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

This past summer, workers spent two weeks doing the renovation, with two shifts a day. They tore out the floors, added concrete reinforcements, installed new wood floors, built two ADA-compliant restrooms, updated the electrical wiring, and renovated the kitchen. And just for good measure, they put on a new roof.

That didn't solve the biggest problem: parking. Carla Wade, co-owner of Carly's Bistro, says it's a huge hassle. She needed only two more parking spaces to get the certificate of occupancy for her restaurant, and on-street parking on Roosevelt didn't count. Good thing the neighbor allowed Carly's customers to access the adjacent lot. "I realize that when you're a city agency, you have to have rules," she says, "but when it comes to two parking spaces, you need to have leeway."

For Fate's certificate, Fox needed to come up with 122 parking spaces — no small task in a prime real estate area. Fox coughed up $560,000 for 7,000 square feet of raw, unpaved land just south of his properties, but it would've created only 12 new parking spots. Developing about 30 diagonal on-street parking spots (current parallel parking on the south side of the block amounts to about 25) would've cost him another $135,000.

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.

In the end, Fox sold the lot back to the city (which wanted it for the northern edge of the Biomedical Campus). In return, Fox says, the Community and Economic Development Department sent a representative to help Fate get a parking variance, and the Downtown Development Office helped get one of Development Services' infill teams assigned to the project, to sit down with Fox's architects and make recommendations on the site plans.

"They usually do this with big projects," says Fox. "We had set aside a lot of money for the soft costs, but had it not been for the urban infill team, we'd still be working on the permits, probably another five, six months."

Saving time helped the project enormously. But Fox says he wishes the city would consider waiving some use fees and permit costs. "They just eat away at your project," he says.

With so much invested in the future of Fate, Chu's feeling the pressure. "Right now it's a big risk for us. A lot of people are looking at Fate to see that I can make it."

Other local business owners have faced similar challenges with bureaucratic delays and endless costs.

Karen Martingilio and her husband, Tony, opened Cibo Urban Pizzeria Cafe this past June, and it's a charmer, with wood floors, brick walls, and stained-glass panels. Martingilio bought the building about three years ago. She says she expected it would take a year to get a change-of-use permit for the 93-year-old house — it had been a business but not a restaurant — but the process took a year and a half. Then something else caught her off guard: The code changed. The Martingilios had to have their architect start over on the plans.

"If it wasn't our building, I probably would've thrown in the towel," she admits.

Lisa Giungo, owner of Lisa G Cafe Wine Bar, a restaurant located in a historic 1939 red brick bungalow on Seventh Street, says opening her own place was a major struggle. "Everyone asks if it's fun, but it's stressful. You really need to have the funding."

Giungo says she's lucky to have a silent partner, but to keep costs down, she still did much of the work herself, from design to plumbing. Sure, she could've spent less if she'd considered a different location, but that was never an option.

"I had a dream. I wanted to have my place in a little house, not in a strip mall," she says.

Problems arose when Giungo applied for a liquor license for her new business. She found out from the city that the building didn't have a certificate of occupancy, even though Ye Ol Sandwich Shoppe had been operating in the space for 25 years. The required upgrades — and the time and money involved — took Giungo by surprise. And although Giungo submitted the paperwork for her liquor license back in January, there was one mistake on it that pushed the file date out to the end of February. Her "wine bar" opened in February but couldn't serve wine until mid-May.

"The city doesn't give you any tools to help tell you what you need to do," says Giungo. "You could have six different people telling you six different things."

Other business owners, too, mentioned the need for consistency, a single point of contact familiar with each unique project instead of a rotation of different employees at the Development Services counter. Beatrice Moore, an artist, advocate and landlord, who's been active in the downtown arts community since 1986, agrees. "Every time you go in there," she says, "they look at you like you're crazy."


Talk to small business owners and artists about why there's so much interest in downtown revitalization — the construction boom being obvious proof — and they'll often credit the same thing: First Fridays. Over the past several years, the event has organically grown from a popular gallery walk to a mobbed monthly festival, where photos, sculptures, and painted canvases compete with rock bands, dancers, craft stands, fashion shows, and house parties for people's attention. Thanks to First Fridays, it's a lot easier to imagine a dense, walkable downtown — just look at the crowds roaming Roosevelt Street and Grand Avenue, then multiply by 365 days.

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