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

City employees weren't unreasonable, Pool says — the variance hearing officer even told him, "This is exactly what we need downtown." But he wishes the system would be streamlined for adaptive reuse, an urban planning buzz term for renovating old buildings for new purposes. An ombudsman would also be helpful, he adds.

Yes, the city could do more to expedite adaptive reuse projects, admits Mayor Gordon, who says he's looking into creating an ombudsman position.

"Today I think we're starting to understand that, like an ecosystem, you need to have a diversity of products instinctively, otherwise the area doesn't survive," Gordon says. "So today, preserving or adaptive reuse of non-historic but older buildings is the new challenge. I think that's what we're starting to struggle with, particularly with a lot of small businesses and artists."

Matt Pool
Tony Blei
Matt Pool
In order to stay in business, Fate's chef-owner Johnny Chu had to partner with his landlord to cover the six-figure cost of renovations.
Laura Segall
In order to stay in business, Fate's chef-owner Johnny Chu had to partner with his landlord to cover the six-figure cost of renovations.

Location Info


Downtown Phoenix

Washington St. & Second St.
Phoenix, AZ 85004

Category: Community Venues

Region: Central Phoenix


He points to a brand-new task force at Development Services — just two months old, it still doesn't have an official name — tailored to helping arts-related businesses.

"'Arts' is a broad umbrella," says Michael Hammett, public information officer for Development Services. He explains that the new team is specifically targeting artists, but it could help other businesses that want to be active in the arts community — places like Carly's Bistro on Roosevelt Street, which features local art and participates in First Fridays. As for people like Pool, who simply want to open a small local business, this team isn't for them, but it's led by the same people on the infill incentive teams.

Gordon also notes the hiring of a new deputy city manager, David Cavazos, who's looking at ways to streamline the process and get more consistency with how adaptive reuse plans are handled by the city. In addition, the city's considering joint marketing for areas of downtown, fee waivers, and a retail sales tax rebate for people who are fixing up old buildings, he says.

But until those ideas come to fruition, adaptive reuse projects are an anomaly, and ambitious entrepreneurs like Matt Pool will still get a tangle of red tape if they want to renovate an old building.

Pool hesitates to blame anyone for his headaches. "Downtown development is still in its infancy. I don't want to seem too negative," he says. "It goes up and down. And for me, it's worth it to have this old building in the middle of ASU. You know, I want it to be as cool as they say it's gonna be."

For people who work or live downtown — or both — cool neighborhood restaurants are hard to come by. People cherish them, lament that there aren't more, and often put up with a lot just to patronize them. Look at the lines outside Matt's Big Breakfast on a Saturday morning (and listen to people complain bitterly about how nothing else is open on Sunday) to get a sense of how much locals support these independent places. But listening to the business owners, it's easy to understand why there aren't more places to eat downtown.

One afternoon in early October, the tail end of the lunch crowd is still lingering over plates of tofu stir-fry at Fate, an Asian-fusion restaurant on Fourth Street south of Roosevelt. Downtempo electronic music adds to the restaurant's relaxed mood. Chef-owner Johnny Chu, white sleeves still rolled up from working in the kitchen, brings out a few bottles of water and sits down with his landlord, Norman Fox, who's unrolling a big piece of paper that cost him $35,000.

It's an engineering plan drawn up for the city, part of more than $100,000 Fox has spent so far on architect and engineer fees, permits, and presentations to renovate Fate and the place next door — both bungalows, built in 1908 — and eventually the two-story brick house around the corner, too. The project will turn the corner of Fourth Street and Garfield into a two-restaurant complex with a shared outdoor patio and a lush row of mature mesquite trees along the south side of the block. Each one of those 15 or so trees, once they're planted, will have cost Fox three grand apiece.

Fox laughs when he thinks about the money it takes to renovate. "Basically, we may as well tear it all down," he says. "In north Scottsdale, for 150K, we could open up in a strip mall in a second."

Fox and Chu became business partners last December, when Chu realized he needed an investor to renovate Fate.

"Without him, I couldn't do it. You need at least a quarter to a half-million dollars to develop, and he didn't want to turn this into offices," says Chu.

"Yeah, I'm so sick and tired of shopping malls," says Fox. "Downtown could be an oasis from that."

Chu and Fox knew the place needed a renovation, but it became more urgent when Chu found out that The Table, a restaurant previously in the space, had been there under an occupancy permit for a catering service. That meant he'd need a change of use to a full restaurant. To get the certificate of occupancy, he'd also need an enormous overhaul to bring the building up to current code. And he couldn't apply for a liquor license without the certificate. (According to the City Clerk Department's License Services Section, the city has always required a certificate of occupancy for businesses. At the beginning of 2005, though, it started asking applicants to show proof. This has come as an unfortunate surprise to new business owners moving into a space where a similar business might have operated illegally for years.)

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