How Fed Up Business Owners And A Persistent City Worker Transformed Phoenix's Melrose District

By  Christina Estes
Published: Sunday, March 4, 2018 - 8:08pm
Updated: Monday, March 5, 2018 - 4:18pm

More than 150 vendors took part in the Melrose on 7th Avenue Street Fair.
(Photo by Christina Estes – KJZZ)

An estimated 15,000 people strolled along a busy stretch of 7th Avenue in Phoenix last Saturday. The road was closed to traffic between Indian School and Camelback roads for the annual Melrose on 7th Avenue Street Fair. But most people attending had no idea how a small, determined group made it happen.

Melrose District History

To fully appreciate the Melrose on 7th Avenue Street Fair with its music stage, classic car show, 14 food trucks and 150 vendor booths, you have to go back 16 years to the first fair.

“We had the six tables in the middle of the intersection at Glenrosa and 7th Avenue and we’d closed down the street just like we did this time,” said Lisa Huggins-Hubbard with Phoenix’s Neighborhood Services Department. “Nothing like that had ever been done outside the downtown area.”

As patrol cars blocked 7th Avenue, media helicopters swirled overheard reporting some kind of police activity and advising people to avoid the area.

“My mother called me and said, ‘Are you OK? There’s this horrible thing that happened at Glenrosa and 7th Avenue,’” Huggins-Hubbard recalled. “And, I said that horrible thing’s me. We’re doing a street fair out here with 50 people out here.”

The first street fair came after the Seventh Avenue Merchants Association formed. David Cook is a former board president. Twenty years ago, he said a handful of business owners became fed up with vacant lots, run down properties and questionable characters.

“They just said, ‘Hey, you know, the city’s not helping us at the moment. We’ve got to take back our businesses and take back our street,’” he said.

That’s where Lisa Huggins-Hubbard comes in again. Back then she was in her 20s, brimming with energy and new to city government.

“There was resistance,” she said. ”I had a lot of people very early in my career that said, ‘Why are you doing that? Why are you doing all that work there? That’s how people get out of town.’”

She kept pushing — and so did the Seventh Avenue Merchants Association. They received grants and partnered with ASU’s School of Architecture to add shade canopies, art panels and brand the Melrose District. 

“A lot of people will call this neighborhood the gayborhood,” Cook said. “The businesses here have welcomed everybody here and that’s part of the uniqueness about the mile here is being so diverse.”

The one-mile commercial corridor, once a hub for pawn shops and repair shops, now attracts people looking for antiques, mid-century furniture and vintage clothing. The transformation required the merchants association and Lisa Huggins-Hubbard to push again. This time they created what’s called an overlay district which established development standards.

Lisa Huggins-Hubbard (right, wearing hat) has spent 20 years working with business owners and residents in the Melrose District.
(Photo by Christina Estes – KJZZ)

“It was a huge deal because it was never done before at the city,” Higgins-Hubbard said. “The community said here are the kinds of businesses we want, here’s what we don’t want and here’s what we’ll support.”

One Business Owner’s Story

Support for local businesses is as strong as the double espressos at Copper Star Coffee.

“You know, there are other neighborhoods in Phoenix,” Bill Sandweg said. “This is a community.”

He and his wife live in the community and opened the coffee shop nearly a dozen years ago.

“We’ve spent $1.7 million on wages, generated over a $1 million to local goods and services,” he said. “You look at other businesses getting tax breaks for building a stadium or bringing jobs, you know, I haven’t gotten a nickel of tax breaks, but here’s real economic impact I’ve given to this community.”

Sandweg has been called the poster child for adaptive reuse. He encountered plenty of challenges as he worked to get city approval to turn a greasy transmission shop into a gourmet coffee house.

“So, now they’ve really streamlined a lot of these processes and made it a little more business friendly. I guess I was one of the last to go through under the old system,” he said with a laugh.

He can laugh now — and take satisfaction in knowing his success has helped attract more businesses. Soon, a vintage furniture showroom will open in a building that once housed a laundry service and dry cleaner and a restaurant and wine bar will replace a drive-through liquor store.

“There’s a couple folks who caught me today who said we want to move our business on this street,” Huggins-Hubbard said.

It’s not something she could have imagined when the first fair led to confusing media reports.

“You know everyone will laugh and tell you this is my baby,” she said. “And, it is.”

She knows a 16-year-old isn’t technically a baby, but like any proud mother, it’s her prerogative to call it what she wants.

The first Melrose on 7th Avenue Street Fair included about six tables and 50 attendees, according to Lisa Huggins-Hubbard with Phoenix's Neighborhood Services Department.
(Photo by Christina Estes – KJZZ)

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