Not only did restaurateur Rebecca Golden get the approvals she needs to move forward on her quirky solution for the beloved Melrose Liquors building, but she and apartment developers P.B. Bell were complemented by City staff for their efforts to preserve the once doomed, mid-century icon which now fronts a new, five-story apartment building.
“I’m very excited to get started,” Golden said after the Feb. 15 hearing. “This was much easier than I thought it was going to be.”
Golden and Bell partnered on the unusually shaped former liquor store, which was built in 1957, after preservationists showed up in droves to protest the building’s demolition last summer. Now, Golden will transform it into a “Palm-Springs” themed drive-thru bistro/cafe that serves coffee, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and cocktails.
“The building is unique itself and I just had to be here today because this building would have been gone last year,” said Michelle Dodds, Phoenix Historic Preservation Officer, who spoke in favor of the project. “This is exactly what the Council was hoping for.”
Golden has her work cut out for her.
The 13k-square-foot parallelogram – it used to be pink and cyan – sits on a wedge-shaped
lot where 6th Drive meets the curve in 7th Avenue. There isn’t a lot of room to park, much less a kitchen yet. Golden needed permits to serve liquor and host entertainment on an outdoor patio she plans to build as well to operate the drive-thru for food service.
These requests were formalities as the uses are already allowed within the high density commercial zone, as well the Seventh Avenue Urban Main Street Overlay.
However, Golden also needed several zoning variances: a 1/2 inch reduction in the size of parking stalls – none are currently drawn on the property – another to waive half the number of total stalls as required for restaurants – from 12 to 6 – and another to eliminate the 150 foot buffer that is normally required between a drive-thru and a major arterial street, in this case 7th Ave.
In order to justify a zoning variance, a property owner must demonstrate unusual conditions that adversely effect a legitimate use of the site or its value. Variances can be granted by an Adjustment Officer, the Board of Adjustment, or the City Council.
“Sometimes tiny little (buildings) have value beyond what we’re willing to credit,” commented Zoning Adjustment Officer Micheal Widener. “Some of them look like really crappy sites and turn out to be really fun.”
Following her across-the-board-approvals, Golden can now move forward renovating and purchasing the building, which Bell no longer wants as a liquor store. Golden plans to host patio entertainment (Think Vig and Culinary Dropout) and she will have staff deliver orders to drivers as they queue along 6th Drive rather than in the parking lot.
Respecting History: A Destination, not a Dog Park:
“If I told you today that I wanted to build a pink liquor store I’d probably be laughed out of City Hall,” said Jason Baugh, a zoning attorney with Withey-Morris P.L.C. “But as soon as I were to try to tear one down, boy there’s an interest to maintain it.”
Baugh was hired by P.B. Bell to represent Golden. His firm also represented The Curve and the Turney Ave. Self-Storage project (next door) that was approved the week prior.
“This might be the first case that goes through the new demolition process and the result is what everyone wants it to be,” he said at the hearing. “This is what the City intended.”
Bell acquired the liquor building in 2013 as part of the land deal on which they built their five-story apartments across 6th Drive. The multi-family developer quietly advertised for sale what many in the neighborhood called an eyesore, and declined to renew the lease to its long-time tenant Harry Mehta in 2017.
Mehta had been the building’s previous owner.
Bell considered several offers but decided instead to tear it down after the City required them to alter their original design plans for The Curve to fit more parking. There was public talk of turning the space into a dog park, and Bell filed for demolition permits in June. That’s when Melrose activists sounded their panic alarms.
“That’s when the shit hit the fan,” said P.B. Bell V.P. of Development told T.M.L. in an interview in August. I had a friend in Florida call me and ask if I was trying to tear down some liquor building.”
Under a City ordinance passed in late 2016, Bell was required to post public notices and wait 30 days to demolish the building.
Over a thousand people signed a Change.org petition to save Melrose Liquors and concerned citizens showed up in droves at a special meeting of the Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission.
Several local media outlets reported the building’s pending demise and it even made national headlines.
“It was a shitty liquor store, but a beloved shitty liquor store,” said Rich Strauss, co-owner of Wag n’ Wash across the street. “Change is good and progress is good for business.”
The Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission determined the “Melrose Liquors” building demonstrated significant architecture characteristic of the 1950’s, and was eligible for historic preservation. Although the City Council has authority to create historic overlay zones, the Commission can only delay demolition of private property up to a year if it is not already protected.
Under Arizona law, property owners can sue municipalities if such regulations diminish property values, and Melrose Liquors still has not been designated historic.
Rather than risk a halt from City Hall, Bell decided to put the treasured building back up for sale, and looked back through their offers for someone with vintage in mind.
Enter Rebecca Golden, 31, whose success with turning an underutilized space in north Phoenix into a chic social gathering spot preceded her at February’s hearing.
Back to the Future:
“I like to call it The Jetsons style,” Baugh told Widener. “It’s boomerangs and comets.”
Bell and Golden decided to name the restaurant after the space-age Googie style of architecture found in many mid-century facades in Melrose.
“Half the people at the hearing asked ‘What’s a Googie?” Golden said. “I feel the building really named itself.”
In perfect millennial style, Golden’s 32 Shea (so named for its location in North Phoenix) is a hybrid of identities. By day it’s a drive-thru coffee shop lunch spot that morphs into a bistro-restaurant-slash-cocktail-club after the sun sets.
There are leather chairs and a bar inside, and palm trees out back. There are laser lights in the restroom and even a giant buddha on the patio. You can get table service if you dine in, or order a chef-inspired salad and a mocha delivered to your car.
Golden purchased the previous chain coffee store, which had originally been a drive-thru photo lab, in 2011. She sold it about six years later to owners who haven’t changed much.
Golden has a similarly un-categorical vision for Melrose.
“Her unique ability to work in tight, confined spaces really lends itself well to this type of facility, Baugh said. No one formally opposed the variances at February’s hearing.
“This is what we wanted,” Trueman told T.M.L. “It’s still our front door. It’s not a place for a dog park.”
Traffic a Concern:
“I have concerns about the parking,” said Indigo Hunter, owner of Retro Ranch Vintage next door. “Six spaces doesn’t seem like a lot of parking and there’s not a lot of parking to begin with.”
Baugh said The Curve’s leasing office will close at 6 p.m., what he expects to be a peak time for Googie business. Though he didn’t discuss the parking program for The Curve specifically, he said the public can use spaces in front of the building any time of day, as well as about ten others that were created a block south on Glenrosa Avenue.
“By activating the north end we create pedestrian movement,” Baugh said. “We want the residents (of The Curve) to grab a cup of coffee in the morning and a bite to eat in the evening.”
Baugh also said several bike racks will be installed.
“I’ve been in this neighborhood a long time,” Hunter continued. “I can see people backing out onto 7th Avenue.”
She said she had not been shown site plans until the hearing, nor was she alone in her concerns.
“Triangular properties sometimes invite people to do the strangest things,” Widener said. “Seventh Avenue is how I go to work and come home every day. It can be very frightening.”
Widener stipulated as part of the approvals that Golden and Bell work with City Staff to determine how to best encourage drivers to exit onto 6th Drive, not 7th Avenue.
There will be “no turn” signs and possibly a “pork chop” median that prevents left turns.
Golden said parking stalls will also be angled to prevent drivers from exiting onto 7th.
“Someone would have to make a complete u-turn,” she told Widener. “It wouldn’t make much sense.”
He was not fully convinced.
“That helps, but only while you’re sober and paying attention,” Widener said.
Baugh said he did not expect any objection from Bell over working with City Staff.
“Just to be clear, the drive thru is not to pick up cocktails,” Widener asked, causing several laughs. “I just want to be sure it’s being repurposed.”
Golden smiled and assured him that alcohol would not be served to vehicles.