Landmark ‘60s center due for huge remake

By Janie Magruder

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If the shabby buildings and empty storefronts at Danelle Plaza in South Tempe could talk, they’d share 60 years of vivid stories and rich memories about a cowboy bar-turned-iconic tap room, a cutting-edge music scene, Mom and Pop shops, and a link to JFK.

They’d remember a nightclub hosting The Go-Go’s and the Meat Puppets near a restaurant owned by the Cervantes family whose stellar generational reputation for mariachi music prompted an invitation to perform for President John F. Kennedy during his visit to Phoenix in 1961.

They’d look back on utility customers paying their bills at the temporary Tempe Municipal Complex by day, and hundreds of teenagers cramming at night into a no-alcohol venue to hear local garage bands inspired by the “British invasion.”
And revisit an Italian deli, an appliance repair store named after a guy called Walt and a hip record store.

But as with many strip malls that over the years have been edged out by big box retailers, shopping malls and chain restaurants, Danelle Plaza has fallen on hard times. The 14-parcel on the southwest corner of Mill and Southern avenues, recognizably the longtime home of Yucca Tap Room, today is mostly vacant.

Rodney Hu, president of Hu Commercial Properties
Rodney Hu, president of Hu Commercial Properties. Wrangler News photo by Andrew Lwowski

A group of developers is hoping to breathe new life into the site, however, and the Tempe City Council recently authorized staff to begin negotiations on its redevelopment.
For one of the developers, Rodney Hu, president of Hu Commercial Properties, the project is an extension of a promise he made to his father, the late Peter Hu. From 1972 until his death in 2006, Peter Hu was the proprietor of Yucca Tap Room, Danelle Plaza’s anchor.

“He told me before he passed that the big thing is to keep the Yucca Tap Room going,” said Hu, a Tempe native, ASU graduate and the plaza’s majority property owner.
“But I want to do more than that.”

A plaza for everyone

Built in the 1960s when much of the surrounding land was agricultural but for a small college down the street, Danelle Plaza originally was envisioned as a modern, suburban, freeway-oriented commerce center. A new freeway, the Superstition, was coming in a mile to the south of the plaza, and I-10 was just a few miles to the west.

In 1963, Danelle Plaza was advertised as “the heart of Tempe’s new downtown,” and a year later, Byron’s Town House, a dining/cocktail lounge opened with music from a Hammond organ and free orchids for the ladies. The Tempo Ballroom was launched in 1966, and a country bar, Frank’s Yucca Lounge, soon followed.

Tempe operated a temporary City Hall and Municipal Complex at Danelle Plaza from 1969 to 1971 while new government facilities were being built, and myriad small businesses came and went over the years. From auto glass, hair salons and macrame to record stores, tattoo parlors and taxidermy, the center had something for everyone.

Notable restaurants included Byblos Mediterranean Restaurant, open for 36 years until 2020 when it closed due to COVID-19, and Capistrano’s Italian Delicatessen, whose owners opened a bakery and eventually moved their enterprise to South Phoenix.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, an eclectic music scene flourished, with punk and new wave coming to The Star System and Merlin’s (now Q & Brew, home to reputedly the oldest pool hall in Tempe). Other small live stages popped up around the plaza, and Yucca Tap Room expanded from its country roots to offer local alternative music. The opening of Cervantes Mexican Restaurant in 2000 brought live mariachi music to the plaza.

“Like the Cervantes family, there’s so much more about Danelle Plaza to know,” said Tempe native Rob Moore. “If you build the wrong thing here, you’re going to undermine its authenticity.”

Cost pegged at $60 million

Several efforts by the city of Tempe and various developers to revitalize the well-placed corner have failed. Plans more than 10 years ago extend Tempe’s street car south on Mill Avenue to connect to neighborhoods and downtown didn’t materialize, leaving the city with a 3-acre parcel at the plaza on which it had intended to build a park-and-ride.

But new plans for a $50 million, mixed-use project now are in the making, led by Hu, Desert Viking Development and Guina Affiliated Developers.

Their aim is to preserve the site’s culture, improve existing mid-century construction and attract a rich array of small businesses, artists and musicians, Hu said.

“There’s never been a time before when I felt that everybody was aligned with the city, the developers and the older property owners, to do a big project like this,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do to get everyone to see eye-to-eye, but I’m hopeful.”

The developers want to create spaces for historically and culturally significant food and beverage venues, live performances and community activities and gathering spaces.

They envision a variety of pedestrian-friendly retail space to connect with the surrounding neighborhoods. And although it’s early in the process, the plans propose a mix of affordable residential, perhaps including senior assisted living and workforce housing.

Since taking over Yucca Tap Room in the early 2000s, Hu has expanded it to include Electric Bat Arcade, with a cool tiki bar, and Bao Chow, featuring Asian fusion cuisine. The center of the bar has a stage and dance floor to accommodate live music, comedy acts and other events several nights a week. On the other side are pool tables and shuffleboard, and every kind of beer from Coors Light to Pumpkin Spice Yeti.

Hu also negotiated with the city to light and display the works of local artists in the windows of a condemned space south of Yucca Tap Room. And he has provided incubator space for micro businesses to learn and grow.

“What we are trying to do is help give small businesses the opportunity to do something in Tempe that they may not have the ability to do in other cities,” he said.

The developers have engaged residents in neighborhoods surrounding Danelle Plaza to obtain their input. One of them is Neil Miller, who lives in the Brentwood-Cavalier neighborhood to the east and is the chair of its association.

“It’s been a real, sort of weight around the city’s neck,” said Miller, an attorney who has lived in Tempe for 30 years. “What I hope is that we don’t get a Mill Avenue makeover — a lot of high rises and nothing of interest.”

“I like the adaptive reuse idea of not ripping everything out, but of preserving and adapting the older buildings, like at Melrose on 7th in Phoenix,” she said.

“I’d like it to honor the history of Danelle Plaza, Cervantes, the deli, and make it affordable for smaller businesses to be there.”

A year ago, “hugely invested and motivated” residents of the surrounding neighborhoods got involved to defeat the plan to build higher-density housing at Danelle Plaza, Miller said. She’s optimistic their involvement will make a difference again this time.

“It takes people in the city standing up and saying, ‘This is what we want,’” she said. For Hu, it’s both personal and professional. “This is a family legacy project that I want to see through,” he said. “When we’re all finished, hopefully, the residents of Tempe, artists, people who have supported us throughout the years feel proud, that this is still a place that they can call home.”

To read more about the history of Danelle Plaza visit the danelleproject.org.

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