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

First Fridays were almost too successful for their own good, though. Thousands of people converging on downtown at the creative free-for-all was bound to attract city scrutiny, and sure enough, the crackdown happened on August 5, 2005. Staff from four city departments, along with an official from the county Health Department, made the rounds that night, making note of violations and passing out information on a variety of issues, from sales tax to food handling. That's not to say art spaces were forced to close. In fact, nobody was even cited. But many First Friday participants were upset (some called it "Black Friday"), and gallery owners suddenly had to think about zoning, code and permitting issues that, if unresolved, could ultimately shut them down.

Shortly after that, the city created the Artist Issues Task Force, a collaboration between members of the local arts community and staff from various city departments, led by Phil Jones, executive director of the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture. According to Jones, the group quickly became focused on drafting an overlay to address use issues — specifically, it would apply to existing buildings for adaptive reuse. Now, after more than a year in the works, and after several meetings with property owners and neighborhood organizations, the Downtown Area Arts, Culture and Small Business Overlay is in its final stages of fine-tuning.

"Ninety-five percent of the people we've talked to are very supportive," says Jones, who adds that the overlay will be presented to the City Council in March, or possibly later.

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.

This overlay is unusual, because it would allow more uses instead of restricting uses. The overlay area includes a stretch of Roosevelt and nearby streets between Seventh Street and 15th Avenue; two oddly shaped swaths of the Warehouse District; 10 blocks of West Van Buren Street; and a triangle of properties from Grand Avenue to Seventh Avenue. If it's successful, the concept could be expanded to other areas in the future.

But first it has to be approved. The overlay won't solve all the problems faced by people like Matt Pool — namely, updating vintage properties to meet modern codes, facing bureaucratic delays, and coughing up the cash for a laundry list of fees — but it will bring long-overdue flexibility in building uses. That means more outdoor dining, more live music and performance art, and more funky retail in places zoned as multiple family residences — bookstores, boutiques, and beauty shops, to name a few. Businesses will be allowed to advertise themselves with A-frame signs along the street. Public arts events and performances will no longer require a special permit (within specified hours). And parking, the bane of so many downtown business owners, will get considerable slack, with no additional parking required for change of use or occupancy.

There could be one catch, though: Proposition 207. When it passed on November 7, voters bought into the notion that it would protect homeowners from eminent domain. What it could end up doing, though, is ravaging zoning regulations and limiting historic preservation efforts, among other things. According to Michelle Dodds from the Planning Commission, the city is still uncertain about how, or if, the proposition will affect the overlay.

Land use attorney Grady Gammage Jr. says that since this overlay adds uses instead of taking them away, he doesn't think it will spark litigation. But when Prop 207 takes effect, likely by early December, it will make any changes to zoning rules — including overlays and new historic districts — very difficult.

"It's going to be a matter of political will to risk potential claims," he says.

Beatrice Moore, an active participant in the Artist Issues Task Force, says she's not worried about the overlay winning approval. And while she thinks the city has plenty of work ahead when it comes to helping artists and small businesses, she says there's been a lot of progress recently. Specifically, she mentions the Artist Storefront Program, which provides funding for arts-related businesses to make exterior building improvements. Another important achievement, she says, is the creation of the new, as-yet-unnamed team for helping arts entrepreneurs.

"The team will help shepherd a project through the permitting process," says Phil Jones.

Moore is perhaps best known as the founder of Art Detour, but she also rents out studio, gallery, and small retail spaces along Grand Avenue. For the past two and a half years, she's been renovating a 15,000-square-foot former bakery, the Bragg's Pies building, to create 10 new spaces for retail and artist studios on Grand. The place was added to the city's historic register a year ago. And in 2007, Moore says, the Phoenix Historic Preservation Office will be considering the retail strip along Grand for a Historic Designation.

"You know, Grand was a flourishing small business district," she says. In buildings that Moore owns or is familiar with, there used to be such diverse offerings as a Safeway, a hardware store, a drugstore, a meat market, a tobacco store, and a tavern. "But the city took away on-street parking, I think in the '70s, and businesses started closing. Then these places started reverting to industrial uses."

Recently, she's been working with Ruth Osuna, a deputy city manager, to make on-street parking a reality once again. Allowing parallel parking on Grand Avenue during weekday business hours would create a more bustling, pedestrian-friendly atmosphere, Moore says, and would really help small businesses along the usually deserted stretch of road. "Addressing parking issues is the simplest thing the city can be doing right now to help small businesses."

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