The Warehouses Along Tucson's Railroad Tracks May Be The Perfect Home For Local Artists.
By Margaret Regan
THE OLD WAREHOUSE district that snakes along the railroad tracks at the north end of downtown doesn't look like much to unpracticed eyes. Teeming with ramshackle buildings, some occupied, some not, the stray dumpster or odd truck loitering on the streets, it looks more like a monument to America's plucky industrial past than a harbinger of a bright artsy future.
But that's only if you're not Sarah Clements, executive director of the Tucson Arts District Partnership, or any of the some 70 artists Clements estimates are now working in mostly makeshift studios in the neighborhood. (The district is roughly bounded by Sixth Street on the north, Toole Avenue on the south, Herbert Avenue on the east and Stone Avenue on the west.)
Messianic might be too strong a word to describe Clements' enthusiasm for the buildings, but not by much. Fresh from a whirlwind tour of downtown spaces reclaimed by artists in six cities on the East Coast, Clements reports, "There was a serendipitous element in the projects that worked in other communities. These buildings are our serendipity."
The warehouses lie fallow in part because of a chain of events whose end results could have spelled disaster, rather than serendipity, for the perpetually struggling downtown. The Arizona Department of Transportation bought up the buildings a decade ago, to make room for an elaborate highway along the railroad tracks, a road that would have irreparably truncated the downtown. The highway project died a slow death, and in the intervening years of uncertainty, ADOT occasionally leased out the empty buildings.
"An arts use is the highest and best use for those spaces," Clements says firmly. "Ultimately, we're trying to get an arts use in every building, even if it's in one little corner." Ideally, as Clements sees it, artists would get living and studio space in the buildings, and they'd be protected from gentrification by getting a financial stake in the property. After all, when the Tucson Arts District plan was developed in 1988, she says, "It was made very clear that in order to have an Arts District that was real, that artists needed to be living and working in that district."
In recent years, Clements has been devoting more of her official energies toward "keeping a living, breathing artist presence downtown." She recently completed the lengthy application to put the whole warehouse district on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation, she says, that "does little to restrict what you can do (but) helps raise awareness in the community." It also makes it harder to knock down protected buildings. In June, the Partnership got $50,000 from the city specifically for "art space development in the warehouse district." The money might be used for loans to individual artists or groups, or as leverage for a major project. And Clements' staff recently surveyed Tucson's artists on the subject. Of the 300 artists who replied, one-third said they might be interested in studio/living space in the warehouses.
On an August working vacation on the East Coast, Clements and staff member Mary Ellen Wooten traveled from Washington, D.C., to Boston. They reported on their findings at a public slide/lecture last week. They inspected huge harbor-front commercial buildings used by artists in Jersey City, which have been protected by a city zoning ordinance that allows only artists to live and work in these buildings. (The ordinance, strictly enforced, is designed to prevent a repeat of the gentrification in SoHo, where prices are now wildly beyond the means of most artists.) In an old, inner-city neighborhood in Wilmington, Delaware, a small-scale artist live/work project won the support of neighbors, who saw the building as a helpful buffer between a commercial zone and their own historic district.
In high-rent Washington, D.C., they found a former public school that's been used as studio space for some 17 years, along with a warehouse and an office building. With real estate prices among the highest in the country, the D.C. artists pay rent to the owners, with no hope of developing equity in the project. Up in Boston, where Clements saw what she considers the most successful of the six projects she visited, artists bought into a commercial building with a view of nearby Boston Harbor. They make mortgage payments on their spaces, gaining what Clements believes is crucial for artists: financial equity in the space they've created.
"Equity is the way to go," Clements says. "That way the arts get locked in."
She sees a number of good lessons for Tucson in the other communities. The initiative in the successful projects came from artists themselves, not unlike the art pioneers now homesteading the Tucson warehouses. The Wilmington example has parallels with Tucson: an arts-space district would make a good buffer between the West University historic neighborhood and the commercial zones downtown. An "arts overlay" zone like Jersey City's, she says, would help combat the usual threat of gentrificiation.
"People say, 'Now who the hell would want to go over there (to the warehouse district)?' They probably said that about SoHo 50 years ago. We have the beauty of opportunity here."
There are problems, certainly, as Clements readily acknowledges. There is (possible) ground contamination in some of the buildings, in the form of leftover oil from automotive businesses, for example, or accidental seepage or even deliberate dumping in the days of environmental laxity. It's still zoned industrial. There's some competition from social services for the buildings; a feeding center for the homeless, for example, is already in place on Toole. A number of the survey respondents feared for their safety in the district.
But these woes, says Clements with characteristic optimism, are not "insurmountable...Somebody will have to do something with them (the warehouses) or they'll be a blight forever."
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