There are lots of conversations these days about how to preserve, enhance and contribute to an authentic sense of place in our urban core. And while not all projects are as successful as some would like, increasingly we’re seeing innovative, adaptive reuse renovations along the Central corridor.

These projects incorporate our unique history and provide vital new use opportunities for 21st century enterprises: education, research and development, and diverse businesses. Not every building will be preserved, but as we speak an interesting renovation/adaptive reuse project with glorious potential is taking shape in the vintage Uptown Plaza on the northeast corner of Camelback Rd. and Central Ave.

Rendering by Jon Arvizu

Uptown Plaza, with its modern brick, masonry and steel midcentury modern construction originally opened on August 25, 1955. It was constructed by Del Webb and was the first “suburban” retail shopping center outside of downtown Phoenix. From the beginning, the unique mix of midcentury design details, along with a variety of shopping and dining options made it a popular destination for Phoenicians. Uptown was home to everything from Jerand’s of Arizona fine fashions and Bostrom’s department store, to the national grocery chain, Piggly Wiggly (currently AJ’s Fine Foods).

Over the years the center has suffered from a series of stucco “improvements” and the once vibrant corner has experienced vacancies and under-use for a long time now. Local developer, Vintage Partners saw a unique opportunity to bring the center back to life. Vintage Partners Principal, Dave Scholl approached the center’s owners to sell them on the concept of a comprehensive revitalization that would restore much of the midcentury modern elements and re-attract a mix of local, regional and national tenants to create a jewel destination in uptown.

Click to enlarge. Rendering courtesy of Vintage Partners.

As Scholl puts it, “When you see someone like a Craig DeMarco invest in an area, you see the chance – the risks he took, how he’s been rewarded and how the neighborhood has appreciated that reinvestment. And I think a little more is a good idea.”

Designed by Nelsen Partners (Kierland Commons, Scottsdale Quarter), the renovation plans are still being finalized as Vintage Partners and builder Kitchell Contractors determine how much of the original red brick façade (including many interior walls) can be preserved. However, the end results will combine a restoration of the classic lines and low-slung shapes with verdant new landscaping and modern amenities, including rebuilding the original 15-foot shade overhangs with cantilevers to achieve a sleeker, less cluttered look.

Photo by Catherine Slye

In its current deconstructed state, many of the old painted signs for the earlier businesses have been uncovered and, in talking with Scholl, we wondered if those elements would be retained. Unfortunately, it appears that keeping those painted signs will be problematic, since they would conflict with the new tenant signage. Scholl and the contractors believe that these painted signs were actually under the original neon signs. If you look closely you can see dozens of holes in the brick around these signs where it appears that the neon was affixed. The goal according to Scholl however, is “to preserve as much of the original brick with the worn patina of time as possible.”

Dave Scholl, Vintage Property – photo by Catherine Slye

While many people are familiar with the work that Vintage Partners did renovating the corner of 7th Ave. and McDowell, Scholl points out why this project should have a happier outcome.

“Our vision is to peel all this stucco off and get back to the original brick. Unlike 7th Ave and McDowell, this center was built with baked brick. 7th ave and Mcdowell was built with sand brick – not baked. Sand brick is  allowed to dry in the sun, which makes for very brittle bricks, which crumbled when we began to take the stucco off.” He adds, “and because it was built in the 30s, it didn’t have any steel to reinforce the brick. Uptown was built in the 50s and in just those twenty years building standards had changed. Uptown was built with baked brick and reinforced with steel.” So far, so good. As they peel off the layers of stucco, the underlying brick is still strong and viable, which means much more of the original character of the center will be maintained.

“The center has a great anchor with AJ’s,” said Scholl, “The next best anchors in retail are great destination restaurants. We’ll be picking out four to six great destination restaurants, and then filling in with soft goods, gift stores, etc.”

A really exciting change will be taking place in the far back corner of the plaza. In the original center, the back corner was actually connected, there was no courtyard. Over the years, changes were made, and the buildings were separated. Vintage is planning to open up this space even further, increasing the width of the walking area by putting in a big lawn in the middle with restaurants spilling out onto the space with outdoor dining patios. With the right tenants, it will be a great addition to this increasingly walkable, bikeable neighborhood.

In working on this project, which is close to his heart, Scholl says that he “feels like an archeologist.” He adds, “I’ve lived in Phoenix for 43 years, and I can remember when McCreary’s drugstore was on that corner (pointing to the current remains of Boston Market).”

Photo courtesy of Modern Manor

Most of the work on the plaza will be completed by September 2015 and new tenants will be able to get in and begin building out their spaces soon after, so Scholl anticipates these businesses will begin opening in early 2016. Some of the current businesses will remain, including AJ’s. Vintage Partners will be working with them on renovating the exterior of the store, which will hopefully be followed by AJ’s themselves renovating the interior of their store.

And Vintage has just contracted with Modern Manor vintage furnishings owners, Kylie & Ryan Durkin, to help restore the authentic midcentury modern charm to this landmark center. “This project is a rare find to midcentury fan boys like us,” says Ryan Durkin.  “We’re looking at incorporating some of our favorite designs from the 50’s into the center’s ecosystem.”

In our wild west, tear-down, build new, expand-out kind of city, we’re only now beginning to grapple with the challenges of preserving our unique places. Some success stories, like the recent renovation of the old Beefeaters into the Newton, the Upward Projects work on Windsor, Federal Pizza, Postino’s, and Joyride, are shining examples of thoughtful renovations that incorporate the past, while looking to the future. We’re hopeful that Vintage Partners’ renovation of Uptown Plaza will continue that momentum.