Blank Walls

Artists may relocate if City Hall approves a rent increase.

Is an arts district without artists desirable? That's what some longtime tenants of downtown's warehouse district think City Hall is trying to achieve with its pie-in-the-sky ideas for the area.

But others are more hopeful, believing the bureaucracy only needs to be publicly chastised before it comes to its senses.

For years, the city of Tucson has been planning to acquire control over approximately 20 historic buildings now owned by the Arizona Department of Transportation. These structures were acquired by ADOT in the 1980s and slated for demolition to allow construction of the last mile of the Barazza-Aviation Parkway.

Prior to that happening, however, dozens of artists occupied the buildings under short-term, low-cost leases. ADOT also allowed them to deduct their self-help maintenance work from the rent as well.

With the much-delayed parkway still years away from implementation, and with the city assuming management of the buildings, those rules are about to change.

At a recent meeting, about 40 artists were told there would be no rent increases until after Jan. 1, 2004. The new rates will be based on the results of a $50,000-$75,000 warehouse district plan to be completed by Sept. 30.

The city will use the rental funds to make needed safety repairs to the structures--but will no longer allow sweat-equity work. Some of the money might also pay for district improvements recommended by the plan.

Those attending the meeting were also given a city memo which stated, "while none is fixed in stone at this point, it is anticipated that a $.20 per square foot (rental) rate would be fair and affordable."

Since that new rent structure would double or triple the current amounts paid by some artists, negative reaction was a certainty.

"We can't afford this rent," says district tenant Paul Weir. "This represents our fear. At these rates, the artists will be gone."

Another of those tenants is Tim Hagyard.

"The city needs to take the district in the direction it is naturally going," he said at the meeting. "Give the district a little water (with continued low rents), and it will grow."

Councilmember Fred Ronstadt represents the area and insists the 20-cent figure is not final, but believes structural improvements are necessary.

"Some of these properties are unsafe," he says, "and the increased rent will go to rehabilitate the buildings." He added about the additional funds: "We'll be able to put in amenities in the district to draw more people to it."

However, Ronstadt believes that allowing sweat-equity work under some circumstances should be permitted. He also wants to find a balance between higher rents and artist needs.

Assistant City Manager Karen Thoreson concurs.

"We're trying to balance these issues," she says. "Not everyone is saying they'll leave. The artists have contributed a lot to downtown, and we don't want to kill that goose."

One business that has been in the district for 18 years may not be involved with that process, however. Brad Reusch manages the Foree Tire Company at the corner of Stone Avenue and Sixth Street and believes some city staff members are trying to drive him out so they can place artists into his building while their structures are being renovated.

"They were doing dirty, under the table deals to get me to move," Reusch says of these city employees. "They've handled it very poorly," he adds in obvious frustration.

When he brought this situation to Thoreson's attention at a meeting on May 1, she announced that the business wouldn't be forced to move. But despite that decision, Reusch said last week: "The innuendo is I'm still going to be thrown out by the end of June." Thoreson, however, insists that her earlier position still stands.

While Reusch tries to hold onto his building, district artist and property manager David Aguirre hopes all the tenants can work together to force the city's hand in keeping rents low.

"I'm still optimistic," he says. "We're talking, and the movement is in the right direction. The city just has to take its [public relations] lumps before it gets to the right position."

To insure that happens, Aguirre has asked other artists not to sign any new leases until they can negotiate the terms as a group. But as a safety precaution, he says that pre-planning for a public demonstration has already taken place.

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