Vociferous residents turn noses up at Scottsdale’s Rockbar patio renewal

Scottsdale City Council approved an outdoor dining license agreement for Rockbar in Old Town Scottsdale. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

An outdoor dining license agreement for Old Town Scottsdale establishment, Rockbar, has been approved by City Council, despite push-back from some residents and members of council.

On Tuesday, Dec. 11, Scottsdale City Council was presented with an outdoor dining license agreement with JE Southwest Group LLC, for their tenant Rockbar, at 4245 N. Craftsman Court. The agreement was not for operation of the bar and restaurant, but for their renewal of renting patio space on municipal land.

The item passed 5-2, with councilmembers Kathy Littlefield and David Smith dissenting.

The low-profile item garnered several public speakers who voiced their distaste with the type of establishment, arguing that such a facility has no place in Scottsdale. The item is a new license at a location that has been in place for 15 years.

Director of Public Works, Dan Worth, presented the details of the outdoor dining license agreement.

“The reason we’re doing a new license is because the original license has run its course. It was for a total of 15 years, that expires in January,” Mr. Worth explained.

The Rockbar’s patio is approximately 419 square feet, located in an alley near the city’s parking garage. Mr. Worth showed an image of the facility’s menu, which includes 9-inch Philly, meatball, Italian and French dip sandwiches; pizzas; flatbreads; and chicken wings, among other items.

Court Rich of Rose Law Group represented the Rockbar at the public meeting.

(graphic by city of Scottsdale)

Devil in the details

Mr. Worth noted in recent weeks the city has received communication from other property owners and businesses in the Craftsman Court area. They include:

  • Food service: the agreement requires the operation to be operated as a restaurant;
  • Other dining licenses in the area have been terminated;
  • Evaluation: new license includes $7.41 per square foot per year; and
  • The term of the license.

A restaurant is defined as a full-service kitchen preparing — not just heating or warming — entrées for individual customers; offers at least 10 entrées when the kitchen is open; and the kitchen is open at all times business is open, except may close one hour prior to business closing time.

The kitchen was installed in 2016, Mr. Worth said, adding the Rockbar previously operated under a license that didn’t require the kitchen until City Council amended their license.

“Council in 2016 approved an amendment that added this requirement. They built this kitchen in 2016 to comply with it,” Mr. Worth said.

The full-service kitchen presented to City Council via photograph shows a deli meat slicer, food preparation area, 650-degree oven, microwave and sink.

Mr. Rich added the operator of Rockbar spent $100,000 to build the kitchen at the request of City Council in 2016. He noted the oven cooks raw meat and pizzas, and was purchased at a cost of $11,000.

Mr. Worth says other businesses in the area have had their licenses terminated, and communication to the city expressed that the Rockbar should see the same fate.

Mr. Worth says the Upper Deck agreement was terminated for no cause, saying that the area was vacant for upwards of a year without a tenant using the dining license area. Secondly, Dos Gringos’ license was terminated for cause due to violations regarding unauthorized uses and the owner’s choice to decline to correct its issues.

As for the land-use evaluation, Mr. Worth says over 15 years, the city will receive $111 per square foot, and still owns the land. He noted this matches very closely to another property half a mile to the south.

The Rockbar has had zero code violations in the past year, and zero police violations reported in the past two years.

(Photo courtesy of city of Scottsdale)

Local scrutiny vs. beloved eatery

Frederika Ranucci spoke in opposition to the Rockbar, stating she owns property across from the establishment. She says the city staff report does not give a single good reason for renewing the license agreement, calling the report deficient, inadequate and misleading.

“It tells us there’s a restaurant parcel, that there are no adverse impacts and that there are many similar patios in the area — the problem is that this is completely false,” she said. “I can’t believe we pay city staff for this kind of duplicity.”

According to the city, there are 25 other outdoor dining patios in the Old Town area.

“Rockbar is not a restaurant — they are an event venue with loud, live rock and roll music and events, along with a bar with a series 6 liquor license,” Ms. Ranucci said.

“The second glaring omission, the report says nothing about Craftsman Court. By now I hope most of you have had a chance to visit the street, I think you’ll find it’s lovely and charming, with 95 percent of the business either specialty retail or personal service type-businesses — almost everyone catering to an upscale clientele — it’s not entertainment.”

She alleges city staff does not understand the meaning of “high quality.”

Ms. Ranucci says she’s loves the Craftmans Court street, where there have been businesses for 20 and 30 years.

“We don’t want to see the door once again opened to undesirable elements coming in and potentially ruining it. Those patios took eight years on my part and the hard work of others to actually get rid of them, and we’re looking at a 15-year lease here?” she said. “I hope that you reject this license and find a better way to encourage high quality if that is truly your intent.”

Sonnie Kirtley

Sonnie Kirtley, the chairman of Coalition of Greater Scottsdale used photos as evidence as to why Rockbar shouldn’t be granted a license renewal.

“For some of us, we go out for an evening; we do dining, and dining usually has sit-down furniture. On this particular patio, it is bar stools and bar tables. So the question comes then, how is it used? Because the lease agreement says dining, that’s a different definition,” Ms. Kirtley said.

“This is an evening one (photo) done recently — he’s opening a pack of cigarettes. It appears to be just drinking and smoking.”

Her photos circled ashtrays reportedly shone in the photos.

“The kitchen, oh come on. Compare that to the kitchens of other outside patio establishments. They have full menus, huge kitchens, full staffs, the dining has the correct furniture,” Ms. Kirtley said.

“One of our major problems in our town and for the future, we need to make some definitions here so it will assist our establishments as well so they know if they meet the criteria.”

South Scottsdale resident Kevin Maxwell says he frequents the Rockbar often, and enjoys their establishment.

Kevin Maxwell

“I present myself as an undesirable element, because I frequent this location quite a bit, and if I’m an undesirable element then I apologize to the other citizens of Scottsdale,” Mr. Maxwell said.

“As far as fine dining goes, is Rockbar a fine dining establishment? Absolutely not. Do they have tablecloths and white linens? Absolutely not. Just because they have tabletops that you sit up in high chairs, and sit up at a bar that serves food outside — that’s perfectly fine with me. I think that’s a restaurant every day of the week.”

Mr. Maxwell says if others want to scrutinize their kitchen equipment and menu, that’s fine, but he can attest to the quality of their food.

“They serve delicious food, I know that, I’m in there all the time,” he said. “Yeah, you can probably stalk the place for a while and find a time when the patio’s vacant and there’s no food there, take a picture of that and present that as evidence of not being a restaurant — I know when I’m there everybody is eating.”

David Smith (file photo)

A perfectly good business owner

Following several public comments, Councilman David Smith recalled when council discussed the Rockbar in 2016.

“I think, (the intent), years ago, was to improve the sense of quality of life, to improve the attractiveness of our area, and all of us had a vision of what outdoor dining would be like: People sitting at, someone described it, the French-cafe-kind-of-setting having dinner and drinks,” Mr. Smith said, noting that he finds it odd city staff had to give a definition for a restaurant.

“That’s odd that we would feel necessary to do that because I think all of us in layman’s terms, we know what a restaurant is. We know a restaurant normally has an oven, we know a restaurant normally has a stove-top, it has a grill, dishwashers, dishes. All kinds of things we don’t see here. What we see here is a pizza oven and a microwave and a small sink.”

Mr. Smith says by definition, the city requires a restaurant to have 10 entrées, and he doesn’t consider a pizza crust with toppings to be an entrée.

“We have in mind what we want to promote of outdoor dining in the city, and that’s the only reason we talked about this facility. To some of us, it didn’t fit the image,” he said.

“We demanded in the new ordinance that it had to be on-site food preparation. That begs the question, what does preparation mean? Does that mean pulling it out of the freezer and sticking it into the microwave or is it something a bit more complicated that we normally associate with a restaurant? We also said no heating and warming, which seems to be a lot of what goes on in this particular facility.”

Mr. Smith says in his mind, nothing has really changed with the Rockbar since the last time it was discussed in 2016.

“From my point of view, I’m not trying to disparage their business at all, I’m sure it’s run honorably and may be without violations — that’s not the issue. The issue is, am I as the custodian of city property on behalf of the citizens, am I feeling comfortable with the fact that this is the image I want to promote for the city?” Mr. Smith explained.

“This doesn’t fit my image, this type of food preparation doesn’t fit my definition of a full service kitchen, and I didn’t vote for this in 2016 and I won’t tonight.”

Mayor Jim Lane followed Mr. Smith’s comments, describing a time not long ago when visitors wouldn’t go near Old Town Scottsdale.

Jim Lane

“Even before the Great Recession, one of the things we were wrestling with 14 years ago, was what could we do to activate a lot of abandoned spaces?” Mr. Lane said.

“There was a desire to activate our streets somehow to get people to be coming downtown. Our tourists avoided the place like a plague. Frankly, if we promoted it to have them come downtown, and there was nothing going on, they not only didn’t come back but they told at least 100 other people that there was no reason to go downtown.”

Mr. Lane admittedly says there was an effort to activate the area with outdoor patios and cafes to gain attraction downtown.

“But what we’re deciding right now and tonight, is an owner who is operating within — by all indications — our ordinances, our laws and frankly our stipulations. I haven’t heard anything really to the contrary, really, besides maybe some pictures where somebody wasn’t eating,” Mr. Lane said.

“I think it’s important for us to remember whether I like it, or whether we collectively here decide ‘you know what we don’t like to do that anymore, so now we’re going to do something to harm that business person who has otherwise abided by the law.’ I think it’s wrong, and just not what we’re in the business of doing.”

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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