Old buildings pose costly challenges to downtown Pasco business owners

Leo Morales was pleasantly surprised Aug. 26, the day his Havana Café reopened in downtown Pasco after a three-month closure.

A steady stream of customers came in for lunch, drawn by his post on social media. It was more traffic than he dared dream and validated his decision, for now, not to move Havana Café to Kennewick or Richland.

Morales, a Cuban American and U.S. citizen, has struggled to keep Havana Café open since it debuted in early 2019 at 404 W. Lewis St.

Zoning issues, the Covid-19 pandemic and fire codes have prevented him from fully realizing his dream of a restaurant with a backroom bar for special events.

The most recent closure stemmed from what he calls an unfounded complaint about illegal construction and occupancy violations – supposedly happening on a day he said Havana Café was closed. He also has been hindered by sprinklers.

His building, constructed in 1940, doesn’t have them and without sprinklers, fire codes restrict what he can do.

Morales isn’t alone. Downtown Pasco has a small but vocal community of business owners who found the perfect spot to open businesses, only to run into sprinkler requirements and zoning rules that don’t always allow them to do what they want.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced closures and occupancy restrictions, cutting off revenue that might have paid for upgrades. But the pandemic just aggravated the challenge, said Morales, who frequently attends Pasco City Council meetings in search of zoning relief.

In his most recent visit, Sept. 7, he implored the city to find money for a loan program, saying that efforts such as the Peanuts Park and Pasco Farmers Market updates will bear little fruit if there’s no place for visitors to grab coffee or a meal. If he vacates his building, it will stay empty.

Morales and other business owners struggling with the challenges of older buildings have found a friendly ear in Mike Gonzalez, the city’s new director of economic development.

“I know how frustrated business owners are because I’ve been there with them trying to work through this since the day I arrived,” he said.

He’s working to be more transparent about the limitations of operating in old buildings and how zoning and building codes determine what types of businesses can safely operate. He wants would-be entrepreneurs to know whether the buildings they’re looking at are suited for what they want to do.

A new business portal, being developed with the Pasco Chamber of Commerce, is set to debut in 2022 and aims to help new and existing businesses understand the rules.

But sprinklers are a thornier challenge. They are required by the International Fire Code, and underscore the potential catastrophes that result when fires break out in old buildings.

A 2003 nightclub fire in Rhode Island, touched off by pyrotechnics detonated during a concert at the Station nightclub, killed 100 and injured more than 200 others. Its legacy changed fire code enforcement.

Gonzalez said the city is proactive about sprinklers, informing business owners of the requirements before they open. But it is interested in helping too.

He confirmed the city is evaluating if federal rules allow it to use American Rescue Plan money – the millions in federal pandemic relief the city received – to offer low-cost loans or grants to help business owners with the expense.

Maria Mendoza, who opened Amor A Mexico at 528 W. Clark St. in August 2019, is waiting impatiently.

She knew she needed to install sprinklers when she bought the 5,000-square-foot building. Like Morales, she intends to operate a restaurant and side area for karaoke and special events – the latter requires sprinklers.

She wanted to use revenue from the business to install them – $90,400 is the quote she received. The pandemic forced shutdowns, limited her ability to reopen or to even offer to-go food. The revenue she counted on evaporated.

As of September, she was operating in the red, baffled that a prominent, well-placed building in the heart of downtown could be such a challenge. She attempted to hold outdoor events, but complaints from neighbors forced her to stop.

“It’s a really nice building. I have a lot of parking. I own the whole block. It’s downtown Pasco. I invested a lot of money into fixing it up nice. That’s the only thing I would need, sprinklers, to get this place up,” she said.

Morales said his landlord at Havana Café is willing to install sprinklers, if the city will create a loan program for what is expected to cost $50,000.

“The back (room) will help us stay alive,” he said.

Lucy Gonzalez, who opened her business in the former Library tavern downtown, too hopes the city will help with the sprinkler costs.

She paid $59,000 for the 1940s-built building in a deal that recorded Dec. 23, 2019, before Covid-19 was a known threat. Lucy Gonzalez, who spent 16 years in health care, cleaned it up and opened it as Tipsy’s.

It is in the city’s C2 commercial zone, which is restrictive and together with the building’s lack of sprinklers has kept her from developing the business she sees as a safe, clean gathering spot where people can eat, decompress and go home.

She plowed her savings – $150,000 – into the venture but ran up against the limitations of the C2 zoning immediately. She learned she could not put a sandwich board to advertise on the sidewalk or put bistro tables outside. She has pleaded with the city to relax the rules or change the zone.

“We found out quickly we can’t do that because we were in a C2 zoning, which we were not aware of and we weren’t told. We never guessed that as new buyers that we had to investigate the zoning we were in. We thought when we purchased a building, we were free to move forward,” she said.

When Covid-19 shut down the business, she inquired about putting in a window for to-go orders. The zoning prevented that too.

“All these ideas that we were coming up with, that we were trying to reinvent, making it easier for the public to come to us, were all shut down because of the zoning we were in,” she said.

She created Tipsy’s as a family legacy, something she could leave to her children.

“I’ve put my retirement and my savings into it. I’ve left nothing for them if I end up closing because of all the little things I can’t do because of the zoning we’re in,” she said.

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