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New Lives for Old Buildings

How one city is smoothing the way for adaptive reuse.

All over Phoenix, neighborhoods are re-energizing, one small business at a time. Locally owned, one-of-a-kind restaurants, shops, cafés and service providers give Phoenix a unique identity. Business owners welcome a steady stream of regulars through their doors and know many of their customers on a first-name basis. Though the economic slowdown persists, consumers are choosing to spend dollars locally, which helps employment and boosts sales tax revenues that fund basic city services.

Here at City Hall, we're well aware of the challenges that small businesses face when trying to remodel an existing building into a new use. It can be quite difficult to update a building and improve a site from decades past into a contemporary use that meets current development codes. Time and again, we encountered small-business owners who had invested time and financial resources into buying or leasing older or historic buildings, only to discover that the buildings they selected could not easily be converted to their intended purpose without adding substantial costs and time to the project. We wanted to find ways to help these small-business owners realize their vision and achieve success in the neighborhoods they'd chosen. By studying best practices and consulting with small business owners, artists, cultural, neighborhood and community organizations, we developed an adaptive reuse pilot program for downtown-area buildings that were up to 2,500 square feet in size and at least 25 years of age.

Our Development Services Department took the lead assisting and promoting the adaptive reuse of existing structures for new development. Maintaining safety and helping business owners reduce their time and costs were guiding priorities. The Adaptive Reuse Program proactively offers advice and support to small businesses seeking to convert homes and fire stations into restaurants, or warehouses into artist studios or art galleries.

In 2007, we established an Office of Customer Advocacy -- a one-stop shop within the Development Services Department -- and placed it in a visible first-floor City Hall location. Staffed by employees with extensive experience and knowledge about development, the OCA encourages small business owners to contact it early to understand requirements before committing to a building. "Our Office of Customer Advocacy is like a primary care physician," explains Deputy City Manager David Cavazos. "One staff person handles a small business owner's case and connects them to various city resources. When buildings are built new, it's easier to comply with existing requirements -- remodeling increases the challenges. We want to give people revitalization options besides knocking down buildings."

Development Services staff responded to the challenges frequently identified by customers, collaborating with a multi-department Adaptive Reuse Task Force to implement changes within the program's first 120 days. The task force was charged with creating innovative processes and policies, streamlining procedures, and amending codes to promote adaptive reuse. Its achievements resulted in significant customer cost and time savings by:

o Adopting the International Existing Building Code to provide relief from modern building code requirements while maintaining safety.

o Improving staff training and customer education by focusing on fire rating, structural analysis, plumbing, mechanical and accessibility requirements -- areas identified as priorities by customers. An Adaptive Reuse Manual is under development.

o Minimizing the application of code requirements by clarifying the definition of "change of occupancy" and by distinguishing between art spaces used for retail purposes versus gallery functions.

o Removing requirements for separate water meters and allowing use of the existing domestic line to connect new sprinkler systems.

o Collaborating with the Fire Department to ease fire sprinkler requirements for adaptive reuse projects that do not exceed 1,500 square feet and meet certain criteria.

o Assigning a fire protection engineer to review sprinklers, fire hydrants and access requirements in all adaptive reuse projects for the most efficient yet safe application. We now accept an evaluation report certifying the existence of minimum life safety requirements instead of requiring a full set of drawings for a building permit.

o Accelerating approval processes for historic preservation and zoning adjustment.

o Easing parking requirements when possible, which results in less paving, space savings onsite and reduced stormwater retention requirements.

o Allowing a facility that has not changed occupancy to be vacant for up to three years without requiring a new certificate of occupancy.

o Reducing the number of toilet-room fixtures needed in certain occupancies, allowing for unisex bathrooms.

o Eliminating the need for site improvements other than parking (landscaping, street lighting, setbacks, sidewalks) where projects include interior remodeling only. Existing driveways may remain without modification if they are not on an arterial or collector street.

Thanks to this innovative program, we have helped several small businesses establish themselves in neighborhoods where they actively contribute to the vibrancy of our community. We recently made the adaptive reuse program permanent and expanded the criteria to include properties citywide, and increased the eligible building size to 5,000 square feet. Many older buildings and strip centers will now benefit from this program. We continue to consult with all parties on new ways to make our processes easier, smoother and less expensive for our customers.

Frank Fairbanks was a GOVERNING contributor. He has served as city manager of Phoenix since 1990 and was named one of GOVERNING's Public Officials of the Year in 1994.
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