Artists Up in the Air

Three buildings could be endangered as the Warehouse District's tenants fight for its life

Cracks in the downtown Warehouse District's keystone structure, the historic Steinfeld building on Sixth Street, could be a warning that the entire long-established artist area is beginning to crumble. However, supporters hope to preserve the building--and the district--from annihilation.

A few weeks ago ("Warehouse District, R.I.P.?" Currents, Nov. 23), the tenants of both the Steinfeld Warehouse and nearby Zee's Mineral Gallery were informed by their landlord, the Arizona Department of Transportation, that they had to vacate the premises by Jan. 31. However, that date was quickly pushed back two months.

According to a memo from City Manager Mike Hein, state officials have made it clear "that there will be no room for negotiating a further extension past that (March 31) date."

"The (eviction) is related to us not wanting anyone to get hurt," explained Jan Lesher, of Gov. Janet Napolitano's Tucson office. "The buildings need to be empty for public health and safety reasons."

Lesher stated several inspections have found problems with the buildings, with the latest inspection being done in October. "There were stress cracks in the load-bearing walls of the Steinfeld Warehouse," she said, while the Zee building had "damage to the roof (and) flooring, and the steel support beams are rusting."

Artist David Aguirre, who manages the almost 100-year-old Steinfeld building, recalled the most recent inspection took maybe 30 minutes and was "really cursory."

For his part, Zee Haag is ecstatic about the time extension, although he acknowledged that the roof of his building needs work. He observed of both structures: "Let's fix them up and give them back to the people who are renting them."

That is basically the course of action decided on by the Warehouse Arts Management Organization (WAMO), the artists' group which coordinates with the city of Tucson on issues related to the Warehouse District.

At a meeting last week, WAMO President Charles Alexander informed city Transportation Director Jim Glock: "If there is any chance to remain in the buildings during the transition, we want to pursue that. ... We're nearly unanimous that we don't want to talk about relocation first."

Alexander called for a structural report of the Steinfeld building to be prepared. He added: "Our goal is not just to get more time extensions, but to transition (the buildings) to someone and not kick people out."

Lesher said the state will do what it can to get the buildings into city hands. At the meeting, Glock spelled out two options under which that could be accomplished. But he also raised liability questions about what would happen if that occurred. "We'll work with you as much as we can," Glock told the artists.

Based on WAMO's selected course of action, Lou Ginsberg, real estate special projects manager for the city, stated the local government is now in a holding pattern. Even though he said after the meeting that he thinks the city could begin the process of acquiring the buildings now, he indicated City Hall is waiting on WAMO.

"The 500 pound-gorilla is the liability issue," Ginsberg warned WAMO members about the Steinfeld and Zee warehouses. "No one seems to know if they are habitable or not under the building code.

"There's one other question we're dancing around," Ginsberg additionally suggested, "that of funding."

In a later interview, Ginsberg said he did not know where the substantial amount of money needed to rehabilitate the two old structures would come from: "Is it the responsibility of the government (to fund), or should the opportunity be given to others?"

While WAMO is looking into its own money-raising possibilities, Alexander is also pursuing bringing in the Minneapolis-based group, Artspace, to provide other funding options. At the same time, the buildings are being appraised by ADOT, a process which could take three months.

Meanwhile, both the Steinfeld warehouse and the Citizen Transfer building, across Sixth Street, are about to get an in-depth physical analysis.

As part of the proposed downtown Links roadway project, which will daily bring thousands of more cars through the Warehouse District, a proposal exists to build an underpass beneath the railroad tracks which cut between the two buildings. If this idea is implemented, Glock says, the Steinfeld Warehouse wouldn't be touched, but "the jury is still out on the Citizen Transfer building."

Architect Corky Poster's firm will soon start a four- to six-week study to determine what would be needed "to get the buildings into first-class, quality" shape. As part of that report, a structural engineer will look at them, with rehabilitation cost estimates devised.

A little bit wary of the situation, Alexander will present a City Council subcommittee with a report on the Warehouse District prior to their Dec. 14 meeting. It contains goals and recommendations, including the transfer of the Steinfeld and Zee buildings to city management, while expressing a preference for their continued occupancy during this process.

"The district," Alexander said last week, "is either on the brink of a major step forward, or in for major problems."

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