Detroit Coney Grill

The orange awnings outside of Detroit Coney Grill were the subject a protracted fight between the City of Scottsdale and restaurant co-owners Dr. Merrill Stromer, left, and Dave Najor.

A face-off between the City of Scottsdale and an area restaurant has sparked a debate over whether the city’s stringent design standards are an asset to the city’s brand or simply an overbearing burden.

At issue are orange awnings installed last fall by Detroit Coney Grill, which opened its third Valley location in Scottsdale last year.

When the restaurant moved into Gateview Park shopping center at Indian Bend and Hayden Roads, it replaced tattered beige awnings with the orange ones that matched its overall branding as part of a $500,000 renovation.

But the restaurant failed to obtain city approval for the new color-scheme prior to installation and ultimately had an after-the-fact application go before the city’s Development Review Board in December before being denied, in part, by the board in January.

The DRB on a 6-1 vote approved the size and shape of the awnings but ruled that the restaurant must replace the orange color with teal or another color more consistent with the shopping center’s centers color scheme, which features mostly tan stucco with teal awnings and rooftops.

City Council upheld the DRB decision on a 5-2 vote in May.

But just days later, following public backlash, Randy Grant, the head of the city’s planning department, negotiated with business owner Dave Najor and came to an agreement to allow the majority of the orange awnings to remain.

Despite the agreement, the debate over Scottsdale’s design standards is not going away.

Scottsdale's development review board – which Mayor Jim Lane referred to as a "design review board" –  reviews architectural aspects and layouts of new developments and some proposed modifications to existing buildings.

Supporters argue that the existence of the DRB has led to higher-quality design in Scottsdale than other Valley cities.

Councilwoman Solange Whitehead, who voted against the orange color in May and as the Council’s representative on thr DRB in January, said “this is why visitors never fail to comment on Scottsdale’s out-of-the-ordinary beauty.” 

“Scottsdale’s commitment to open space and high design standard brings in the international tourists and retiring executives,” she said. “People all over the world identify Scottsdale as a luxury destination.”

But Najor pulled no punches, complaining that the entire process is overly-burdensome on small businesses.

“Hopefully no small business will ever have to go through the bureaucratic (expletive)…that we had to go through,” Najor said, arguing he was just trying to beautify an existing building.

Najor said the existing awnings on his location were in tatters and there was “no way” he would open the business in that state and that the restaurant received permission from shopping center owner Robert Ong Hing before installation.

The restaurateur was dinged by City Council and DRB for moving ahead with the awnings in fall 2019 and then for installing an additional awning prior to the vote in January.

 “And I also think this is a sad case in that it is happening during this time, but, in essence, the owner of the building acted without DRB approval,” Councilwoman Suzanne Klapp said. “And I think that’s certainly not what’s acceptable from the perspective of the city or the DRB.”

According to city staff, the Coney Grill pad – which is set off from the rest of the shopping center – had teal awnings from 1999 to 2018 that were replaced with beige awnings in 2019 without city approval.

Staff also cited city design rules which discourage tying a building’s aesthetics to a business’ brand.

“Buildings that derive their image primarily from applied treatments that express corporate identity are discouraged,” according to the city’s commercial design guidelines.

But Najor’s attorney Geoffrey Kercsmar argued before Council that the rules applied by the DRB were “arbitrary and capricious” and that a master sign program for the shopping center approved by the city in 2011 allowed for the integration of corporate logos and colors.

Klapp argued that the program applies only to signage and “does not translate to awnings; that’s a whole different animal.”

Other members of Council were more sympathetic to the business, though.

Councilman Guy Phillips, who served as Council’s representative on DRB in December when the board voted to delay the proposal to January, argued the new color was eye-catching and would draw in more business to the center, which has struggled with vacancies and turnover in recent years.

“It’s actually bringing in business to that old plaza,” Phillips said.

Phillips also chastised the city’s rules for punishing a small business as businesses struggled in the pandemic, stating “now is not the time to be doing this.”

Kercsmar said Detroit Coney Grill saw revenues drop 90 percent due to the pandemic.

Mayor Jim Lane, who also voted in favor of the failed effort to approve the orange awnings, said it was not just about the current state of the economy, though.

“In this case it’s not just a matter of sympathy,” said Lane, agreeing with Phillips’ point that the orange awnings may help attract more customers to a spot that has seen significant turnover.

But Whitehead said the applicant could have done more to reach an agreement with the city before the DRB made its final decision.

“I also reached out to DCG back in December,” Whitehead said. “I spend much of my time on Council working out kinks of applications like this one.”

Whitehead said she did not hear back from the applicant until recently.

“Perhaps we could have saved stress and money back in December but I think everyone is happy to have this resolved,”

But Najor said his issues extend back to when he was first launching the restaurant in summer 2019, well before the December DRB hearing, and that it takes far too long to move through the city processes.

According to Grant, the city’s planning director, design changes to buildings can be approved by city staff in some cases but larger changes are referred to the DRB at staff’s discretion.

Najor said the decision on whether a change can receive staff approval or must go to DRB is arbitrary. “There’s no standard; there’s no policy in place; there’s nothing,” he said.

Najor’s attorney argued that the DRB imposed unclear standards on Detroit Coney Grill that were not applied to other businesses throughout the city.

Najor pointed to examples throughout Scottsdale of restaurants with awnings colored to match their brands that do not match the larger color scheme of their shopping centers, including a Culver’s and Whataburger near 90th Street and Shea Boulevard and a McDonald’s at Indian School and Hayden Roads.

He argued that his small business was being treated differently than chain restaurants throughout the city.

Whitehead called the same McDonald’s on Indian School “the prettiest in the country” because it includes some design elements, such as a natural rock façade, to match its shopping center.

However, that McDonald’s also has yellow awnings that do not match any other part of the center.

The compromise allowed the business to keep the orange color by reducing the number of awnings.

“Based on the applicant’s willingness to reduce the number of awnings and therefore the dominance of the orange color on the west face of the building, I felt that a staff approval was justified and was not in conflict with the Council’s decision,” Grant said.

Najor said he still has plans to open up additional Detroit Coney Grills in Scottsdale, citing community support and other factors.

But, he said, the debacle has convinced him to be active in the upcoming city council and mayoral elections.

“I did say I want to take the high road for now, but I did say, come election time, I’m going to remind all small business owners… who was there to support small businesses?” Najor said.