Art Alive!

Could the city finally be making progress on efforts to rejuvenate the Warehouse District?

Over the past five years, downtown's historic Warehouse District has been involved in a fight that resembles a rugged boxing match.

A series of recent blows to the district threatened to knock out the artists' enclave—but a new proposal just might put the district back on its feet.

If approved, the proposal would transfer ownership of three warehouses from the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) to City Hall. According to Andrew Singelakis, of the city's transportation department, the City Council is scheduled to discuss the issue on Aug. 5.

Singelakis says the city would obtain the historic Steinfeld warehouse on Sixth Street. In addition, two structures on Toole Avenue near Sixth Avenue which house artist studios and Skrappy's youth club would be obtained.

These properties, Singelakis says, have been valued at $657,000. To cover most of this cost, the city would provide ADOT with a piece of land near Interstate 10 and Congress Street while also taking a credit for improvements it previously made to an ADOT-owned building.

At the same time, the city may secure a 99-year easement on the Citizens Transfer warehouse, across the street from the Steinfeld building.

Midtown council representative Nina Trasoff sees these potential steps as real positives. "Securing the buildings will ensure they're in the city's hands," she declares.

Where the money will come from to rehabilitate the old structures remains uncertain.

"We'll have to wait until money becomes available," Trasoff says about cash-strapped city finances.

The possibility of the city obtaining money to acquire and restore the 15 ADOT-owned and artist-occupied buildings which constitute the core of the Warehouse District has been debated for years. At the same time, several steps taken by City Hall and ADOT have had severe impacts on the area:

• The City Council approved a Warehouse District master plan in 2004, but it didn't address how to fund the proposed improvements.

• In the summer of 2006, the city demolished a warehouse building at the corner of Sixth Street and Stone Avenue. This was done in part because of damage to the structure caused by a Tucson Water line leak.

• Later that same year, for safety reasons, the tenants of the Steinfeld warehouse, along with Zee's mineral gallery at Stone and Toole avenues, were told by ADOT to vacate their structures. That order was complied with several months later, and both buildings now sit vacant.

• In 2008, the City Council approved an alignment for the Downtown Links roadway. This route will require the demolition of several warehouses, both ADOT-owned and privately owned.

On a more positive note, the City Council at the end of last year gave the go-ahead to a predevelopment agreement to encourage private-sector improvements downtown. The package included a $2 million revolving line of credit to help rehabilitate the ADOT-owned warehouses. Unfortunately, the agreement was then changed to exclude that rehab money before it completely fell apart, as a result of the ongoing fiasco with the Rialto Theatre.

On top of that setback, in May, representatives of the Tucson Fire Department, among others, inspected the 10 ADOT-owned warehouses which had been classified as "dangerous buildings" in a 1999 structural survey. After the inspections, an abatement order was issued on June 17 for six buildings, giving their occupants 60 days to correct the problems or vacate the premises.

"We're involved for safety reasons," points out Assistant Fire Chief Randy Ogden. "Can the tenants fix up the buildings? We really hope so."

Woodworker Bob Mick, of Astro Fab on Toole Avenue, had a structural-engineering report prepared on his ADOT-owned space, and predicts: "I think we can take care of all the problems."

While the price of that work may be affordable, by many accounts, a huge sum will be needed to rehabilitate the Steinfeld building. These figures go as high as $1.4 million.

Can these funds be secured—or will the flagship building of the Warehouse District continue to languish? Will all of the buildings receiving TFD abatement orders be rehabilitated, or some of them deteriorate further?

Marvin Shaver, president of the Warehouse Arts Management Organization (WAMO), is hopeful. In addition, Councilman Steve Leal has offered a proposal to obtain some funding.

This isn't Leal's first attempt to secure money to restore the ADOT-owned warehouses. A few years ago, he suggested that some Rio Nuevo redevelopment money be set aside for this purpose, but the idea went nowhere.

Now, Leal—who is not running for re-election to the City Council this year—would like to see the city sell the former Volvo dealership site it owns on Broadway Boulevard. The proceeds would go toward settling the Rialto situation, with any balance going, he wrote in a memo last week, "to stabilize and develop the arts warehouses with WAMO."

"That's sounds great," Shaver says about Leal's proposal.

Leal believes his approach is the best way to ensure the district's future without driving up rental costs beyond the means of most artists.

"If we take this seriously," he says, "we get to figure out how to write artists into the district's (future). If we don't, it could become another Scottsdale."

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