Cost Versus Culture

Tucson's Warehouse District fights an uphill battle to survive

For years, downtown's Warehouse District has been blessed with good intentions, personal commitment, private investment and political pledges of support. But it appears that will be no match for deteriorating historic buildings, impacts from a new roadway, public apathy and insufficient funding.

Yet even as the specter of a wrecking ball hovers over several buildings north of downtown, Mayor Bob Walkup remains upbeat.

"We're trying to do everything we can to keep the Warehouse District and allow artists to stay where they are," he says.

But Sarah Clements, who managed the Tucson Arts District Partnership during the heyday of the Warehouse District a decade ago, doesn't see a realistic counterattack in place. "It sounds as though we're taking a giant step backward," she says.

The most serious district battle is occurring near the intersection of Sixth Street and the railroad tracks. Preliminary shots have been fired about the possible demolition of the Citizens Transfer building, which contains numerous artist studios.

But the building in the most jeopardy sits directly south, across the tracks: a large 1907 structure built as storage space for the growing retail empire of Albert Steinfeld that's now considered the flagship of the Warehouse District.

After contributing greatly to the commercial success of downtown, the Steinfeld Warehouse was purchased by the Arizona Department of Transportation in the early 1980s. It was slated for demolition to make room for the last mile of the Barraza-Aviation Parkway, but that project has yet to be built. For more than 20 years, the space has been leased at low rates to artists, who were joined a few years ago by longtime local art institution Dinnerware Contemporary Arts.

Although the artists have continued to pay low rents, the artists have also been responsible for the high cost of maintenance and repairs. But with few funds and no ownership stake, they have not invested the substantial amounts needed to properly rehabilitate the century-old brick building.

In November, ADOT notified their Steinfeld tenants, along with the owner of the nearby Zee's Mineral Gallery at Stone and Toole avenues, that they had to move by January. While citing concerns about the structural integrity of the buildings and public safety, ADOT retreated a little after the city of Tucson intervened, giving the artists until March 31 to get out.

Bundled up to combat the cold of a winter afternoon in the drafty Steinfeld Warehouse, Charles Alexander, of Chax Press, summarizes the feelings of many who work in the district: "I want to fight the good fight and stay, but I'm not confident I can. I have to find space to keep working."

As the current president of the Warehouse Arts Management Organization, Alexander is discouraged by the response of local government officials to the area's plight, which he characterizes as a big yawn: "There's not much political will to make things happen quickly."

Bob Robles, one of the Alamo Woodworkers who are longtime tenants of the warehouse, sees the battle to save the structure as a microcosm of downtown's struggle. "If this building is torn down," he declares, "then Tucson turns into Anytown, USA."

The Steinfeld artists are becoming increasingly realistic about their chances of saving the building. In a community known more for its re-creation of historic buildings--the proposed Convento, downtown's Hotel Catalina, the Presidio, etc.--than preservation of the original structures, the hopes of winning the warehouse battle are flickering.

Ceramic artist David Aguirre, executive director of Dinnerware, has worked in the Steinfeld Warehouse for two decades and manages the building.

"I hope to keep all the tenants together, and I'm looking into new locations, but we may not be able to stay downtown." But at the same time, he is still investigating central-city locations.

As a reflection of all the uncertainty, Dinnerware will have an art auction in a few weeks. If necessary, Aguirre says, the proceeds will be used to help pay for the gallery's relocation expenses.

In early December, looking to City Hall to help defend the artists against ADOT's eviction notice, WAMO presented a list of recommendations to local leaders. To avoid being kicked out, the group requested the municipal government "immediately inform ADOT of the city's intention to acquire control" of the two buildings, and commit to a renovation schedule.

As it turns out, those recommendations never made it to Lou Ginsberg, the city's designated point person working with district artists. When shown a copy of the proposals a few weeks ago, a surprised Ginsberg insists: "I never got the WAMO report."

Yet in the battle to preserve the Warehouse District, both city employees and elected officials believe they are waging "the good fight."

City Manager Mike Hein talks about all that the city has done since the ADOT eviction notices were delivered, and thinks those who criticize the city for a lack of action have been asleep. "We negotiated with ADOT (about a two-month time extension), had discussions with the governor's office, started finding alternative locations for the artists and are doing studies about the buildings," he says.

Ginsberg has had preliminary discussions with Aguirre and Alexander on relocating the tenants of the Steinfeld Warehouse. Proposing to use funds volunteered by the local government, this process is in its infancy and would require City Council approval.

While Hein expresses support for the Warehouse District and acknowledges its importance in being one of several downtown anchors, he won't commit the city to acquiring either the Steinfeld or Zee warehouses.

"Do we have to do anything at any cost to keep the current buildings?" he asks. "I can't answer that. ... You always want to build on the history you have, but it's not always possible to do that."

Midtown City Council Member Nina Trasoff--a vocal supporter of the district--reinforces that financial concern. "I've heard figures for the Steinfeld Warehouse from $2 million to $12 million to fix up the structure," she says. "How much can the city pay, and how much can we subsidize? In an ideal world, we very much want to save both buildings."

Reacting to the possibility of losing this battle, Council Member Karin Uhlich declares: "If artists continue to leave the downtown, I think that's part of the soul of the city leaving, and I would be very disturbed. ... (Losing) this district would be a huge loss."

After the eviction notices were delivered, City Council Member Steve Leal, who sits with Trasoff on the Council's Rio Nuevo/Downtown Arts, Culture and History Subcommittee, tried to lead a countercharge by suggesting the city designate a few million dollars of Rio Nuevo funds to the Warehouse District. So far, his proposal has gone nowhere, although the subcommittee on Feb. 15 finally approved sending a letter supporting an eviction delay.

"The deadline has to be extended," Leal says of ADOT's decision, "and the city needs to acquire the buildings. (If they're auctioned to a private developer), then none of the artists--the frontier 'settlers' that helped downtown (survive)--will be able to afford to stay there. It's over!"

ADOT is often painted as the enemy of the Warehouse District, but it's worth noting that ADOT has leased cheap space to artists for years without interfering too much. If the agency decides to sell the Steinfeld and Zee warehouses, the city might acquire them, or they could be put on the market for anyone to purchase. Under either scenario, the structures would probably require extensive renovation before being reoccupied.

Within the artists' community, city staff members are vilified for expressing concern about potential liability issues and the high cost of bringing the warehouses up to current building-code standards if the city acquires them. Even though the warehouses have been under the control of the state fire marshal since ADOT purchased them, these cautionary comments from local officials have continued to raise the threat of unmet code requirements.

But perhaps the most insidious enemy of the district is the free market. If the buildings are rehabilitated, and those high costs are passed on to the artists, how many of them will be able to afford the rent?

Zee Haag, who prefers to go by just his first name, has a plan to repel that attack. He's made ADOT an offer to buy his building, but he needs City Hall to act quickly as a middleman, and so far, all discussions are extremely preliminary.

Zee estimates it might cost at least $500,000 and take up to one year to rehabilitate his warehouse--but he does not waver from that challenge. "I certainly want to buy the building, because getting out of there is the last thing I want to do."

But in the meantime, Zee has two large inventory-liquidation sales planned, one in Los Angeles. "I never noted that government authorities move very quickly," he observes.

So thus far, all the efforts to save the threatened warehouses are only on paper. With the state's eviction deadline drawing closer, and some Warehouse District artists apparently in retreat, the city is paying for three new studies.

A $2,500 report by structural engineer Jerry Canyon looked at the Steinfeld building and concluded that while it needed some "shoring and bracing," emptying the warehouse wasn't necessary. Based on that finding, Alexander and Aguirre have asked for the reversal of the eviction decision.

A study by architect Corky Poster, estimated to cost $50,000, is reviewing the Steinfeld Warehouse and the Citizens Transfer building across Sixth Street. Poster indicates, however, this report will be completed in April, after the eviction deadline.

Near the end of March, Minneapolis-based firm Artspace will be in town conducting a general analysis of the entire Warehouse District. Alexander says of this $6,500 effort: "They'll identify what can be saved and economic resources and gain political will."

Chuckling, the WAMO president adds: "Of course, I may not be (in the Steinfeld Warehouse) then."

Artist Susan Johnson remembers there were 100 artist studios congregated around Congress Street and Sixth Avenue in the 1980s. Due to construction of the Ronstadt Transit Center and other projects, she says, artists migrated north to the Warehouse District.

"It's taken 20 years for us to re-create this community in the Warehouse District," Johnson says, "and now that it's together, now that it's a real community, we're being asked to move again. It doesn't make sense."

How did one of the nation's most promising warehouse districts become such a battleground? Things started out better in 1988 when a downtown arts district plan prepared by a New York City consultant stated the warehouses located west of Fifth Avenue and south of Sixth Street "provide excellent arts studio space and loft environments suitable for a mix of uses."

Around this same time, ADOT purchased more than 20 warehouses adjoining the railroad tracks that bisect the north side of downtown, intending to demolish them to implement the last mile of the Barraza-Aviation Parkway. Since the project's construction schedule was uncertain, the state offered month-to-month leases to artists.

In the 1990s, as plans for the parkway changed--meaning as few as six buildings would come down--the area blossomed with 120 studios and almost a dozen galleries. Concurrently, the Tucson Arts District Partnership began to fight for the preservation of the emerging Warehouse District.

About a decade ago, the City Council signified its interest by adopting a series of policy statements. These included preserving both the historic buildings and art space while maintaining affordable rents.

"Tucson was definitely at the forefront" of the national interest in converting warehouses into artist studios and galleries, recalls Mary Ellen Wooten, who worked for the Tucson Arts District Partnership back then and is now with the Tucson/Pima Arts Council. "We got calls from all over the place."

Using city funds, the partnership established a loan program for warehouse renovations while spearheading the effort to list about 60 structures in the district on the National Register of Historic Places. This is a federal government designation that is mostly symbolic, offering little protection from demolition.

As interest in the Warehouse District grew, the private sector began to invest in the fight to save an "old town" that is uniquely Tucson. Thanks to folks like businessman Mark Berman, artist Susan Gamble and her sister Lesley, investor Ron Schwabe and many others, several buildings directly north of the ADOT-owned properties were purchased and rehabilitated for artist uses. These include the Davis Dominguez Gallery, Santa Theresa Tile Works, DeWitt Designs furniture and the Gallery at 6th and 6th, located in an old Firestone store.

In 2003, the Arts District Partnership was preparing a new vision statement for the Warehouse District, a contentious process which caused conflict with City Hall. It wasn't surprising when local government support for the organization was terminated, basically ending its existence.

At the same time, the city took over from ADOT the management of several government-owned warehouses and proposed considerably raising the rock-bottom rents. The additional funds would have been slated to maintain and upgrade the structures while implementing physical improvements throughout the area, but artists balked at the proposal, and it quickly died.

City support for the district apparently peaked in 2004 when Poster Frost Associates was hired to prepare a master plan for a portion of the district. While the plan was full of wonderful ideas, it was short on ways to pay for them.

The plan's most important suggestion was shifting the Barraza-Aviation alignment exclusively to the north side of the railroad tracks, which pleased the warehouse tenants along Toole Avenue since it would save them. This change, though, also made other district buildings vulnerable to the roadway's impact.

Last May, Pima County voters approved increasing the sales tax to pay for transportation improvements. One of the projects to be implemented is the $76 million last mile of the Barraza-Aviation Parkway, now known as the Links proposal.

Current plans for this new roadway--a four-lane route scheduled to be under construction by 2011--will increase traffic in the area of Sixth Street and Stone Avenue to more than 50,000 vehicles a day, more than doubling the present volume. Congestion will get much worse, with rush-hour traffic backing up for blocks and intersection levels of service expected to fall dramatically.

Berman runs Benjamin Supply Company out of the huge former Tucson Transfer warehouse at the intersection of Sixth Street and Seventh Avenue, right where the Links road will join Sixth Street. He observes: "This project is the ultimate boondoggle. It won't get traffic out of downtown." What it will do is doom his business, as the alignment cuts off access for large delivery trucks.

In addition to its transportation impacts on the district, the roadway will require the demolition of two, three or possibly more warehouses, including Small Planet Bakery. Combined with other recent demolitions, this would mean the loss of at least 10 percent of the district's total buildings.

Questions also continue to surface regarding the former Citizens Transfer warehouse on Sixth Street. Today, it houses artist studios as well as BICAS (Bicycle Inter-Community Art and Salvage), but the building may have to go to make room for a Sixth Street cars-only underpass planned to go under the railroad tracks as part of the Links project.

Also in 2006, the City Council approved a condominium proposal for the vacant land immediately east of the Steinfeld Warehouse, even though artists vehemently protested that it did not fit the adopted master plan.

Several months earlier, a private developer intent on constructing condominiums razed the former YMCA building on Sixth Street, which had housed many artist studios. Some of them have fortunately moved back downtown into space around the Ronstadt Transit Center.

Today, the city collects approximately $16,000 in monthly rent from the buildings and parking lots it manages in the Warehouse District. Using these funds, substantial improvements have been made to two buildings, while others wait for attention. However, the city last year demolished a key warehouse it had managed at Sixth Street and Stone Avenue, citing public-safety concerns.

"A roof repair alone costs $100,000," declares John Updike, who once oversaw the city's maintenance program and is currently employed by San Francisco's real estate division. "It was a huge amount of money given the fund. ... We did the best we could."

The Museum of Contemporary Art on Toole Avenue occupies two of the buildings managed by the city. Last June, the museum at 191 E. Toole Ave. was closed because it failed to obtain a required certificate of occupancy.

After the organization recently opened Concept MOCA (a combination kiosk museum/gift shop) across the street at 174 E. Toole Ave., the mayor and City Council approved a deal with the group. This allows the nonprofit MOCA to have a long-term lease at $1 per year with the possibility of purchasing the city-managed properties it rents. In exchange, MOCA is financially responsible for all building maintenance.

MOCA's director, Anne-Marie Russell, says the arrangement "will help the board kick off a massive building campaign to raise $400,000 to $500,000. ... In two to three years, our goal is to renovate the end building, 197 Toole (still under ADOT control), and turn it into MOCA's main gallery space."

To Ginsberg, the MOCA agreement is a good model for future city-controlled warehouses. Others, however, are concerned that arrangements like this will cause tension in the district.

In order to proceed with their plans, MOCA has been encouraging artists to move out of 197--a building which was renovated years ago with the aim of creating affordable studio space. One artist, Beckie Kravetz, refused to leave the studio she had worked in for 15 years. As a result, MOCA evicted her in January (See "Getting Toole'd," Currents, Feb. 22).

Meanwhile, the historic Steinfeld building, surrounded by adversity and threatened by both roadway improvements and physical deterioration, may end up surrendering to the wrecking ball. If the centerpiece of the district falls, how soon before a similar fate strikes other historic warehouses?

It's worth noting that in the Steinfeld building, Chax Press presents international programs and is the recipient of numerous national awards and grants. Two other tenants have also received the prestigious Arizona Arts Award, the largest state award given to any artist.

Weary of the constant battle, longtime advocates and members of the warehouse community are feeling discouraged.

Alamo Woodworker Robles laments: "It seems that a lot of people in the city think of us (artists) as slackards and parasites, not really adding to the life of the city. ... For me, this has been a big reality check to find out that we artists are not really valued."

Mike Dominguez, co-owner of the Davis Dominguez Gallery, diplomatically hopes that perception will change.

"I wish that people in our metropolitan area would be more aware that we are an industry with businesses, institutions, workers, and we have an impact on the economy of the community besides our own spending power. ... We are a main factor for people moving here: The culture we represent draws people and businesses."

Kravetz summaries what the district means to thousands of artists and art lovers in town. "The bottom line about being an artist is that it's a solitary pursuit. The Warehouse District creates a real community so that artists are not so isolated, they can interact and help each other. We can trade ideas as well as materials. It's all about community."

But in the coming months, if there's no change in Warehouse District direction, Tucson's unique downtown arts enclave may be headed for oblivion. And that would be a loss to the entire community.

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