed on, and you’re starting to see things go into the community in new vitalization."

Berghoff believes a redeveloped Papago Plaza could become a destination for people living in the area. Andrea Alley agrees, saying it could also be a draw for people from other parts of the Valley. Standing outside some of the now-vacant storefronts, I ask her what she sees as the ultimate potential of this project, if done right.

"This entire corner is truly an iconic and historic corner of Scottsdale. Everything in this area is where the oldest part of our city is. This is where most of the history is. It’s also where the most decline has taken place," said Alley" "It’s where people have suffered the most in their home values throughout the city. When we had the crash ten years ago, this place suffered the most. So, there’s certainly a lot of opportunity for this corner and this part of town to see a huge revitalization. And it’s been happening very, very slowly. But I think that this particular project is going to finally give the residents who live here what they’ve been asking for for so long. And that’s groceries, that’s retail, that’s restaurants, that’s somewhere to go, things to do."

And, Alley says, success at Papago Plaza could lead to other developments in the neighborhood.

Attorney Jason Morris says construction on the project could get started by the end of this year and continue into next year, with openings, he says, hopefully happening shortly thereafter.

Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.