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Toole Avenue: For Sale 

Buildings in the Warehouse District—including Solar Culture—get new owners

Chris Larsen went through a wild couple of days last week.

The guitar-maker had expressed interest in purchasing a downtown warehouse from the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT). On Thursday, Nov. 5, he thought he had the building; later, he was told the building would instead go to auction. Finally, on Friday, he was outbid.

Larsen had offered ADOT the minimum $165,000 for the vacant building at 1 E. Toole Ave. It is a structure that was built in the 1930s as the Baffert and Leon wholesale grocery, and was most recently home to Zee's Mineral Gallery.

Larsen's offer was the only one ADOT received—until the process was just about to close, when ADOT received another expression of interest. That offer, however, was immediately withdrawn. Steve Fenton, a businessman with a background in downtown historic-preservation projects, reportedly took that action.

After the withdrawal, Larsen was still the only party that had submitted the $16,500 required deposit on the property. However, ADOT determined that a public auction would have to take place, anyway.

Before Friday's auction, Larsen explained: "My wife tells me I'm no businessman, but a man with a warehouse is a man with possibilities."

At the Friday auction, four bidders were present. One bidder, a representative of Fenton, never said anything. Instead, Larsen and two others did all the bidding.

The price went up quickly, with Larsen dropping out at $226,000. In the end, real-estate company Peach Properties acquired the building for $252,000.

"We do artist space," declared Patricia Schwabe of Peach Properties. "The price will allow us to do that."

Even though Peach has a long history of working well with tenants in the downtown area, Schwabe said she saw "sour faces" come from several artists in attendance after the auction.

Schwabe stated that Peach would look at some local art galleries, such as Dinnerware, as possible tenants. Dinnerware is being forced out its Congress Street locations next spring because of a proposed restaurant at Congress and Fifth Avenue.

Dinnerware's David Aguirre later said that he is actually a partner in the 1 E. Toole project and will manage the building. He stated Dinnerware Gallery, which he supervises, would definitely be moving into the space, along with other tenants.

The warehouse Peach Properties just purchased is considered a "dangerous building" by Tucson Fire Department inspectors. Previous cost estimates for building rehabilitation have varied widely, but Peach Properties has experience with such matters after restoring a number of historic buildings around Sixth Avenue and Sixth Street for use by artists.

Purchase of this one ADOT-owned building by the private sector may be a harbinger of things to come in the Warehouse District. For years, artists have worried about what would happen when ADOT finally disposed of the 15 or so historic buildings the state owns downtown. Artists were prepared for the worst, fearing that speculators and developers would purchase the structures and force them out through higher rents or evictions.

A test of these fears may be on the horizon.

At 31 E. Toole Ave., a few doors east of the building just bought by Peach Properties, is Solar Culture, the well-known gallery and performance space developed by Steven Eye.

As reported in The Skinny last week, WAMO obtained approval from the city's Industrial Development Authority to borrow funds to buy the building. WAMO planned to rent it to Eye so he could continue to operate Solar Culture.

"We're not out to own buildings," said president Marvin Shaver about WAMO, "but we'll put restrictions in place to limit the use to affordable arts space, then sell it."

The building, appraised at $95,000, was placed up for auction on Tuesday, Nov. 10. After a quick but tense process, Fenton's representative outbid WAMO and purchased the property for $101,000.

ADOT also has three other downtown warehouses for sale. All of these buildings were acquired by the state many years ago to build the last mile of the Barraza-Aviation Parkway. However, that proposed route has long been abandoned.

Situated between the warehouse just purchased by Peach Properties and Solar Culture is a three-bay building valued at $265,000. Present tenant Bob Mick, a woodworker, says he can't afford that price and will keep renting from ADOT until someone "puts money down" on the structure.

Well, an offer was placed on that very building last week. That means that within 30 days or so, it also should be sold.

A block to the east, RISE recycling service occupies a large warehouse appraised at $360,000. No one from the organization could be reached for comment.

At Stone Avenue and Fifth Street, an available warehouse sits vacant with an asking price of $195,000. An "unsafe structure" notice from the Tucson Fire Department is posted on this building's backdoor.

The address on the notice is incorrectly listed as 1 E. Toole Ave. That's actually the location artist Chris Larsen tried unsuccessfully to buy.

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