It’s difficult to imagine now, as the light rail whizzes by and cars snake through congestion during rush hour, but the intersection of Central Avenue and Camelback Road was once considered part of the ‘burbs. When the iconic shopping center Uptown Plaza opened there in August 1955, the area was so fringe that it was county land, outside Phoenix city limits.
“We think it may have been one of the very first ‘suburban shopping centers’ in Phoenix, one of the first to leave the Downtown Phoenix shopping core,” says David Scholl, principal at Vintage Partners development group and project manager of the Uptown Plaza redevelopment project that began in January 2014.
The Del Webb-designed plaza was a landmark destination in its early years, with exposed brick walls, metal canopies and midcentury modern design for all of its tenant buildings, which included the luxe Navarre’s restaurant, Bostrom’s department store, Helsing’s Coffee Shop and even a Piggly Wiggly – yes, where you can now purchase fine wine and charcuterie at AJ’s Fine Foods, you could once purchase potato chips and canned corn at Piggly Wiggly. “I never knew that Piggly Wiggly was out here in the West like that,” Scholl says of the Tennessee-founded chain. “It was fun to see the old pictures.”
After changes in ownership and some dubious aesthetic “updates” in the 1980s, the plaza was cloaked in drab, dilapidated Southwest stucco. Vintage Partners paired with the current owners to restore the center to its original glory, a project they estimate will be completed by the end of 2015, with destination restaurants and high-end retailers surrounding the anchor of AJ’s.
“We’ve just found amazing treasures inside of this center – a lot more exposed brick on the interior than we ever thought. All of the original metal canopy columns that hold up the canopy were all buried inside the old stucco, and we’ve been able to salvage a lot,” Scholl says, adding that the project has been “half construction project, but the other half has really been an archaeology project. It’s been fun to discover what we’re finding.”
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