In Midtown and Uptown, eat/drink/shop gathering places thrive where strip malls once stood.
Back in the day, I used to go to Phoenix Ad Club meetings in the banquet room at Beef Eaters, a tony prime rib place with chandeliers, white tablecloths, dark wood paneling and a tuxedoed-but-grizzled waitstaff. I bought fake flowers, artificial Christmas trees and other decor to use as props for photo shoots at Crown Imports, under the watchful eye of Mrs. Lee, the owner, who seemed convinced every customer was born with a propensity for shoplifting. At lunchtime, you could find me and my co-workers savoring BLTs and milkshakes at the counter of Markgraf Pharmacy at Uptown Plaza.
Fast forward … uh, let’s just say “a couple of decades.”
These days, I’m buying novels and going to readings at Changing Hands Bookstore, located in the reborn Beef Eaters, now called The Newton, a retail and restaurant complex. For lunch, I eschew the bacon and ice cream of my youth and head to Flower Child for kale-something salads at the recently revamped Uptown Plaza.
I’m noticing a trend here in Central Phoenix. Despite our city’s well-documented building booms, some of my past is still present. It seems that rather than scrapping historic businesses and popping a Starbucks on every corner, some creative local developers and designers have been looking at neighborhood landmarks and beloved businesses, putting on their adaptive-reuse hats and breathing new life into established icons.
In the last few years, the trend has yielded spots like The Newton, The Orchard, The Crown, The Yard, The Colony, Uptown Plaza and others that have, in effect, become their own “microhoods,” where locals come to eat, drink, spend time with family, shop, take a yoga class, and reminisce about the spot’s history.
So what’s going on? I decided to get some background on this revitalization movement.
“It’s more fun to restore something with local history and neighborhood stories,” says developer and builder Jon Kitchell, who, along with business partner Lorenzo Perez and architect John Douglas, conceived The Newton, which opened in 2014. “We try to find those jewels and create something that the neighborhood dictates. I mean, how many people really want another generic strip mall on the corner?”
The Newton’s ancestor, Beef Eaters, dates to 1961, when gregarious restaurateur Jay Newton opened a faux British manor house at Third Avenue and Camelback Road, complete with coffered ceilings and suits of armor, housed inexplicably in a rambling, 16,000-square-foot midcentury-style building. “It was the original three-martini-lunch kind of place,” Kitchell says, “and Newton would often don a chef’s toque and carve prime rib tableside for his guests.”
Newton was long gone when Kitchell and Perez—whose firm is Venture Projects—acquired it with Douglas. Kitchell says of the then-dilapidated building, “We peeled it back to its midcentury bones.”
The trio divided the building to accommodate Chef Justin Beckett’s Southern Rail restaurant, Changing Hands Bookstore and its First Draft Book Bar, as well as retail space for Southwest Gardener, which offers yard and home accessories. There’s also an indoor event space—just enough room for storytelling, book readings and poetry slams.
The trio then set their sights on a two-acre citrus nursery at 12th Street and Glendale Avenue, which opened in mid-2016 as The Orchard. “Howard Wasser started this in 1923 as a huge citrus orchard,” says Kitchell. “He lived onsite in a brick house he built in the 1930s, and in the 1950s, in a ranch-style house. Wasser sold off most of the land to home developers and sold the last piece of the orchard to one of his employees. Most people probably remember this as Ralph’s Citrus Nursery.”
Before Kitchell, Perez and Douglas (all Phoenix-area natives, by the way) acquired the property, there were plans to build a high-density condominium complex on the site. Douglas, Perez and Kitchell master planned the site, preserving the 1930s home, while the old ranch house has become Luci’s at The Orchard, a marketplace and cafe, as well as Splurge, an ice cream and candy shop. Lush landscaping, including citrus trees, shades the buildings. There’s also an event shed, a lawn and a splash pad.
The Orchard is already a go-to spot for weddings, anniversaries and kids’ birthday parties—yep, it’s become a microhood.
“We were originally thinking of doing offices and retail here,” admits Kitchell, “but the neighbors asked us for restaurants and an event space. They wanted walk or bike here, bring their kids and dogs, and hang out for hours.”
Along Seventh Street, north of Missouri Avenue, architectural designer Mike Rumpeltin, principal of Brick & West Design, has helped spearhead the renovation of several overlooked, circa-1950s businesses, transforming them into neighborhood retail and restaurant magnets, including The Yard, The Crown and his most recent project, The Colony.
“There’s a history, a story, a patina you can tap into with these old buildings,” says Rumpeltin, who’s worked with several developers, restaurateurs, retailers and other business interests to bring the three projects to life. “Everything else is so standardized, so globalized, so same-same-same. We try to find the story with these Phoenix projects. That’s far more valuable.”
The Yard’s story began in 1954, when it was constructed as a Triumph car showroom, which later became a motorcycle dealership. When Rumpeltin first laid eyes on the 53,000-square-foot compound, it was home to about one pigeon per square foot; but restaurateur Sam Fox of Fox Restaurant Concepts soon bought into the concept.
“These places were—and are—part of the social fabric of the neighborhood,” says Rumpeltin. “They’re not something that was just plopped here. They’re part of an insider experience, and people like that.”
Not far away, Uptown Plaza was built at the corner of Central Avenue and Camelback Road in 1955 by Del Webb (he of Sun City fame) as Phoenix’s first suburban shopping center, offering necessities like a supermarket, department store, coffee shop and restaurant. The plaza had numerous facelifts and coverups over the years, but when developers Vintage Partners acquired it recently, they opted to go back in time, working with a local design team that stripped walls to reveal original brick. They added slim, 1950s-style canopies, more landscaping and signage in a typeface that looks like it’s been there since Eisenhower’s presidency.
Sure, a few national chains like Shake Shack and Lou Malnati’s Pizza have taken root at the restored Uptown Plaza, but plenty of homegrown talents have also blossomed, including Flower Child’s healthy dining options, R & R Surplus casual wear and Arizona’s original gourmet supermarket, AJ’s Fine Foods.
“We’re preserving the history of Phoenix,” says Kitchell, referring to his work and alluding to that done by other local colleagues. “We’re weaving those stories into a new purpose.”
In the meantime, I’m glad a few slices of my Phoenix youth have been preserved as places others can treasure. On any given Friday night, you’ll find me hanging out at one of these microhoods with family and friends, reliving the past over dinner and drinks, and relishing the new sense of community that has emerged from all those old strip malls.