Totally Full-Circle

Downtown businesses being displaced by a proposed restaurant begin to move on

Erin Bradley doesn't know what the new year will bring for Preen, the vintage boutique she owns on Congress Street.

In late October, Bradley and her business partner, Emilie Marchand, got the news that they would be evicted from their storefront near Fifth Avenue to make room for a new restaurant and bar run by Kwang C. An, of Sakura fame.

Just keeping up with all of the alterations and other tasks that come with the business are tough enough, Bradley says. Trying to find a new location is something they'll have to work out later.

"We just decided to put it on the backburner and start focusing on our work again, doing what we do, and enjoy our space as well ... and kind of make decisions (around) the first of the year," she says.

The strip of storefronts—which included downtown's long-running artist collective, Dinnerware Artspace, as well as Metropolis Salon—will be replaced next year by a restaurant and bar called An Congress.

The spin on the development has been nothing less than disastrous for An and developer Scott Stiteler, who owns the property.

Stiteler, with his business partner Don Martin, had already been involved in a court battle to evict the Rialto Theatre Foundation from their offices earlier this year after a complex downtown development deal with the city fell apart.

Stiteler's shaky reputation only grew worse at an October press conference at which he and An announced their redevelopment plans.

The conference was interrupted by Metropolis owner Emery Nicoletti, who complained that he had to learn from a TV news reporter that he was being evicted from the space he had rented for 13 years.

The ensuing days were not happy ones for Stiteler and An. David Aguirre, manager of Dinnerware, put A-frame signs declaring "Bar Open" in front of each of the businesses being kicked out. The sidewalks ran pastel with chalked sayings like, "Art is dead, get drunk instead."

It wasn't long before protests expanded past the storefronts and onto the Internet. Within days, a Facebook group to boycott Stiteler and An gained more than 1,000 members.

Some voiced concerns about the cultural implications that came with eliminating the eclectic block, while others angrily pointed the finger at An.

The restaurateur, who sold Sakura in 2008 but still owns Great Wall China, says the negative reactions have been discouraging.

"You know, right now, honestly, my gut feeling (is) I want to pull out," he says. "I want to cancel everything. I want to pull out ... but I'm in too deep right now."

An says construction will begin in April, with an opening planned around Sept. 15, 2010.

"Right now, I've got enough money to retire," he says. "But I want to take a chance with my life a little bit for the last time. I want to take a chance. And I know that's going to (lead to) good things for Tucson."

With four months remaining until construction is set to get underway, the chalk protests have washed away, and many tenants have decided to move sooner rather than later.

In late November, Aguirre announced that Dinnerware gallery would be moving immediately.

"I realized I just wasn't feeling the inspiration," Aguirre says. "I told my interns, 'We're moving. We're moving in 48 hours.'"

Aguirre now plans to move Dinnerware—along with other galleries—into a warehouse on the corner of Toole and Stone avenues that was recently purchased by Ron Schwabe of Peach Properties, a downtown management firm.

Aguirre says that in the three years Dinnerware was located at Fifth Avenue and Congress Street, he worked closely with Peach Properties to bring in tenants like Central Arts Gallery and Rocket Gallery.

"All those art galleries that sprung up—we did that together," he says, adding that he knew the spaces were not permanent homes.

Dinnerware and Central Arts Gallery have moved to Citizens Warehouse, located at 44 W. Sixth St., while the warehouse at 1 E. Toole Ave. is renovated.

Nicoletti says he'll be finding a new home for Metropolis as well.

"We're picking up our toys and going home to the safety of the eastside, where our clientele is," he says. "But I'm not going to say it's an easy move for us, because I'm going to miss downtown."

Nicoletti says that despite being kicked out of his Congress Street location, he hopes An's new restaurant on Congress is successful.

"I hope it works. For us to leave and it not to work, that would be even worse ... so I wish them luck," he says. "And I think as bad as all the energy was, good things will happen."

Bradley has been talking with Stiteler about the possibility of keeping Preen open on the block, but she doesn't know if a deal can be struck. She notes that the changes now happening on Congress Street are just part of the cycle.

"Community comes and goes very fast," Bradley says. "When we first opened up the shop, we were (basically) the only people on this block except for The District and Sharks and Metropolis, and now it's totally full-circle—and it's only been two years."

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