Matt's Big Hassle
If anyone should have an easy time opening a business in a cool old building downtown, it's Matt Pool.
After all, Pool got his start managing Bar Bianco for his sister, Susan, and her partner, Chris Bianco, in an old house (the neoclassical Thomas House, built in 1909, to be exact) in Heritage Square. It's one of the hippest spots in Phoenix, where guests kick back on the front porch with a bottle of Sangiovese while waiting for a table at the insanely popular Pizzeria Bianco next door.
Then Pool started his own business, Matt's Big Breakfast, in a funky, compact red brick building next to a small downtown motel. Word got out quickly when the place opened, and in just a couple of years, it's become such a familiar part of the urban fabric with its retro orange counter and made-from-scratch pancakes that it feels like Matt's has been there for decades.
Mayor Phil Gordon knows all about Matt's. He's a regular (usually comes in on Saturday morning with his son, Pool notes), and has even mentioned the place in not one, but two official speeches. A guy with his own history of redeveloping old buildings, Gordon knows the value of a place like Matt's Big Breakfast, and in a city with just a handful of creative, young entrepreneurs who're multitasking like crazy to make Phoenix vibrant (think of Greg Esser and Cindy Dach with their boutique and gallery spaces, or Kimber Lanning, with her record store and art/music venue, or artist Sloane McFarland, landlord to several biz hipsters, including Chris Bianco), Gordon's got to know the value of Matt Pool.
Is it any surprise that Pool wants to start another business? The city staff should have been jumping up and down and through hoops at the news that Pool's restoring a 106-year-old historic building as a tavern, exactly the kind of business downtown Phoenix needs.
Three years ago, newly elected Mayor Gordon told New Times that he'd create a special position in his office to work with small businesses. He said he wanted to modify city code to account for the challenges of restoring historic properties and that he was investigating incentives for small businesses to improve their properties ("Jerry's World," October 16, 2003).
None of that has happened. And in many ways it's harder than ever to preserve old buildings and open up cool businesses downtown.
Just ask Matt Pool, who says that if he didn't already own one successful business in downtown Phoenix, he likely would've given up on the tavern project long ago.
That's bad news for Phoenix, since everyone in the urban renewal business agrees that the key to making a downtown flourish is to foster local businesses in the kinds of quirky old spaces that give a city its own flavor. (In other ways, things are looking up for the city see the accompanying story on page 18.) But while other cities have commercial historic buildings by the blockful in their downtowns and have done a great job at keeping them intact Phoenix doesn't have much left to work with.
Many of the old buildings that remain in our downtown are scattered throughout a burgeoning, unofficial arts district art spaces and small businesses in early 20th-century bungalows around Roosevelt Street, in early and mid-century storefronts on Grand Avenue, or in 1920s warehouses along Jackson Street. A few creative types have turned old properties into businesses (if only for one night a month, in some cases), and part of what makes First Fridays art walks so fun is finding art in unexpected places, like an old bungalow or a cavernous industrial space.
In a city that sprawls into the Sonoran Desert with miles of McMansions, experiencing a piece of history has special significance. But business owners trying to preserve some of that vintage character are wading through a difficult system, trying to adapt old buildings up to modern code (and paying through the nose for it), and facing roadblocks with changes of use (like putting a wine bar in an old house). And would-be entrepreneurs have been scared away by the expense and the bureaucracy.
The city has been attempting to address the challenges of adaptive reuse, but it's been a slow process. It almost seems like small-scale projects complicated renovations in particular have gotten lost in the shuffle as splashy, big-money developments for downtown have dazzled city leaders to distraction.
Matt Pool's just as excited about all the action including the expansion of ASU downtown and it all can't come soon enough for him. But will it be too late? "In the city's eyes," he says, "it's not really gonna be rolling 'til 2008."
By then, how many old buildings will even be left? And how many people like Pool will still be in business?
Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation although these make fine ingredients but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961
She wrote that book a long time ago, and she lived in New York City (Jacobs later moved to Toronto, where she died earlier this year), but the godmother of American urban planning is right on when it comes to downtown Phoenix today.
For Phoenix leaders and developers who are hanging their hopes on a downtown revitalization that owes a lot to the active arts community, Jacobs' argument for preserving old buildings rings especially true: "Well-subsidized opera and art museums often go into new buildings," she writes. "But the unformalized feeders of the arts studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can absorb uneconomic discussions these go into old buildings."
Indeed, it's hard to imagine the existence of First Fridays a long-running monthly event where downtown art galleries and artist studios open their doors to the public without the string of old buildings that have made it affordable for artists and creative entrepreneurs to open galleries and boutiques.
Jacobs paints a scenario where new construction is so expensive that only chain stores and banks can afford the high overhead, edging out the smaller, more experimental enterprises that give the area diversity. It sounds a lot like what's happening in downtown Phoenix, where affordability has become a big problem for small businesses, especially in areas with high-rise zoning, and large-scale projects threaten to consume the landscape. According to Jacobs, that would be a huge mistake. Without old construction in the midst of new, she explains, downtown enterprises would be "part of a total attraction and total environment that is economically too limited and therefore functionally too limited to be lively, interesting, and convenient."
In other words, without any serious efforts to rescue and reuse the vintage properties that are left, downtown could quickly wind up a bland Disneyland, devoid of the eclectic cultural amenities that are enticing people to move there in the first place.
Even the current urban planning guru, Richard Florida, points to Jacobs' 45-year-old observation. "Jane Jacobs always said, 'New ideas require old buildings.' I repeat like a mantra," says Florida.
Three years ago, New Times brought Florida, author of the influential book The Rise of the Creative Class, to Phoenix to talk about how cities attract young, dynamic, creative types who can boost the local economy with the power of their ideas. He made a strong case for the importance of street culture, nightlife and neighborhood hangouts like cafes and bookstores. City leaders paid close attention in the Downtown Strategic Plan, published almost two years ago, they even spelled out the importance of a diverse mix of old and new buildings, adaptive reuse, and Florida's now-ubiquitous "creative class."
And while Phoenix has ushered in plenty of big changes the downtown ASU campus, light-rail construction, CityScape preserving the old buildings hasn't gotten any easier in the past three years since Florida came to town and Mayor Phil Gordon took office, promising to use his expertise on historic renovations to make it easier for others to do so.
"I like Mayor Gordon a lot, and I like what in general is happening with ASU going downtown," says Florida. "But old buildings are a critical part of the mix." Good urban design can work with the existing fabric, he adds.
It's tempting to compare Phoenix to other Western cities of a certain age, where downtown revitalization efforts meshed with historic preservation to make interesting old architecture a part of the city's unique character. But no matter who you talk to, nobody (not even Richard Florida) can come up with a perfect case study for Phoenix to imitate.
Starting with the obvious point of comparison the buildings themselves downtown just doesn't have the kind of dense, historic building stock that you'd find in Denver's LoDo, or in downtown Portland, or along Sixth Street in Austin (ground zero for the creative class, according to Florida). Those cities' hubs of culture and entertainment also happen to be based in commercial historic districts (all 35 of Phoenix's historic districts are residential). Whatever critical mass of old commercial buildings Phoenix might've had in the past has thinned out, and many properties have long been zoned for high-rise developments. Property values have skyrocketed, and, not surprisingly, so has the incentive for people to tear down old buildings.
"I'm not sure anyone's really keeping track of how many, but there are definitely some historic buildings coming down," says Barbara Stocklin, Historic Preservation Officer.
According to the Development Services Department, within the boundaries of Seventh Street to Seventh Avenue, from I-10 to the railroad tracks, 14 permits for total demolitions were issued through mid-November for 2006, 13 were issued last year, and four were issued in 2004. (The number of permits issued does not necessarily reflect the exact number of buildings that ended up getting torn down, though.)
"Frankly, the larger threat isn't to buildings on city property, but on private property," Stocklin says. "You can go to the city, get a demolition permit, and tear it down in two days."
Not everyone has bothered to apply for a demolition permit, though. In a notorious example, Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox and her husband, Earl, purchased the historic E.S. Turner House in the summer of 2004. Within weeks, they illegally tore down the 105-year-old Victorian home, one of the few 19th-century buildings left on Phoenix's historic register.
Stocklin estimates there are more than 190 individually designated historic buildings downtown. For those, she says, historic review and approval is required for any permits that would alter a building's exterior. There are also incentive programs to help with the costs of restoration. Demolition permits for historic properties have a one-year stay of demolition (except in cases of financial hardship), and require a detailed reuse plan that's subject to a public hearing. Demolition of non-historic buildings within historic districts is approved or denied on a case-by-case basis. To give a general estimate, only about a quarter of downtown is deemed historic and that's being generous.
As for buildings that aren't in historic districts and aren't designated historic, even if they might qualify time's running out. A prime example is the M. Edward Morin house, a 1909 building on Second Street in the Evans-Churchill neighborhood, whose owner recently obtained a demolition permit. According to Mayor Gordon, the building doesn't have a historic designation, but it's in great shape. "We're trying to buy some time to get a proposal together to save it," he says.
The Evans-Churchill neighborhood, a 160-acre area from Hance Park to Fillmore Street, Central Avenue to Seventh Street, which includes Roosevelt Row, is an enclave of mostly early 20th-century bungalows. It was too spotty to become a historic district, says Stocklin. But she says a good number of the individual buildings, like the Farish House the 106-year-old house where Pool is opening his tavern have individual historic designations. The Farish house is relatively rare, one of perhaps a couple dozen buildings of a similar age downtown. Stocklin says that the city started to grow after 1911, when the Roosevelt Dam was completed, so anything pre-1910 is considered an early building. The oldest building downtown, the Charles Pugh House on Second Avenue, dates to 1898.
In the section of Evans-Churchill where the future Biosciences Campus will be constructed, Stocklin says the old buildings in the best shape have been relocated off city land by private developers. According to Jason Harris from the Downtown Development Office, the city assisted with the move of seven old houses from Fourth, Fifth and Sixth streets, as well as a historic home next to the Japanese Friendship Garden (where the high-rise Portland Place condos are under construction). All eight buildings have been moved to the nearby Roosevelt historic district, and at least three have been redeveloped so far.
Considering the mayor's background, it's surprising that things haven't gotten easier over the past three years. In the early 1980s, Phil Gordon was a real estate developer whose passion was renovating old buildings downtown. His very first project was restoring the Corpstein Duplex, a circa-1920 building at Fifth Avenue and Roosevelt Street that was slated for demolition. The boxy cluster of Prairie School bungalows, now offices for the Arizona Commission for the Arts, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Booker T. Washington School at 12th Street and Jefferson, built in 1928 as Phoenix's first all-black elementary school, was another one of Gordon's redevelopment projects. Now it houses New Times.
Gordon also helped draft the original Phoenix Historic Preservation Ordinance. Later, when he was a City Council member, he defended the preservation of the Warehouse District, a cluster of cavernous old buildings around Jackson Street, when the rest of the City Council wanted to raze structures to make room for the jail and a parking garage.
Back then, Gordon says, Mayor Terry Goddard was the city's only champion of historic preservation. Most property owners and tenants didn't consider renovations worthwhile, and there were few examples of beautifully preserved buildings to convince them otherwise. Financing was a big problem for buildings considered past their useful life, and the cost of restoring instead of building new, like today, was substantial.
"The challenge today that's different from then is that the land is so much more valuable for density now, so even though people will pay the return to restore a building, you can get a higher return if you tear it down," Gordon says. "I think things are a lot better now, but unfortunately we've lost a number of very significant buildings."
For example, he mentions Madison Square Garden, a 1929 boxing venue that was torn down last year to make way for an office building, and structures on the old Phoenix Union High School campus on Van Buren Street. (Two classroom buildings built in 1911, and a circa-1929 auditorium, have been renovated, though, and will house the University of Arizona medical school.)
A history major in college, Gordon talks about how he used to research a building's history by going into old phone books and looking at obituaries. He'd even find old bills and papers inside the walls. "You started to learn about the people, like you became a part of it," he says. There was also a sense of quality about the craftsmanship that he appreciated. "It was rewarding," he says. "Not financially, though."
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.
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.
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."
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
Pool points out small details. An old wall hutch next to the bar was cleverly converted into an opening to the cooler. A new frame around a widened ADA-standard doorway was custom-made to match the original, ornamental notches and all. Pool wants to hang a chalkboard with a rotating wine list in each of the five rooms, and outside, he'll eventually have a beer garden. That's a separate permit, though something he doesn't even want to think about right now.
He walks out the back door and down the concrete ramp to the parking lot, where the building two doors down, at the corner of Third Street and McKinley, is plainly visible over a wall. Two nights earlier, a fire turned the unoccupied place into a sad, sunken shell. Pool suspects it was caused by transients, who'd been building fires out back for months.
"The flames looked like they were 40 feet high," says Pool. "I was freaking out."
Pool shakes his head in disbelief, then turns to see a man walking down the driveway. It's one of his alcohol distributors stopping by with a new wine list and a "beer library," a thick, detailed booklet of brands and brews. Pool can't wait to sit down with it.
"Once we're open and we have people out front drinking beer," he says, "it'll feel like we've been here forever."
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