Good Citizens

The squabble between BICAS and warehouse manager David Aguirre finally comes to an end

Things have not always been peachy at the hulking warehouse on the corner of Sixth Street and Ninth Avenue.

For more than a decade, the onetime home of Citizens Transfer and Storage has been filled in part by Bicycle Inter-Community Art and Salvage—better known as BICAS. And for years, that warehouse has been managed by arts district mandarin David Aguirre.

But more recently, Aguirre and BICAS have been locked in a spat over rent and bike clientele, and the future of Citizens.

Finally, that feud seems about to peter out.

In a land swap with the state, Tucson acquired several downtown warehouses, including an easement for the Citizens building and the adjacent Lucky Street Studios. The city is currently reviewing proposals to manage the buildings, with an endgame of selling them to nonprofit arts groups. (For more on the Warehouse Arts District as a whole, see "Funky or Gentrified?")

Aguirre appeared to be a formidable contender to retain control of Citizens—until he pulled out of the running at the last minute. Instead, he's focusing his attention on the troubled Steinfeld Warehouse, which faces immediate threats and an estimated $1.5 million in renovation costs.

Pulling his Citizens proposal was a tough decision, says Aguirre.

"I had a good cry over it. But the Steinfeld is falling apart in front of our eyes. I needed to let go of Citizens, and I did it."

That apparently leaves only BICAS and the Warehouse Arts Management Organization—or WAMO—to submit joint proposals to lease Citizens for approximately $4,000 a year, and upgrade the Depression-era structure.

John Salgado is the administrative coordinator for BICAS. He says Aguirre's last-minute pullout doesn't change a thing. "In fact, I'm putting together a letter to the tenants of the Citizens Warehouse, talking about the proposal we submitted. We still don't have a decision from the city."

So ends a long, sometimes bitter relationship between BICAS and Aguirre that sometimes seemed like a clash of cultures. With a strong alternative bent and a mission to promote bicycle-riding, BICAS builds bikes and teaches bike maintenance to everyone from mainstream teens to the homeless.

Upstairs, Aguirre's artists, many in the middle of their careers, fill studios gathered along a narrow corridor.

Strains between the two were detailed in a February editorial on the website, when Aguirre argued that things at Citizens "get stolen, broken or damaged on occasion" because of BICAS' clients.

"We're interested in security," he wrote. "BICAS lets at-risk youth and homeless clients wander round the inside of the building."

Aguirre also has a habit of dropping bombshells—either strategically or by mistake—and later blaming reporters and BICAS for misinterpreting what he said. Such was the case last summer, when he announced that BICAS' monthly rent for its 6,386-square-foot basement would be jumping from $800 to $1,890. That sudden boost sent BICAS scurrying for new quarters—until the Arizona Department of Transportation intervened and blocked the increase.

He later said he never intended to force BICAS out, but instead meant to teach the group a lesson about the market value of rental space. "They need to learn what things cost out there," he told the Tucson Weekly in June 2009.

And in January, Zocalo's Carli Brosseau cited Aguirre as saying that BICAS would soon vacate Citizens to make room for extra gallery space. "Some groups may be moving out, not in," Brosseau wrote. "Aguirre said Bicycle Inter-Community Art and Salvage, aka BICAS, will be leaving its longtime home at Citizens."

Aguirre claims he never said BICAS was leaving, and that his comments were simply misconstrued by an inexperienced reporter.

BICAS has responded with a few shots of its own. Most recently, the group composed a letter to be signed by its supporters and sent to the City Council. The letter requested support for BICAS' collaboration with the artists and WAMO, and a pledge to stop "the current poor management practices, neglect of building maintenance and lack of even basic health and safety code standards."

Marvin Shaver is WAMO's president, and he won't touch that squabble. "We think David has done an amazing job there," he says. "He's brought the building a long way, and managed to turn it into a thriving arts center."

Still, Citizens is likely to fall under a different style of leadership with Aguirre's departure.

"Our hope is there will be a team management, with BICAS, WAMO and the artists," Shaver says. "There will be a representative from each organization. As of yet, the artists don't have an organization, but they'll form one."

It's a progressive governing approach—one that could prove a little messy. But it may also promise better communication, to avoid future spats. "We'll meet regularly to discuss what needs to be done," he says, "how the building will function (and) what repairs need to be made."

The group will also hire Peach Properties, a real estate and property management company heavily invested in downtown, to find tenants. WAMO has also hired the International Sonoran Desert Alliance and its crack administrator, Jim Wilcox, to help with the Citizens project. Wilcox and the alliance gained plaudits in 2007 for their $8.9 million renovation of the historic Curley School in Ajo.

Still, competition between WAMO and Aguirre may not completely be a thing of the past. The Tucson Arts Coalition, which Aguirre heads, wants to create a broader management network over downtown's Warehouse District—ambitions that are shared by WAMO.

In the meantime, Ward 1 Councilwoman Regina Romero—who championed the transparent proposal process now being navigated by WAMO and others—says she isn't picking sides. "I just want the Warehouse Arts District to be able to thrive, and (the implementation) of the master plan that was approved by mayor and council back in 2004, and re-approved in 2008."

The master plan includes upgrading the old warehouses, making them economically stable and keeping them affordable for artists. That's admittedly a tall order. "And to tell you the truth, as long as private investors and nonprofits are headed in that direction—and they do it right and have the capacity to do it—I'm all for whoever can do that," says Romero.

Perhaps that master plan should have included one more criteria: old-fashioned comity. Or, as the BICAS motto puts it, "Love, peace and bicycle grease."

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