Matt's Big Hassle

Three years ago, Mayor-elect Phil Gordon promised to make it easier for small businesses to renovate old buildings. But the problems faced by one indie restaurateur show that, if anything, it's harder than ever

Clearly, if anyone should've had an easy time helping people renovate old buildings downtown, it's Phil Gordon.


Matt Pool wants to talk beer.

Blocks full of vintage houses have been cleared out for future developments.
Steve Jansen
Blocks full of vintage houses have been cleared out for future developments.

Location Info

Map

Downtown Phoenix

Washington St. & Second St.
Phoenix, AZ 85004

Category: Community Venues

Region: Central Phoenix

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It's a hot day in late September, and a cold one does sound pretty good right now. At Pool's future tavern — the historic-designated Farish House, a 1,000-square-foot Colonial Revival-style brick house with Queen Anne details — there's a huge pile of dirt out in the front yard. The floors are covered in dusty paper and masking tape, and the walls are coated with fresh, pale yellow paint. Five other colors spread across one wall indicate that the yellow was a mistake, though, soon to be painted over. Soft light shines through plastic-draped windows, revealing murky silhouettes when workers pass by outside. The only thing left uncovered is an elegant old chandelier hanging from the 13-foot ceiling in the front room.

"We'll probably have 40 bottled brews, and a dozen on tap," Pool says, standing behind the plastic-and-paper-covered counter that will eventually be the bar of The Roosevelt, named for the president who was in office when the house was built in 1900. It also happens to be the name of the nearby street that locals have started calling Roosevelt Row. "I wanted to keep the list limited to Arizona beers, but there weren't enough breweries, so it's going to be all regional craft beers. Of course, Four Peaks from Tempe, Nimbus from Tucson, Oak Creek from Sedona, Stone from San Diego, Rogue from Oregon . . ." His eyes light up when he starts chatting about beer and wine and all the things he's planning for The Roosevelt.

No wonder he's eager to talk about the fun stuff. Pool's spent the past year dealing with far more hassles than he ever expected, and he'd rather show off the customized walk-in refrigerator in the back room, where backlit kegs of beer will be visible through a glass wall. A state-of-the-art glycol cooling system will send cold beer right under the floorboards into the bar tap.

Later, the subject of renovation comes up, and Pool vents. At times, he sounds exasperated, almost worn down. Then, reflecting on how far his project's come, he'll muster up some optimism. "Some days it seems overwhelming, but I want to be positive," he says. He's looking forward to an influx of ASU students and faculty as more housing is created and more academic programs are moved downtown. Future plans for the area are the biggest reason he wanted to open a second business downtown. (As New Times noted last week, in "The Devil Went Down to Phoenix," it will take a lot more people than what ASU will ultimately provide to keep a downtown business district afloat.)

"My wife and I weren't really looking for this kind of space. Originally, we thought of something more like concrete walls, more modern-looking," says Pool. "But then we found this place and signed the lease within two days."

That was more than a year ago. Pool knew he'd have to put time and money into converting the historic home into a tavern, and once he started talking to architects from the Merz Project — his friends, as well as Matt's Big Breakfast regulars — he realized how much potential it had. But he didn't expect how the process could drag on, eating up his budget with four-figure fees each step of the way.

"We've been trying to do this the right way, but it's cost-prohibitive," he says. "You can't even open a place down here for $50,000."

After signing the lease, it took months to get a building permit. And even then, after the city's Web site posted it as issued, it took another two weeks to get the official document. "We couldn't actually start the project until February. We had to change from residential to commercial, and I didn't realize how much time it would take," says Pool, his voice speeding up as he rattles through a list of expensive chores, impatient. "I had to have a landscape architect tag all my trees for the site vegetation plan, and that's expensive. And I had to send letters to every community group's president just to apply for a parking variance, since this is a historic property.

"And then there was a variance hearing for parking. I had to pay for that, and I had to wait for that."

Three architects from the Merz Group worked with a commercial infill team, one of two five-person groups from the city's Development Services Department that were created to review multi-family and commercial-oriented projects within the central Phoenix infill incentive area. The City Council designated the area in 2004 to encourage development and redevelopment downtown.

That sounds good, but it wasn't enough.

Pool's architects worked with the infill team to address traffic, fire, electrical, and other safety issues. To meet ADA regulations for disabled accessibility, they widened doorways, made the restroom ADA-compliant, and added a second restroom in the back of the building. And since they were required to build a wheelchair ramp, they came up with a unique design that connects the house to a smaller building in the back, which will be used for food preparation.

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