Size, location and motivation matter in city's heart

Mike Stephens
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 10, 2004 12:00 AM

Goran and Deborah Ryden were tired of living in a retirement community, where everyone's the same age.

Donna Niemann has a thriving art gallery in Scottsdale, but she's single with grown kids and wanted a small home in a thriving area.

Wally and Liz McClure owned a business nearby and were tired of the long commute to their Litchfield Park house.

Loft owners with different motives. But all say they're happy they changed their lifestyles and embraced urban living, buying condominiums in downtown Tempe's Orchidhouse development, on Sixth Street east of Mill Avenue.

"I can shop, I can walk to the movies. It's a great little community," owner Deborah Ryden says.

She and her husband say they found life in Sun Lakes, south of Chandler, too predictable. Now, they feel energized living a short block off Mill Avenue, with its shops, restaurants and vibrant night life.

"There are people living here from 18 up to their 70s," says her husband, Goran, who also likes to walk or bike to catch sporting events at Arizona State University. "You know, when you're surrounded by younger people, you feel better."

The 83-unit loft project received negative publicity in 2002 and 2003 after developer MCW Holdings was sued by several subcontractors for back payments. Most of those issues have been resolved, and today, all of the units but one penthouse have been sold.

Perhaps because many of the loft owners have been through a lot together - including delays moving in as the developer worked through construction problems - they have become a tightknit community in this seven-story building. "We've met more people here than we ever knew in Sun Lakes," Deborah Ryden says.

Owners have organized several building-wide parties. "It's a very social building, so I'm very involved with the neighbors," gallery-owner Niemann says. "It's just a nice place to be for a single person."

These are not lofts in the traditional sense because they weren't converted from warehouses or other previous uses. But the new construction has many of the same design elements, including exposed brick, electrical conduit and air ducts, and interior walls that sometimes act more as space dividers.

With the exception of the penthouse and some corner units, most also present a lesson in compact living.

The Rydens made the adjustment from a 2,200-square-foot detached home to 916 square feet here.

Deborah Ryden says it was hard at first, "and then I found it such a cleansing experience to free myself from all these things. By the second and third sweep through I was really getting rid of a lot of things."

In other words, simplifying her life. "We've never been sad we made the move from a regular house to here, even with the challenges of living small," she says.

Niemann's loft reflects her business life, working with artists. The walls and shelves hold eclectic, original pieces in various styles, sculpture to sketches, mixed-media to oils.

"People come into my space - and it's not a very large space, only about 1,100 square feet - and I think what people are drawn to right away is the art," she says.

Niemann believes art dramatically impacts a home's environment. And especially with original art, she feels the artist's hand and energy in the space. "For me, it's very soothing and very pleasing."

So are the views.

Her fourth-story loft faces north, offering close-up views of ASU's "A" Mountain, and the Papago Buttes and Camelback Mountain in the distance.

Two floors up, Wally and Liz McClure enjoy a corner unit with views that become especially dramatic at dusk as the lights come up in the taller structures around ASU.

"We see Sun Devil Stadium out one window and Gammage out another window, and it's just wonderful," Liz says. "We can walk to all those places, too."

They made a gourmet kitchen the centerpiece of their nearly 1,500-square-foot loft. The idea was based on a slogan they saw in a magazine ad for high-end appliances: "If you can only have one room, make it your kitchen."

"So that's what we decided to do," Liz says. "We decided to make it the big part of our room."

It has bar seating for six around a split granite counter, contemporary halogen cable lighting and a TV mounted high in one corner. The design makes it easy for the cook to work on either half of the split island while mingling with guests, who can sip drinks, talk and socialize while relaxing on tall barstools.

But for a couple that spent hours commuting to work in the East Valley while living in the West Valley's Litchfield Park, freedom from their car - and yardwork - has been the biggest draw.

"We just don't have to go anyplace," Wally says. "There's always something going on downtown."