From beneath the hulking Citizens Warehouse come the sounds of metal clanking, wheels spinning and serious people hard at work.
For more than a decade, the popular Bicycle Inter-Community Art and Salvage—better known as BICAS—has filled the vast basement of this Depression-era building with folks who promote bicycle riding, build bicycles for those who have none, and teach bike maintenance to anyone who's interested.
But these are not happy times for BICAS. In a sudden move that could either be grand strategy or simple greed, landlord David Aguirre more than doubled the group's monthly rent—from $800 to $1,890. That has put the bustling nonprofit in a pinch, says education and outreach coordinator Kylie Walzak: "Based on our projected budget, and assuming rents would be the same, we expanded and hired people—including myself."
Now that staff may be forced to shrink. "We're talking about that. We'll take voluntary pay cuts if we have to."
But Aguirre says he just wants to teach BICAS this lesson: Their current rent for the 6,386-square-foot basement "just isn't going to cut it. They need to learn what things cost out there." In scouting around, "they're coming across a $1 and $1.50 a square foot, plus utilities and all the deposits and stuff."
However, others suggest that Aguirre is simply profiteering with Citizens and an adjoining building he leases from the Arizona Department of Transportation for $2,400 a month. It's also worth noting that BICAS' basement space—which lacks heating and cooling, has no plumbing and boasts only one door—isn't exactly a prime business property. BICAS was compelled to upgrade the electrical system itself, with $5,000 from an AmeriCorps grant.
There also might be a smidgeon of ego behind this saga. Consider that Aguirre had gathered some juicy gossip about BICAS through the rampant downtown-artist grapevine. "I heard that they had made a play to acquire the building with $100,000 that they had in the bank," he says. "And I was like, wow, that's great that they were able to save that much money. And then I started looking at the rent and I was like, 'Holy shit.'"
Aguirre says he started thinking about the nice arc welder BICAS has in their basement haunt. "Also, they just built a gorgeous fence over in the Iron Horse Neighborhood, 210 feet long, with lots of welds."
He started crunching numbers, and minus utilities—which are included in BICAS' rent—he determined that the group was paying just a few hundred dollars or so each month for their space. They use plenty of juice, he says. "You know, for that welder, and then they leave their lights on at night and stuff." In an April 21 letter to BICAS announcing the rent hike, he estimated those utilities at about $640 a month.
Attorney Erik Ryberg specializes in bicycle-accident cases and serves on BICAS' board of directors. He says Aguirre has trotted out evolving reasons for jacking up the rent. For instance, Ryberg points out this Aguirre comment in the Arizona Daily Star: "The building needs roof repairs," Aguirre told a Star reporter. "Corridor lighting needs to be redone. There are plumbing issues."
But in that letter to BICAS announcing the increase, Aguirre cited other reasons. "The county is now charging more for garbage pickup," he wrote. "Water use is up, and the electrical usage is way up. Managing it all has its costs, too."
Regardless, Ryberg says that BICAS tried talking to Aguirre about those utility bills. "We pointed out to him that (the bills) seemed a rather specious reason to raise the rent $1,000. We don't use that much in the way of utilities. And he has pointed out how the lights are always on. Well, the lights are on because we don't have a switch to turn them off. As for the welder, people I've spoken to say that welders don't use much energy. So saying we use $600 a month in utilities is pretty crazy."
In the end, Ryberg has his own Aguirre theory. "The most likely reason he raised the rent," he says, "is because there's money in our bank account that he thinks should be in his bank account. BICAS has been saving for awhile and doing the best that we can. We have 13 employees; we have a $100,000-a-year budget; and we're a nonprofit organization. We want to be sure that, if times go sour for a little while, we can keep our people employed."
For his part, Aguirre blames Ryberg for fomenting the rift. "I call him the bicycle version of an ambulance chaser," Aguirre says.
Such is the increasingly personal nature of this fracas. But it also reflects the uneasiness of downtown's ever-shifting warehouse scene, where artists and other alternative denizens find themselves scrambling for a diminishing space and trying to protect what they have. Some are positioning themselves to take over warehouses they already lease, when and if those buildings are released from government hands.
This has led to speculation that Aguirre—long a player in the downtown arts scene, and head of several galleries including the Arts Incubator, Dinnerware and Rocket Gallery—is setting himself up to buy Citizens once the state relinquishes control. There's also a chance the city will take over that and other warehouses, leading to the possibility of municipal pressure on Aguirre and other landlords to start boosting the rent.
That suggestion is vigorously denied by Lou Ginsberg, real estate special projects manager for the city of Tucson. "There has been no discussion between the city and David Aguirre," Ginsberg says, "regarding anything he's done in Citizens Warehouse about raising rents. It's not our building. We don't manage it, and we don't have any leases. That is strictly between David Aguirre, the Arizona Department of Transportation and, of course, his tenants."
Underlying this is concern about whether downtown can remain affordable for artists and other nonprofits. Consider Citizens. After paying his bills, Aguirre says he currently nets about $1,000 for his troubles.
But he says he also needs money to update the warehouse, which dates from an era when building codes were haphazard, at best. "Whether I manage Citizens or not, I want this to be a long-term thing. But if I go to a bank, and I have to put a business plan together, I don't want to be laughed at. This thing has to look like it is going to pencil out."