A rezoning time bomb planted three decades ago in the West University neighborhood has recently exploded, and residents are calling for government assistance--even as the businessman involved claims he has done nothing wrong.
The owners of Guzano Rojo's, at the corner of Euclid Avenue and University Boulevard, went before the Tucson City Council for review of their state liquor license application before they even opened. They were asking for a restaurant liquor license, but were opposed by a few of their immediate neighbors.
"I see no reason to have a liquor license on a residential block," Bridget Werchan told the council, saying she believes Euclid should be a dividing line between University area businesses and nearby residences. "It's unnecessary in a place where families live."
Rejecting that plea at the suggestion of Fred Ronstadt, who represents the neighborhood, the council voted 6-1 to recommend the state approve the license. Ronstadt based his motion in part on the fact that the West University Neighborhood Association had not formally voiced an opinion on the application. Due to a recent change in officers of the neighborhood association, paperwork was mishandled and the issue was never presented to the WUNA board.
"I'm really not happy with Fred about this," says WUNA president Robert Morrison. "We're adamantly opposed to this license."
That miscue was followed by several others. When Guzano Rojo's opened in May, with large ads in the Weekly promoting mostly drink specials, it drew big, late-night crowds that generated loud noise, vandalism and litter complaints from surrounding residents. The establishment also got the immediate attention of the Tucson Police Department.
"It looked to be a bar with a bar type atmosphere. The music was at nightclub volume," one officer wrote in his report.
"We're a restaurant," insists owner Matthew Ward. "At first, the kitchen was closing at 10 p.m., but now stays open until 1 a.m."
The difference between a restaurant, which legally must garner 40 percent of its business from food sales, and a bar is critical. Guzano Rojo's obtained a restaurant liquor license and can be audited by the state for compliance. Under the law that review can't occur until the establishment has been operating for one year.
In its first six weeks, Ward reports that the police visited Guzano Rojo's nine times. On one of those occasions, they cited Ward and a 19-year old girl for underage drinking. On another visit, officers were forcibly prevented from entering the premises, then handcuffed the staff member who tried to keep them out.
Another problem arose over the number of people patronizing Guzano Rojo's, particularly those using its patio area. Ward had received temporary approval from the Tucson Fire Department for a maximum occupancy of 240, and the police reported more than 200 people present around midnight on several occasions.
The department conducted further research into the case, and lowered Guzano Rojo's legal limit to 82 people three weeks ago. Despite that restriction, in the early morning hours a few days later, one police officer stopped counting at 190 patrons.
Ward disputes that figure, saying there were only 85 in the establishment. He also indicates he has applied for permanent permission to increase his occupancy to 240 while trying to lower the noise volume from music.
That last step apparently impressed one police officer, who recently said, "I did not feel the business could or should be tagged with a notice of public nuisance."
Bridget Werchan, a seven-year resident of the neighborhood who lives close to the business, sees it differently. She says there are frequently loud and unruly people going by her house late at night. This problem will likely worsen in August, when a new state law allowing the sale of alcohol until 2 a.m. goes into effect.
"Its just terrible. Who wants to live down the street from that many people?" asks the mother of three young children.
Similar comments were heard back in the 1970s, when the Stray Cat bar held sway on the same property. Housed in an old, Greek-revival style church, the business sat next to residences, because in an attempt to save the building after the church lost its congregation, the City Council rezoned the land to allow a bar.
Problems between bar patrons and nearby residents immediately developed, with residents complaining of late-night noise and of having to pick up beer bottles from their yards. The conflicts continued until the building burned down under suspicious circumstances in 1983. Four years later, the city had the rotting remains removed.
While the structure may have disappeared, the commercial zoning remained, and a new business sprang up. Two Pesos restaurant was vehemently opposed by the neighborhood association, but because it had the proper zoning, the state granted it a liquor license. Problems occurred at first, but during the last several years, Two Pesos and its successors didn't generate many complaints.
Now comes Guzano Rojo's on the same site. Based on its short but colorful history, at Werchan's request, the state will review the liquor license.
That prospect doesn't concern Ward; "We haven't done anything wrong," is what he says he'll tell the Arizona liquor control board, adding that he wants to work with his neighbors so that they can co-exist.
Werchan, though, points to the police reports, neighborhood complaints, discrepancies on its application and patrons who reportedly take alcohol out of the business as reasons to revoke the liquor license. But if that's not possible, she offers a compromise.
"If it's kept to 82 patrons, I'm cool with that. But 200 or more, no way," she says.