Paradise Repurposed

For one restaurant green means more than just the bill.

By Kristin Glocksien

Our Iconic Window

A drive through the Central Corridor of downtown Phoenix today is a lot different than even five years ago. The adapting of old buildings for new life (adaptive reuse) has been flourishing in Phoenix more than any other Valley city of late. And for those mid-century minded (read obsessed), the restaurant Hula’s Modern Tiki on Central Avenue just south of Camelback is an atomic age lover’s paradise.

Owner, and Phoenix native, Dana Mule, spent a considerably frustrating time looking for the perfect location to open his Hawaiian-inspired restaurant, until he finally found the quirky building along Central Avenue. “We [Mule and partners Chris and Craig Delaney] fell in love with the building, and wanted to ensure that we were respectful of the architectural fabric of uptown Phoenix,” Mule said.

Conveniently located along the light-rail, Hula’s Modern Tiki opened in September 2009 and business has been booming ever since. “Given the current state of the local and national economy, we have been very blessed to see our business slowly grow since we opened,” Mule said. The building located at 4700 N. Central Ave. used to house Heap Big beef Sandwiches in the 1960s and, after that, a flower shop. According to Mule, the building, which has a rather peculiar hexagonal exterior, is much more visibly stimulating than it was in the ‘60s.

“The original a-frame structure pays subtle homage to the Polynesian, island culture, and the classic tiki bars and restaurants of the ’40′s and ’50′s,” Mule said. With the added touches of Polynesian-tropical-island-influenced cuisine and a modern, mid-century take on design, Hula’s Modern Tiki is a restaurant for all ages. “As soon as you step into Hula’s, you feel the renewed spirit and energy we imbued into the original structure by turning it into something relevant and modern without losing the [building’s] original integrity,” Mule said. A combination of great food and unique, cool cocktails in a hip casual, urban atmosphere defines Hula’s and is what makes it unique in Metro Phoenix. “By taking an iconic, yet ailing mid-century building and turning it into a new, vibrant, urban space for the people of this community to gather and interact,” Mule said.

After a $1 million renovation, Mule doubled the size of the building to 2,900 square feet and adding seating for up to 125 people at an indoor bar and an outdoor patio area. Adaptive reuse is the process of adapting old structures for new purposes. Since many old buildings outlive their original purposes, adaptive reuse allows these buildings to bring new life to the community while maintaining their historic value.

Mule believes that an adaptive reuse program allows the city to “generate jobs and revenue by opening new business, while still maintaining the integrity, texture and history of Phoenix’s original architecture. The city’s Adaptive Reuse Program began as a pilot program in April 2008 and has since become one of the most comprehensive of its kind in the nation. The program “offers development guidance, expedited time frames and reduced costs to customers looking to “recycle” older buildings for new business uses” as stated on the City of Phoenix website. Mule explains that because Hula’s was renovated at the start of the adaptive reuse program, he encountered some difficulties. Councilman Tom Simplot, however, is a “huge supporter” of the program and “was instrumental in helping us overcome some key issues related to it.” The idea of adaptive reuse “preserves our history, contributes to economic vitality, promotes building effort and creates a more vibrant downtown neighborhood,” the website says.

Before construction

Since opening Hula’s Modern Tiki, Mule has had first-hand experience watching downtown Phoenix become more revitalized. “This community/area of Phoenix is the only place to be if you want that hip, diverse, urban-cultural vibe,” Mule said. “The light rail is a boon as well, since it makes uptown accessible in a way that it never was before.” Continuing its outreach to sustainability, two electric charging stations were just installed along the buildings west side. Visitors can eat and charge at the same time. “My hope is that new business will continue to open here, perpetuating the process of revitalizing the entire Central Corridor, and bringing so many of these great, old structures back to life,” Mule said.

Hula’s Modern Tiki is using adaptive reuse to their advantage and has started a trend that could lead to a much needed ongoing revitalization of Phoenix that will continue to make the central corridor the envy of the Valley.