WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
"I think that eight or nine years ago they made a mistake," says Mayor Paul Johnson. "You had a group of merchants who were down there and were making it work, but it was a new mayor and council looking to get downtown redeveloped. It ended up being an experiment that didn't work."
He is referring to the ousting of the original Block 21 merchants who were forced in the mid-Eighties to move their shops when the city condemned their buildings--except for Walter Switzer, the proprietor of Switzer's clothing store, who fought relocation until he won.
The condemnation was one of the first steps in building Square One, then envisioned as a festival marketplace of shops and restaurants and now, after many false starts and stops, destined to become only a parking lot. And while everyone makes mistakes, the mayor's "que sera" is probably scant comfort to the business owners whose fortunes have changed as a result of the flawed prophecies of city government and the machinations that followed.
In particular, the mayor's words don't cheer up Julian Blum, one of Square One's original developers, and Norman Fierros, who owned and operated Fina Cocina restaurant. Both say their lives were decimated by the planned project. Now that the idea has been tabled their disappointment has deepened. "Why did they throw people out of there? I would still be there! That was the place for me!" says Fierros.
Fierros and Blum came to Block 21 from different worlds: Fierros from South Phoenix, where he grew up the son of a Mexican farmer and one of 14 children. For years he lived and worked in Beverly Hills, a hairdresser to women with even tans, before returning to Phoenix and opening a taco stand south of downtown. Blum, who is from Baltimore, describes himself as one of Phoenix's "old-time" developers; he specialized in large trailer parks and land on Central Avenue, and says he put together the deal that allowed the Jack in the Box franchise to venture out of its home state of California. When Blum and partner Ted Kort became interested in Square One, Blum saw it as a career pinnacle. "I really felt that was going to be the capper," he says.
As Square One negotiations progressed, Blum purchased a long-term lease on the buildings. Before long he was approached by Fierros, who wanted to move his food operation into the heart of downtown. Blum was losing as a tenant an Arby's restaurant on Adams Street, so he turned that space over to Fierros at what they both describe as a low rent, and he threw in all the restaurant fixtures--counters, tables and chairs--for nothing. Both he and Fierros knew the arrangement was short-term, since the city would soon be condemning the buildings and relocating everyone, but Fierros says the deal was so good that he grabbed it. His Fina Cocina, blessed with the surprisingly delicate cuisine that Fierros dubbed "nuevo Mexicana" and Fierros' support of local artists that soon gave the place the look of a gallery, became a thriving hangout for downtown's yuppie work force.
Blum was the first of the two men to go down with the Square One ship. As merchants were relocated out of his buildings but redevelopment was stalled, primarily because of the no-holds-barred battle against relocation waged by Switzer, Blum's rental income dwindled, causing him to fall behind in his property-tax payments. This didn't greatly worry him, he says because the city had set aside for him $405,000, a payment for his interest in the buildings that the city was about to acquire. The money was to become available to Blum when the city had settled with Switzer--one way or another--for the Square One land, which Switzer owned.
But it never happened. Switzer, who received about $800,000 for the land from the city, sued Blum for his share of the proceeds as well, saying that the buildings were to be torn down and were worthless. He felt the entire value of the plot--about $1.2 million--lay in the land. The courts agreed with Switzer, and Blum lost everything--not only the city's money but other projects that banks had funded with the city's anticipated money as collateral. "I was wiped out, and he had walked away with a million two! And then that son of a bitch--and you may quote me on this--that son of a bitch Switzer sued me for the goddamn real estate taxes!" Blum marvels. The taxes totaled about $30,000. "I didn't even bother to defend the suit because I was so goddamn broke and so disgusted by the whole thing that I had nothing left."
(Jack McCall, the attorney who represented Switzer in the suit, says there was nothing personal in Switzer's pursuit of Blum: The entire case was based upon legal interpretation of the wording in Blum's leasehold agreement. "Mr. Switzer's involvement was almost one of noninvolvement," he says.)
Blum declared bankruptcy and was out of the real estate business. Then, just after Square One had maneuvered his destruction, it reached out to save him, at least indirectly. His involvement in the project had caused him to become a community activist for the homeless, whom he considered to be one of downtown's gravest barriers to redevelopment. Blum was able to acquire an option on the Sands Motel on East Van Buren and turn it into a long-term homeless shelter, the New Day Education Center, of which he is still the executive director. Funded by private donations and public grants, it is, according to Blum, the only "transitional" center in the state, where families are able to live indefinitely, rent free, while attending school and job-hunting. The average stay is five months--one client stayed for 17--and Blum estimates that 250 to 300 families a year utilize the center. His own salary has gone from $1,000 a month the first year to $3,000 today, but he declares that it satisfies him. "Sometimes your life is full of a lot of fluff. I was able to give up the sailboat in San Diego," he says.
"I don't want to leave this story with the idea that I went broke and am not successful," he adds. "I took my lumps. I didn't stick grocery stores or any little people with bills. And I started over and have a beautiful program here."
Fierros is not so upbeat about fate. On the August day when he is interviewed for this story, he weeps openly while recalling the day, not long after he relocated from Square One to a larger location nearby on Central Avenue, when the health department closed down Fina Cocina. He says he did not receive as much federal relocation money from the city as he had expected, and was thus plunged deeply into debt from the cost of renovating and equipping the new restaurant. (Fred Bryant, a consultant for relocation clients, who negotiated with the city on Fierros' behalf, says he believes Fierros received about a third of what he was due.) Fierros says that he allowed his personal liability insurance to lapse. He says that, when the health department traced six cases of typhoid to his restaurant and one of those who'd been stricken sued, he had no choice but to file bankruptcy and regroup.
That was in 1990. Since then he has been living with a friend and accepting money from a brother, searching for another restaurant opportunity. He thought he'd nabbed the right one a few months ago, he says, when a California investor agreed to underwrite Chata's, a great-looking Mexican joint at Central and Camelback. But the night Chata's opened, the investor confessed his bankroll was money stolen from someone's pension fund and that he had been unable to negotiate an airtight lease for the property. Fierros found another investor, a local man, who soon lost his nerve and suddenly pulled his money out of Chata's bank account, so that Fierros' payroll checks were bouncing without warning. This time, Fierros closed the restaurant.
He has got a string of stories like these, a seemingly endless supply. He tells them all while staring pleadingly at his listener, self-editing his personal history as he goes. (Don't put that in," he begs, after blurting that typhoid was linked with his former restaurant because someone "put typhoid in my salsa," for revenge. "I can't prove that. But you know how you just feel that some things are true?" And later, after vaguely describing other persecutions, he says, "You won't write that, will you? Someone told me that if I ever told the whole story of what has happened to me, I would have to leave town.)
If he is in distress, he is also one of the town's great cooks. If he has been unfortunate, he has also made numerous business decisions that boomeranged. (Julian Blum remained Fierros' landlord when the restaurateur relocated from Square One to Central Avenue, and Blum recalls his astonishment when he heard that Fierros had let his liability insurance lapse. "We had reduced his rent and were working with him, but if we had known about the insurance premiums, we would have forgone the rent or anything," he says, adding, "He has become pretty paranoid and I feel sorry for him, I really do.) When asked whether he is a master chef--an artist--who should leave the driving to others, Fierros either will not cop to the division in himself or is truly oblivious to it. "The people who say I am not a good businessman are the people who do not really know me," he says.
Hopefully, the downhill slide that began when Fierros left Square One four years ago is finally going to end. He has found a new investor, New York's Jeff Spiegel, a man with deep pockets and two thriving restaurants in the Big Apple. Spiegel says that, as soon as he is able to negotiate a lease on the Chata's property, the restaurant will reopen within two weeks. He also says that Fierros will be responsible for what he does best in this renewed enterprise--he will be the chef, the stylist, the heart. And that Spiegel's management group will bring the business acumen. Spiegel says, "I believe in control."
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