“The payoff? I’ve got a great building that is going to celebrate its 80th year. It was already a part of the community, and it’s a part of the community again.”
These words come from Bill Sandweg, who is owner of Copper Star Coffee and an adaptive reuse enthusiast. His building was once a Chevron station in the 1930s and is now the hub for coffee drinkers, college students, and the surrounding neighborhoods.
This is adaptive reuse.
It’s the process of taking an old building and repurposing it into something new to thrive once again. It helps to conserve land and combat urban sprawl, while turning vacant, forgotten buildings into galleries, salons, restaurants, workspaces, and more.
When Walls Tell a Story
“All of these buildings are still here, and we’re taking what was here and we’re bringing it back to life,” Sandweg said, “We are breathing life into what was largely once abandoned.”
Sandweg embarked on his adaptive reuse venture, taking a gas station and redeveloping it into a coffee house, years before the city of Phoenix even had its Adaptive Reuse Program to aid small businesses.
Now, however, there are 75 active adaptive reuse projects and 108 completed projects, according to program records. The Adaptive Reuse Program launched in 2008 during the economic recession, and every year more applicants apply.
“There was a lot of really great stuff happening back then, and we’ve buried a lot of it over the years. But people are starting to uncover it, bring it back and appreciate it for its inherent value,” said Mike Poulton, the founder of Melrospace.
Poulton works at a law firm representing local businesses, and is in the process of turning an old auto shop into a coworking space. The building, called Melrospace in honor of the Melrose District it’s located in, wasn’t the most eye-catching or attractive choice and it took months before Poulton noticed it, he said.
“One day I stopped and walked around it and thought, ‘This may have potential. You could do something with this. It’s going to take a lot of work but this building can be made interesting,’” Poulton said.
He bought the building and began production for an early 2015 opening. He knew he wanted an adaptive reuse project because “it’s a big part of what’s happening here right now.”
We are breathing life into what was largely once abandoned.
The law firm he works at will occupy only a third of the building, leaving the rest open for tenants and a coworking space. Poulton hopes to create a thriving business community in the space where tenants can feed off each other’s ideas and energy.
“We have to look at this as an investment in the Phoenix real estate market,” Poulton said. “What’s hot right now in Phoenix is adaptive reuse. That’s the thing. It’s always been popular, but it’s exploding right now. We wanted to jump on that, and especially in Melrose, it feels like the right fit for the neighborhood.”
But for Sandweg at Copper Star Coffee, it is also about the backstory — it’s the history and character that make his coffee shop so aesthetically interesting to look at.
“I had been a manager at Oregano’s for two years,” Sandweg said. “With Oregano’s, all of their buildings have character and all of their buildings have a story.”
At Copper Star there are two elongated windows where the original bathroom doors to the Chevron gas station had been installed. The garage style windows are reminiscent to what the building was once used for.
A lot of the Phoenix corridors have a character to them and an identity. However, that identity doesn’t occur overnight and it takes years to establish, said Chris Kowalsky, program manager for the City of Phoenix Office of Customer Advocacy.
“People connect to certain buildings and certain elements of neighborhoods, and that’s what makes them call [a place] home. It strikes a chord with people and that’s why they want to see existing buildings maintain their character,” Kowalsky said.
We need to provide incentives for the development community to start building inward again.
Adaptive reuse projects revitalize buildings and encompassing neighborhoods, but they also address a bigger issue — urban sprawl.
“What we really need to do is provide those incentives for the development community to start building inward again and utilize existing infrastructure,” Kowalsky said. “It’s a win for the city, and it’s a win for the developer.”
Kowalsky said the program’s six years have been successful and momentum continues to build. When the program launched in 2008 during the economic recession, “the development market, commercial housing, all of it, was stagnant,” he said.
“We’re just now starting to see some economic recovery and so that’s one area people are going to start focusing on, so I do expect our numbers to increase going forward,” Kowalsky said. “Especially as lending and financial institutions loosen their lending standards and allow for more development to occur.”
Already one recent change to the program is the original $5,000 incentive assistance opportunity has raised its budget to allow nearly $7,000 instead.
The program is still developing, and Kowalsky said he and his colleagues are recognizing some of the hurdles and trying to adapt the policies and guidelines to make them less restrictive and more flexible in order to better serve developers.
“I think we’ve done a really good job at trying to be cognizant of the different areas that could be improved on or streamlined,” Kowalsky said. “It’s probably where we’ve made the most headway and that’s where the developers are seeing it.”
Reason to Stay
The adaptive reuse trend is also aiding in helping distinguish Phoenix as a thriving city, said Nadar Abushhab, a Phoenix resident for nine years who is an active advocate for arts and culture in the community.
“Adaptive reuse has become a huge part of Phoenix, because the city has already gone through the sprawl. Now you have these people who really believe in the downtown energy and the history behind it,” said Abushhab. “I’m seeing more and more buildings being repurposed, and there are parts of town where buildings have now become landmarks in and of themselves.”
Abushhab never thought he would stay in Phoenix when he moved to the city nine years ago. His plan was to graduate from Arizona State University and leave for a bigger, already thriving city.
Now you have these people who really believe in the downtown energy and the history behind it.
“After I started work out here and becoming involved with the community, I saw people who are aspiring to really develop this place, to [make it] a home for everybody,” he said. “They wanted to involve all different aspects of the community to come down here.”
One of those ways was adaptive reuse and preserving Phoenix history.
Abushhab said that some of his favorite spots were repurposed. His current favorite, a niche spot on Grand Avenue called ThirdSpace, is a community spot where old bungalows have gone through some adaptive reuse to harbor small businesses.
“It’s really great to see these buildings not being torn down to make Phoenix new and fresh, but repurposed to make it fresh, with history,” Abushhab said. “Adaptive reuse projects create a new environment that’s unique to Phoenix.”
Abushhab said with all of the adaptive reuse projects happening in Phoenix, it will continue to grow and create this energy that Phoenix has never seen.
“Phoenix is wet cement right now, and if you can get your feet into that wet cement, [you can] solidify yourself into the foundation for a long, long time to come,” Abushhab said.
Sink or Swim
With adaptive reuse projects, it’s still a challenge much like any other big endeavor. Sandweg can attest to that.
He said there were two times he wanted to call it quits with Copper Star Coffee. The first was during construction, as the codes and compliances were almost too overwhelming. The second time was a year after opening the coffee shop, Sandweg said.
“We cut it loose,” Sandweg said. “We were like, ‘We can’t put any more of our own money in it. It’s going to have to sink or swim on its own.’ And fortunately for us, that was exactly when it started swimming on its own.”
We reflect the story around us.
Despite not having the city’s adaptive reuse program at the time, Sandweg’s project was a success and the coffee shop is reaching its ninth year of business.
“Would I do it again?” said Sandweg, “I’d like to think I would. I’m a gambler.”
The gas-station-turned-coffeehouse is in the Melrose District, and stands out on its own. The street-facing front still has the pump station as a reminder of its history. And today, it builds a new story with everyone who visits.
“It fits,” Sandweg said. “This is one of several neighborhood gathering places. Yes, we are a coffeehouse, but we mirror the neighborhood. We reflect the story around us.”
Photos by Amy Pantea unless otherwise indicated
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