Bricks and Blues

In the Steinfeld, federal cash finds a historic home

It's a crisp Saturday afternoon and Sixth Street traffic is clogged as it winds past the Steinfeld Warehouse. This motorized queue contains a fair share of rubberneckers, too, apparently surprised to see life swirling around an antique building that was nearly left for dead.

Built in 1907 in the Victorian Commercial style with corbelled brick details, Tucson's oldest surviving warehouse had long been toeing the edges of despair. But its fortunes shifted in 2010, when the city sold the building to the Warehouse Arts Management Organization with a proviso that WAMO cough up $250,000 by November 2014 and finish the renovations soon after.

Then came an unexpected chunk of federal money, which jump-started those renovations with $933,000 worth of repairs to the roof, walls and foundation. For the first time in a long time, city officials, preservationists and WAMO didn't have to sweat the specter of Steinfeld simply tumbling down.

Which seems as good an excuse for a party as any other. So on this afternoon of Feb. 23, the 32,000-square-foot building is hosting a rollicking nod to artists, musicians and history. It's a hobnobber's Xanadu; among the organizers is artist Susan Gamble, a past president of WAMO. She's behind a tall counter, dishing up comestibles for luminaries including Michael Keith, CEO of the Downtown Tucson Partnership, and KUAT-TV arts host Elizabeth Burden. Mayor Jonathan Rothschild glad-hands between sips of his beer while 30 feet away a band led by longtime R&B kingpin and Tucson Musicians Museum founder George Howard fills the rustic room with a heavy groove.

Crafts, photography and other accouterments flank the long corridor. To one side, artist and WAMO board member Marvin Shaver lingers behind a table stacked with Steinfeld paraphernalia. He says the past year has marked a milestone for the war-weary warehouse.

That's delicious vindication for Steinfeld crusaders such as Shaver. "I always had confidence, because I knew there was a lot of support among the community that hadn't even been tapped," he says, "and if we started tapping that support, we would get to this point.

"This is a huge step, because now the building is structurally sound—no leaking roof, no bricks falling off. All we have to do now is raise enough money to do the renovations on the inside."

Not that tribulations have completely subsided. For instance, on Dec. 30 a suspicious fire broke out in the building's northeast corner; sprinklers installed just months earlier are credited with preventing utter destruction.

Then there's the nearly $1 million in stabilization work, which sparked a minor flurry last year. It was not the first time that tapping federal Community Development Block Grant funds for historic preservation sparked tumult; a precursor erupted in the summer of 2012, when preservationists suggested using those funds to preserve the historic Marist College, next to downtown's St. Augustine Cathedral. But opponents raised holy hell at that notion, baring simmering resentment toward the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, which owns the Marist.

That plan fell through "because the Marist is owned by the church," says Jonathan Mabry, the city of Tucson's historic preservation officer. Nonetheless, he was willing to tap those funds once more when the city found itself in a strange fiscal pinch.

It came down like this: Way back in 1981, the city cut a deal with the nonprofit Business Development Finance Corp. to steer a portion of Tucson's block grant funds toward low-interest commercial loans. The goal was creating jobs for low-income folks. By 2005, however, the BDFC had mostly stopped making any loans at all. Three years ago, Tucson officials finally demanded that the organization put that money to work or give it back.

The BDFC decided on the latter, and by fall of 2010, the city had an unexpected $1.39 million in its Community Development Block Grant pool. That's when things got hinky; under federal rules, Tucson was obligated to spend that money by March 2012, or lose it for good. In addition, the city would see its annual CDBG funding allocation permanently shrunk by whatever percentage remained unspent.

Dawdling was not an option. "It was in our interest to find eligible projects that could be completed quickly to help meet that deadline," Mabry says. "So I stuck up my hand. I pointed out that historic preservation was not something this city traditionally spent this money on, but other cities used it for that. I identified several eligible projects, and the Steinfeld was one of them."

Of course, blowback would also be part of the deal. "People are either philosophically for historic preservation or they're not," he says. "There will be people enraged that taxpayers' money was spent on what they see as a crummy old building.

"But the way I look at it, we all pay taxes that go to Washington, and if this federal CDBG funding is not spent to enhance our community, then it's going to be spent somewhere else."

Today, even some initial skeptics have softened their view. Among them is Ward 6 Councilman Steve Kozachik, who was among the leading critics of using those funds for Marist College, which he saw as a taxpayer bailout for the diocese.

But the Steinfeld "is certainly a legitimate candidate for using those funds," the councilman says. "I did have some concerns at the time—and I still do—about the fact that we have other legitimate uses under the whole CDBG umbrella, and some of them include waiting lists for people who have low-income housing needs."

At the same time, with Congress and the White House at loggerheads over the so-called "sequestration" of federal funds, "we could end up losing a bunch of HUD money, and have 200 to 300 people out on the street," Kozachik says.

But back at the Steinfeld, just a few feet from the street, the party is heating up as Howard's band grinds into another set of blues. Marvin Shaver steps away from the Steinfeld brochures, taking a long glance around the room. It's hard to believe that this building was knocking on heaven's door not so long ago, or that now it's firmly on the road to salvation.

Still, that path is not without big bumps, as Shaver's group strategizes over raising a quarter-million dollars to finish the deal. But he says WAMO has a plan. "We've started our major fundraising, and so far the response has been very good."

While the group will absolutely chase after grants, he expects the lion's share of funding to be homegrown. "The big thing right now," he says, "is getting community to buy into it."

From the looks of this party, that purchase has already begun.

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