Funky or Gentrified?

Optimism reigns as Warehouse District properties change hands—but not everyone is happy

Many politicians and property owners forecast a promising future for downtown's historic Warehouse Arts District.

But not everyone shares that sentiment.

"I'm not optimistic about the district," reflects painter Joe Hatton, who has leased studio space in the old Citizens Transfer and Storage warehouse, on Sixth Street west of Stone Avenue, since 2006.

"I'd really like to see it be workspace for artists," Hatton continues, "but I'm 90 percent certain that even if the warehouses stay as artist space, they'll be more expensive than now and will probably be out of my price range in five years."

That outcome wouldn't follow the philosophy established by the City Council when it adopted a plan for the area in 2004. It states: "This plan's goal is to develop the Tucson Historic Warehouse Arts District as a center for incubation, production and exhibition of the arts, with artists at its heart."

Hatton presently pays 50 cents per square foot monthly for space with natural light, and he knows that's "very fair." But he's located in a building the city of Tucson has said is "in disrepair, with numerous signs of deferred maintenance, inadequate heating and cooling capabilities and inadequate restroom facilities."

Now controlled by the city, the building for the past few decades has been owned by the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) and leased out to artists at very affordable rates. City Hall, however, is in the process of identifying a nonprofit, arts-related master leaseholder to manage the building under a five-year agreement.

Last week, proposals were due to the city to oversee the Citizens building. (For more information, see "Good Citizens.") In addition, purchase offers for the historic Steinfeld Warehouse on West Sixth Street and a structure at Toole and Sixth avenues long occupied by artist studios were also solicited.

The proposals submitted by the April 29 deadline included a proposal on each property from the Warehouse Arts Management Organization (WAMO). A recommendation is expected to go to the City Council this month or next month.

The city may require the chosen organization to make "numerous upgrades, structural improvements and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance" to the Citizens building.

"They've told the artists (in the building) that the rent won't go up, or it will be just a minor increase," Hatton says about some of the nonprofit groups interested in managing the building. But because of several problems with his space, he notes: "If (rent) does go up, I'm seriously considering Steve Fenton's offer."

Fenton recently purchased three warehouses near Toole and Stone avenues from ADOT. He's shown space to Hatton, who calls the requested rent "pretty reasonable."

Fenton says he's made some improvements to his buildings, and he's had lots of people look at 15-19 E. Toole.

"They'll still have affordable rents," Fenton says about the buildings now under his ownership, "plus the buildings will be maintained in better condition."

However, there are potential issues with the spaces, Fenton observes. "Parking is the No. 1 problem," he lists.

The other, he says, is Pima County's long-delayed plans to build a consolidated courthouse just across Toole.

"The development of the courthouse site is huge," Fenton comments. "Right now, it's an unsightly lot, but with a new building with new bodies (in it), it would bring activity to the area."

Patricia Schwabe of Peach Properties has purchased two warehouses on Toole from ADOT. She agrees the proposed courthouse is important, especially because of the additional public parking it would provide. However, Schwabe says the decision to place the proposed new building's parking garage one block away from Toole hurts.

According to Pima County's Reid Spaulding, that choice was made in order to allow the over-budget courthouse to be built in phases.

Due to a lack of funding, it could be several years before any construction work begins on the courthouse.

Another change is also in the works for the Warehouse District. A tailor-made land-use overlay zone is being prepared for much of the area.

A meeting was held last week to discuss the possibilities for property south of the railroad tracks that split the Warehouse District. Architect Corky Poster, who is coordinating the land-use effort, invited those in attendance: "Please write your own zoning ordinance."

Not surprisingly, parking was one of the major issues discussed by the 30 or so people participating. The affordability of the rental space in the district, however, apparently wasn't mentioned by anyone.

Councilwoman Regina Romero participated in the gathering and says that she hopes the Warehouse District remains "funky" despite all of the change.

That "funky" ambiance has been created over the years by the combination of old buildings in need of repairs, and artists seeking cheap rental rates who are willing to put up with inconveniences.

"We have some really cool investors," Romero says about the new owners who have bought property in the district.

Schwabe concurs. "It can remain funky," she says, "and doesn't have to transform into gentrification."

However, Hatton disagrees with those optimistic projections.

"I don't think the district will remain funky," Hatton says. "I see it changing already. Some artists have left, and its funkiness may be extinct in the future because of more rules and regulations."