Over the years, I've heard horror stories from small-business owners about their dealings with the city of Tucson in general, and the city inspection process in particular.
This isn't one of those stories.
Emma Vera owns the ridiculously popular Guadalajara Original Grill on Prince Road, near Mountain Avenue. Just last week, the restaurant celebrated its 10th anniversary. After humble beginnings at a hole in the wall a few blocks east on Prince, she moved to the current location and quickly built her dream project into one of the most successful restaurants in all of Southern Arizona.
(It must be mentioned that I coached her daughter, Maya, in high school basketball and track. Maya is an A student and an all-around great kid who was all-state in basketball, and won the state high jump championship her sophomore and senior seasons in track.)
While Vera was certainly pleased with the popularity of her establishment, she wanted to do more for her patrons. She wanted to put a patio out front for open-air dining during the nice times of the year (and during the evenings of the not-so-nice times of the year). She already owned the property, and the only disruption would be that the patio would take the place of a few parking spaces adjacent to Prince Road.
This is where Lloyd Christmas, Inspector Clouseau and Mr. Bean begin to make their appearances.
According to the city code, there is an established ratio of parking spaces to square footage of the restaurant. (I'm certainly not hating on the existence of city code. I've been to places where the rules are lax or even nonexistent. Houston, for example, has no zoning whatsoever. I've been to a Popeye's Chicken that's right next to a church, which I guess makes for competing houses of worship.) However, it doesn't seem like it's asking too much to have a municipal code tempered with a little common sense.
Finding enough parking has always been a concern at Vera's restaurant; all things considered, it's actually a nice problem to have. She hires extra people on the weekends just to help facilitate parking. She has an agreement with the businesses adjacent to her restaurant (that close down at the end of the business day and/or are closed on the weekends). She rents parking space from the Casa de los Niños Thrift Shop on the other side of Mountain, paying a weekly fee and feeding the Casa workers on Wednesday. She even went door to door in the adjoining neighborhood, asking whether spillover parking would be a concern to anybody.
Kinda sounds like the type of business person that the city would go to great lengths to support in any way possible. You might think.
At first, the inspectors weren't even sure how many parking spaces were required, because it wasn't clear whether a storage facility out back should be counted as part of the square footage. Her initial plans were rejected, because she was told that there was no way that she could eliminate the parking spaces in front. She countered with a plan to reconfigure the parking area in the back of the restaurant, adding spaces to make up for those that would be lost to the patio construction. This is where it gets fun.
She was told that she couldn't add two parking spaces, in particular, because they would interfere with another form of commerce: It was determined the garbage trucks that pick up the restaurant's trash have a certain turning radius that would force the trucks to cross over at least one of the proposed parking spaces in order to get to the bins. Vera explained that the trucks make their pickups at or before 9 a.m., and the restaurant doesn't open until 10, so there's no way those spaces would ever be occupied at that time. (The restaurant is popular, but it's not that popular.)
This went on for four maddening years. Vera went through a string of expensive architects, each of whom quit in frustration after running headlong into the city's Wall of NO! She even hired a lawyer to try to walk the paperwork through the city labyrinth. He gave up, too, and then sent her a bill for a few thousand dollars for his "troubles."
Finally, as a long shot, she had a third party mention her situation to new Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. The mayor placed a call to Ernie Duarte, who is the city's director of planning and development services, and Duarte met with Vera.
The patio should be open by the first week of October, just in time for the nice weather.
"Mr. Duarte and his staff have been wonderful," Vera says. "It has been a pleasure working with them."
For his part, Rothschild would like to view this as a small signal of the beginning of what could be a new era in the city of Tucson's approach to constituent services. While I couldn't get him on the phone by press time, I assume that he would also prefer that people with concerns not call him first and then hope that the (stuff) would flow downhill. However, that is the way it happened in this case.