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

Other Western cities have gotten a head start on downtown revitalization, sometimes decades before it became a priority in Phoenix. As a result, development and preservation weren't always at odds. Look at Portland, which launched a renaissance with its Downtown Plan, in 1972. The creation of a downtown transit mall in 1976 was the first of many pedestrian-friendly projects, and light-rail construction was in the works more than 20 years ago.

Brian McMenamin and his brother Mike were unwitting pioneers in that city's historic preservation efforts more than 30 years ago. Brian says they purchased an old bar that was going out of business, not necessarily with an interest in old buildings. But as they went along, their interest grew, and so did support from the local community. Nowadays, the McMenamins own more than 54 unique properties in Washington and Oregon, everything from theaters to pubs (their Hillsdale Brewery & Public House, opened in 1984, was Oregon's first brew pub). About half are in renovated old buildings.

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


McMenamin says the public's attitudes have changed in favor of keeping old buildings, but at the same time, building codes have become more stringent, making renovations expensive. He says that when he and his brother decided to renovate an abandoned 1915 school building, they didn't pay cash — the city offered tax credits, which lowered the overall cost of the project. Now, the Kennedy School is a boutique hotel that also houses a restaurant, four bars, a brewery, and a movie theater.

"We haven't really pushed for money or help," McMenamin notes. "If you start involving too many government agencies, it leads to more time and trouble. Maybe we're old-school or stupid or stubborn, but we'd rather just do things on our own."

Getting things designated historic is very helpful, says developer and consultant Dana Crawford of Urban Neighborhoods in Denver. Crawford was instrumental in revitalizing Larimer Square, the oldest city block in Denver. "That was a pivotal situation, not only for Denver, but for main streets across the country, to show that historic preservation is essential in revitalization."

Later, Crawford was involved in the push to make LoDo, a neighborhood with a critical mass of old warehouses, a historic district in 1988. "That brought big federal tax benefits to property owners in the area," she says. "And because of the historic zoning, parking requirements were no longer an issue."

But Phoenix already has a Historic Preservation Ordinance, and there are a number of financial incentive programs and resources available for people with historic-designated properties. (For an individual building to qualify for a historic designation, it needs to be at least 50 years old, and have historic and architectural significance.) The difference between here and places like downtown Austin, LoDo, or the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego is that our home-grown arts district — where people head for First Fridays, and where small businesses have been cropping up — isn't a historic district.

In the Evans-Churchill neighborhood, especially, preservation is at odds with the demand for density. It might take a case-by-case review of adaptive reuse projects to address unique challenges like Matt Pool's, but considering how few buildings remain, and how much downtown needs to protect its old buildings to keep some neighborhood character, the city needs to act quickly. An ombudsman, parking relief, flexibility with code issues, and expedited permitting are a few of the things business owners have said would help.

Phoenix doesn't need to look far for other ideas. In downtown Scottsdale, there's a business concierge who meets prospective entrepreneurs to go over city design guidelines and eliminate any guesswork at the beginning of a project. "It's very front-end loaded," says John Little, executive director of Scottsdale's Downtown Group.

He says his department's assisted 385 small businesses since the Scottsdale City Council passed an overlay two years ago, with the goal of revitalization and reinvestment in the downtown area. There's a fee waiver and a fee reduction program, and businesses are able to expand with no additional parking requirements.

"We try to have flexibility with small businesses," he says. "They're working on such small margins that any bit of help at all can make a difference."

It's mid-November, and Matt Pool's finally able to think about The Roosevelt's grand opening. After extensive renovations, he got his certificate of occupancy for the old house, and he got the City Council's approval for a liquor license. Now he's just waiting for the state to send the liquor license, so he can start filling his high-tech, 34-degree walk-in cooler with kegs of beer. It'd be great if he could open the first week of December, he says, but realistically, it'll probably be the second week.

Pool's clearly eager to put more than a year of headaches behind him. "Now that I'm further along, it bothers me less," he says.

No doubt the results of the renovation are gratifying. The place looks beautiful, dramatically different from even a couple of months ago. Out front, a metal sign finally hangs on the fence — a curvy logo that turns out to be Teddy Roosevelt's signature — and custom-built planters filled with young green shoots give color to the yard. Inside, the walls are painted a soothing shade of olive. A sleek, two-tone wood bar extends from the middle room into the front room. Tall windows and an enormous metal façade on the fireplace draw the eye upward to those 13-foot ceilings, and now the antique chandelier looks right at home.

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