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."

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig