A Big 'If'

The impending destruction of a city-owned building has some wondering about the warehouse district's future

Constructed more than 50 years ago as an auto supply store, the building on the northeast corner of Stone Avenue and Sixth Street will soon be history.

City of Tucson officials insist it is being leveled for public safety reasons. But downtown artists suspect the demolition is really about making room so more automobiles can drive through the intersection.

This pending loss, combined with the recent destruction of other downtown warehouse district buildings, concerns artists. "Three other buildings in the last few months have gone away," reports Charles Alexander, president of the Warehouse Arts Management Organization (WAMO). "That's chipping away at the tissue of the district."

The large, two-story brick building at Sixth and Stone was a tire store for decades, even after the government purchased it several years ago. It's been mostly vacant as of late, and the intention was to eventually demolish the building as part of the plan for the downtown leg of the Barraza-Aviation Parkway.

Given the success of attracting tenants to the blossoming warehouse district, combined with the building's continued existence, artists began to seriously look at other possible fates for the structure.

One potential tenant, Dinnerware Contemporary Arts, now occupies a small nearby space in the century-old Steinfeld Warehouse, but has been looking for another venue.

"We had a graduate student from the UA do a model of the (Stone and Sixth) space with both studios and a gallery," says David Aguirre, president of Dinnerware. "But we knew the city didn't want to lease it out because of the parkway."

That is where matters stood until a few months ago, when a 68-year-old water line broke in the street next to the building. As a result, the soil under the structure sank, and a new crack in the facade appeared, joining another crack.

Worried about the possible collapse of the wall--the building is immediately adjacent to a sidewalk--city officials had a structural engineer look at the property. George Stevenson concluded the wall along Stone Avenue was unstable, and either the building should be demolished immediately, or the wall should be connected to the building's roof framing for additional support.

Concerned about losing a key component of the warehouse district, downtown artists asked for a second opinion. Structural engineer Jerry Cannon supplied it, and was more conciliatory in his viewpoint.

"In my professional opinion," Cannon writes, "the recent distress caused by the settlement ... is no reason in itself to demolish the building. ... The building can be saved but does need to be repaired immediately."

The cost of this repair work was estimated to be up to $300,000, while demolition would cost about $100,000.

In a meeting held a few weeks ago, Tucson Director of Transportation Jim Glock told those attending: "We have a real problem on our hands from a structural point of view."

Opting for demolition, Glock said, "The (public) health, safety and welfare issue has to be overriding. ... The extreme expense of rehabilitation can't be justified."

Also factoring into Glock's decision was the construction project now going on along Stone Avenue, which has narrowed the roadway to two lanes. Traffic will soon be shifted to the east side of the street, right next to the doomed building.

Glock mentioned that Tucson Water would be asked to contribute to the cost of demolition, since it was their line which broke, but he didn't talk about having them pay for rehabilitating the building instead. A representative of the department later emphasized the line break wasn't the sole cause of the building's structural problems.

Glock also didn't discuss what the cost of replacing the building would be--if that were even a consideration. Rough estimates are in excess of $500,000, and renting that new and expensive space would be beyond the pocketbooks of most artists.

Given the city's longstanding desire to widen the Stone/Sixth intersection, the artists attending the meeting weren't surprised by Glock's demolition decision.

"If we didn't have the Barraza-Aviation Parkway proposal," concludes Alexander, "a way to spend more money" would be found.

Architect Paul Schwam, an architect who rents from the city the buildings immediately east of the soon-to-be-demolished structure, notes: "I can see everyone's viewpoint, but think it's a shame to lose it." Schwam also agrees the building is coming down primarily to make the intersection widening easier.

Michael Graham, a spokesman for the transportation department, flatly denies that allegation. He stresses that a new study on the downtown route of the parkway is now being conducted, and no final decision about the Stone/Sixth Street intersection has been made.

Aguirre remains skeptical. "While Jim Glock may be thinking of a right turn lane, I'm thinking of the artists downtown."

Reporting that Dinnerware will continue to look for a new downtown location, Aguirre quickly concludes it will be hard to find anything. "The obvious choice is the Sangin Trading Company building (at Sixth and Stevens avenues)," he says.

That structure is also controlled by the city, sits vacant and is slated to be demolished to make room for the parkway. Aguirre says with a laugh: "It's in the same situation as the building at Sixth Street and Stone."

For her part, warehouse district tenant Natasha Winnik expresses doubts about the future of the entire area.

"Most artists assume the district will remain, but those of us in WAMO have fears," she says. "There's a big 'if' about the future of the district."

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