Conspire lacks correct credentials, will remove skate ramp as legal precaution

Vegan cafe and art space Conspire is operating without a proper certificate of occupancy, which is required to verify that the building complies with city of Phoenix regulations for a business. (Chloe Brooks/DD)

By Chloe Brooks and Jessica Zook

A cooperative vegan cafe and art space embroiled in a lawsuit and operating without a proper certificate of occupancy is removing its skate ramp at Fifth and Garfield streets.

Jason Blakely, program manager for the Phoenix Office of Customer Advocacy, said Conspire does not currently have the proper certificate of occupancy required to operate a business in that location. Because Conspire is located in what was originally a residential neighborhood, a certificate of occupancy is required to verify that certain aspects of the building — accessibility, restroom facilities and exits, to name a few — comply with the city’s regulations for business buildings.

Blakely said the building is currently registered with the city as a residential duplex.

Conspire co-manager Nathaniel Burns said the city has not informed him of the missing credentials, and that he has been working with the city for some time to secure proper certification.

“There’s a few things that need to be corrected before the license is in effect,” Burns said. He added that the certificate is “pending.”

Burns later denied an affiliation with Conspire but would not comment further on the subject.

The city is unable to find any documentation of a pending certificate for Conspire’s address — either in the computer system or on microfilm.

Julie Pearman, records supervisor for the Phoenix Planning and Development Department, said no changes have been made to the address’ license status “in the last 20 or so years.”

When approached about the discrepancy, Burns was uncommunicative.

“Some things are ambiguous,” he said, and he refused to comment further.

Blakely said although the city has not yet taken action, a notice of violation will be sent to the property owner within the next few days. In such a case, the owner should work with the city toward a change of occupancy status for the location, Blakely said.

“Lots of small-business owners are not really familiar with what the process is for getting the right permits,” Blakely said. “So we really try to work with them on things like that. We are in place to assist them with the process.”

Unlicensed business operations are not the only issues Conspire faces. The art space opened a skate ramp to the public in November 2011 as a rotating mural project but will soon remove it due to insurance liabilities brought to landlord Martin Lieberman’s attention during a recent lawsuit.

The ramp became an issue after a visiting artist was bitten in the face by a dog at the December 2011 First Friday event, Burns said, citing an article found on Conspire’s Facebook page. The lawsuit against Lieberman, former Conspire manager Joey Grether and Artlink, the nonprofit organization in charge of the First Fridays Art Walks, alerted Lieberman’s insurance provider to the risk of the skateboard ramp.

“Attention was drawn. We were under a microscope,” Burns said. “One lawsuit happens, and insurance companies start looking deeper into liabilities.”

Burns said the landlord’s insurance does not cover accidents associated with the ramp.

“Skateboarding is notoriously dangerous; potentially deadly,” Burns said. “It’s just not considered a safe activity.”

Because he is renting the facility, Burns has not looked into purchasing insurance that would cover the ramp.

Conspire volunteer Jimmy Dillow said the ramp’s removal is intended to prevent further lawsuits.

“If we don’t take the ramp down and somebody gets hurt, something like this (lawsuit) could happen again,” Dillow said.

Dillow said the ramp sees most of its use from high-school students after school hours. Usually anywhere from three to five skaters use the ramp each time.

Blakely said the city requires skate ramps to meet the same guidelines as accessory structures, but does not grant permits for them. Although the ramp is the liability of the property owner, it must still meet city zoning requirements, Blakely said.

“We consider skate ramps essentially playground equipment, so they’re exempt from a permit,” Blakely said. “The only thing we would really have a problem with is if the ramp was dangerously high.”

At this point, Conspire does not seem to be in a hurry to remove the ramp. It hosted a live-music event Saturday as a send off for the ramp, but managers have not decided when they will remove it. The ramp was still in use Thursday.

Conspire’s current legal situation is a departure from its initial purpose. The business was founded by Joey Grether, spearhead of Fillmore Creative; Lisa Jacobs, owner of Sticker Club Girl; and Jobot owner John Sagasta. Known as the Collectively Operated Local Artists Boutique before it moved to Roosevelt Row, the business was inspired by a cooperative gallery in Flagstaff, Ariz., in which Jacobs was previously involved.

“Our vision was to have an art gallery that was also a coffee shop,” Jacobs said. “Over the three years that we all worked together, it evolved into a different space. It became a community center.”

Jacobs said the business’s name changed when a new group of people joined the cooperative. They picked the name Conspire because it means to work together and unite.

“I feel really proud that there was a local space where people could sell their stuff — a place for people to get started in the community,” Jacobs said.

Despite the harmonious name, Conspire encountered both leadership and financial difficulties. The cooperative’s management system presented challenges because it allowed all the artists to vote on decisions, which was difficult when working with 10 to 20 people. And although all the artists contributed money to the space, fewer artists meant less funding for the cooperative to expand and grow. The business’s financial stress increased after the explosion of First Fridays, when Conspire began having issues with theft.

Jacobs left the cooperative in October 2009.

“The vision changed as new people came in, and I wanted to focus on some solo projects,” she said.

Conspire has since evolved into something different from Jacobs’s original plans.

“It’s gone in a totally different direction than I ever envisioned,” Jacobs said. “I don’t know if it has to do with me leaving or the economy.”

Jacobs said Conspire avoided legal trouble while she was there.

“We did what we needed to do to be legal,” she said. “We did what we needed to and if we found out we were doing something wrong, we did what we could to fix it.”

The managers worked closely with the property owner while Jacobs was at Conspire, she said.

“We ran everything by him during the beginning,” Jacobs said. “John (Sagasta) had the closest relationship with the landlord. He’s definitely supportive of what’s going on down here.”

Now, however, it seems that communication has suffered. Burns’s co-manager Amanda Langham said Burns speaks with the landlord only once or twice a month and almost always over the telephone. She and Burns became co-managers at the beginning of last month when Grether stepped down — due, Jacobs said, to hampered creativity and the lawsuit against him.

Attempts to contact Grether through Jacobs were not returned.

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  1. So we have a Vegan – Art Space – Cafe – Cooperative operating in the arts district overlay without a COA. On top of no COA they have the audacity to put up a skate board ramp. It sounds evil. Evil I tell you. Evil Vegan – Skating – Artists in the arts district. OH MY !!- We need to get some tar / feathers and run these people out of town! OR maybe we should encourage diversity in the arts overlay?

  2. Arts zoning overlays like Phoenix 0669 are used in an attempt to make neighborhoods better, for everyone. Its a successful model used in many cities. Does anyone remember this area prior to the overlay? It was not a great place unless you liked hard drugs, gangs and people selling themselves for money. I’ll take Vegan – skating – artists trying to run a cooperative over crack houses any day. So they may lack a piece of paper that makes it legit. The code kind of states that they may not even need that. The important thing to me is – are they trying to make the neighborhood better? Are they living up the the social contract implied by the overlay and the overlay philosophies?

  3. What dirty journalism. Skewed facts and blowing minor events out of proportion. You should add this “story” to your portfolio and send it to FOX news, they can always use a reporter of your caliber. Hope this gets you the Pulitzer you dream of, hard hitting stuff, hard hitting stuff indeed.