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Proposals, Please 

Plans to save the Steinfeld Warehouse remain on track—but some are not convinced that's a good thing

Plans to rehabilitate and re-occupy the historic Steinfeld Warehouse are back on track after a brief derailment.

But once restored, will the building be affordable for artist tenants?

Last October, the City Council approved requests for proposals (RFPs) on four buildings in Tucson's downtown Warehouse District: the Steinfeld building; the Citizens Transfer warehouse across west Sixth Street from the Steinfeld; and the structures at 191 and 197 E. Toole Ave., the former currently occupied by Skrappy's youth collective.

The RFPs called for selling the two buildings on Toole and the Steinfeld warehouse to a "nonprofit arts-related organization" for "arts-related" uses. The Citizens building would be turned over to a similar group to be the master leaseholder.

After the City Council approved the process, all that remained before the RFPs went out for public response was for the city to finalize some property-transfer paperwork with the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), which owned the buildings.

Then Steve Kozachik, the new Ward 6 councilman, got involved. On Jan. 5, he asked that the RFPs not be issued until the new City Council could discuss them, a proposal the rest of the elected officials approved.

"I wanted to open up the process as a way to maximize our revenue," Kozachik says.

But then Kozachik changed his mind. "I'm not interested in bumping the kids from Skrappy's," he remarked early last week. "I'd be an asshole if I did."

As a result, at the Jan. 20 meeting, the City Council directed the RFP process to proceed.

The city hopes to get $91,000 for the Skrappy's building, and $160,000 for the structure next door. The Citizens building will be leased for around $4,000 per year, with the vacant Steinfeld Warehouse sold for $1.

The catch behind that $1 price tag: It could take $1.5 million or more to renovate the Steinfeld Warehouse into an acceptable condition for occupancy. Built in 1907, the structure is in need of numerous repairs.

Despite the high rehab costs, City Councilwoman Regina Romero defends the decision for the city to acquire the Steinfeld building from ADOT. "We thought about bookends on Toole Avenue," she explains of the choice, "and looked at leveraging private investment in between."

Despite the high rehab price, Marvin Shaver, president of the Warehouse Arts Management Organization (WAMO), believes the Steinfeld Warehouse can be restored, with rents kept reasonable.

"The rents (artists) are paying now (to ADOT) are unrealistic," Shaver says of low rents at other downtown warehouses owned by the state. "They'll have to go up but can still be affordable. ... I'm comfortable WAMO can do the (Steinfeld) renovations necessary and keep rents affordable, which means below market rates."

David Aguirre was the master leaseholder for the Steinfeld Warehouse until he and other artists occupying the building were forced to leave in 2007. He is also the longtime manager of the Citizens building and the warehouse immediately north of it.

Aguirre agrees the Steinfeld building can be restored based on the revenue stream that future rents would generate. He's developed a possible layout for the huge structure that would include 30 artist studios, a café, performance space and three galleries.

"It would be a higher concentration (of tenants than before)," Aguirre suggests, "and the entire use of the basement." If that's done, he believes rents for the property can be kept affordable.

Congressman Raúl Grijalva and Councilwoman Romero are also exploring other funding options for the Warehouse District. In a December letter, Grijalva outlined several possible federal revenue sources while writing: "My office is prepared to request additional funds to assist in making the Historic Warehouse Arts District a reality."

Grijalva's Washington, D.C., office confirms that he will sponsor a congressional earmark to obtain money to rehabilitate the Steinfeld Warehouse. However, the city must submit information supporting the request by the end of February in order to have it considered.

Irrespective how that effort turns out, Shaver says WAMO plans on submitting responses on all four RFP properties. "We'd be an umbrella organization," he explains.

For his part, Aguirre indicates he'll probably work with WAMO on its Steinfeld proposal—but he adds that he'll submit his own response on the Citizens building.

Aguirre says he wants to include the warehouse just north of the Citizens building in his response to the RFP. Even though it is slated for eventual demolition to make room for the proposed downtown Links roadway, Aguirre hopes to make improvements to it in the interim.

Meanwhile, Dwight Metzger, of the Gloo Factory print shop, is renting his space on Toole Avenue from ADOT and is worried about his future. He's aggressively trying to raise enough money to find a permanent, affordable space before his present location is sold by the state.

A member of WAMO's board, Metzger questions whether the city's decision to acquire the Steinfeld building from ADOT was correct. Another option, he explains, was to obtain another building that is presently occupied: "Solar Culture has lost control of its destiny," he's says of the building on Toole Avenue that was recently sold to businessman Steve Fenton (See "Toole Avenue: For Sale," Currents, Nov. 12, 2009), "and other artists are facing eviction (from ADOT owned buildings)."

As a result, Metzger concludes: "I'm speculating (the city's decision) was regrettably a mistake."

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