By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"I think that eight or nine years ago they made a mistake," says Mayor Paul Johnson. "You had a group of merchants who were down there and were making it work, but it was a new mayor and council looking to get downtown redeveloped. It ended up being an experiment that didn't work."
He is referring to the ousting of the original Block 21 merchants who were forced in the mid-Eighties to move their shops when the city condemned their buildings--except for Walter Switzer, the proprietor of Switzer's clothing store, who fought relocation until he won.
The condemnation was one of the first steps in building Square One, then envisioned as a festival marketplace of shops and restaurants and now, after many false starts and stops, destined to become only a parking lot. And while everyone makes mistakes, the mayor's "que sera" is probably scant comfort to the business owners whose fortunes have changed as a result of the flawed prophecies of city government and the machinations that followed.
In particular, the mayor's words don't cheer up Julian Blum, one of Square One's original developers, and Norman Fierros, who owned and operated Fina Cocina restaurant. Both say their lives were decimated by the planned project. Now that the idea has been tabled their disappointment has deepened. "Why did they throw people out of there? I would still be there! That was the place for me!" says Fierros.
Fierros and Blum came to Block 21 from different worlds: Fierros from South Phoenix, where he grew up the son of a Mexican farmer and one of 14 children. For years he lived and worked in Beverly Hills, a hairdresser to women with even tans, before returning to Phoenix and opening a taco stand south of downtown. Blum, who is from Baltimore, describes himself as one of Phoenix's "old-time" developers; he specialized in large trailer parks and land on Central Avenue, and says he put together the deal that allowed the Jack in the Box franchise to venture out of its home state of California. When Blum and partner Ted Kort became interested in Square One, Blum saw it as a career pinnacle. "I really felt that was going to be the capper," he says.
As Square One negotiations progressed, Blum purchased a long-term lease on the buildings. Before long he was approached by Fierros, who wanted to move his food operation into the heart of downtown. Blum was losing as a tenant an Arby's restaurant on Adams Street, so he turned that space over to Fierros at what they both describe as a low rent, and he threw in all the restaurant fixtures--counters, tables and chairs--for nothing. Both he and Fierros knew the arrangement was short-term, since the city would soon be condemning the buildings and relocating everyone, but Fierros says the deal was so good that he grabbed it. His Fina Cocina, blessed with the surprisingly delicate cuisine that Fierros dubbed "nuevo Mexicana" and Fierros' support of local artists that soon gave the place the look of a gallery, became a thriving hangout for downtown's yuppie work force.
Blum was the first of the two men to go down with the Square One ship. As merchants were relocated out of his buildings but redevelopment was stalled, primarily because of the no-holds-barred battle against relocation waged by Switzer, Blum's rental income dwindled, causing him to fall behind in his property-tax payments. This didn't greatly worry him, he says because the city had set aside for him $405,000, a payment for his interest in the buildings that the city was about to acquire. The money was to become available to Blum when the city had settled with Switzer--one way or another--for the Square One land, which Switzer owned.
But it never happened. Switzer, who received about $800,000 for the land from the city, sued Blum for his share of the proceeds as well, saying that the buildings were to be torn down and were worthless. He felt the entire value of the plot--about $1.2 million--lay in the land. The courts agreed with Switzer, and Blum lost everything--not only the city's money but other projects that banks had funded with the city's anticipated money as collateral. "I was wiped out, and he had walked away with a million two! And then that son of a bitch--and you may quote me on this--that son of a bitch Switzer sued me for the goddamn real estate taxes!" Blum marvels. The taxes totaled about $30,000. "I didn't even bother to defend the suit because I was so goddamn broke and so disgusted by the whole thing that I had nothing left."
(Jack McCall, the attorney who represented Switzer in the suit, says there was nothing personal in Switzer's pursuit of Blum: The entire case was based upon legal interpretation of the wording in Blum's leasehold agreement. "Mr. Switzer's involvement was almost one of noninvolvement," he says.)
Blum declared bankruptcy and was out of the real estate business. Then, just after Square One had maneuvered his destruction, it reached out to save him, at least indirectly. His involvement in the project had caused him to become a community activist for the homeless, whom he considered to be one of downtown's gravest barriers to redevelopment. Blum was able to acquire an option on the Sands Motel on East Van Buren and turn it into a long-term homeless shelter, the New Day Education Center, of which he is still the executive director. Funded by private donations and public grants, it is, according to Blum, the only "transitional" center in the state, where families are able to live indefinitely, rent free, while attending school and job-hunting. The average stay is five months--one client stayed for 17--and Blum estimates that 250 to 300 families a year utilize the center. His own salary has gone from $1,000 a month the first year to $3,000 today, but he declares that it satisfies him. "Sometimes your life is full of a lot of fluff. I was able to give up the sailboat in San Diego," he says.