Warehouse District, R.I.P.?

ADOT has told the artists in two buildings to get out

Standing for 100 years, downtown's Steinfeld Warehouse on Sixth Street has contained a large collection of artists' studios and galleries since 1984. One block away on Stone Avenue sits the former Baffert and Leon wholesale grocery from the 1920s, which has housed Zee's mineral showcase for almost two decades.

Last week, a move by the Arizona Department of Transportation threatened the businesses--and possibly one of the structures--with extinction.

ADOT purchased the buildings, along with about two dozen others, in the 1980s. Intending to eventually demolish them in order to make room for the downtown leg of the Barraza-Aviation Parkway, ADOT rented the buildings out to artists at low rates, but included a 30-day-lease termination clause.

Planning for the controversial downtown section of the roadway continues, with the current concept showing neither warehouse being directly impacted--and ADOT decided to dispose of the buildings and ordered the tenants out by the end of January.

"I do about 40 percent of my business during the three weeks of the Gem and Mineral Show in February," points out Zee Haag, who prefers to go by his first name. Calling the two-month eviction notice "not fair or just," he characterizes it as "a kick in the side of the head."

John Ryan, of Alamo Woodworkers Collective, a 20-year tenant in the Steinfeld building, agrees. "We always knew we'd have to eventually leave, but I think they need to give us more time," Ryan says, adding that they need to complete current projects and find sufficient space for their large equipment.

Artist David Aguirre, who manages the Steinfeld Warehouse, indicates he will push to extend the deadline to June 15. Lou Ginsberg, real estate special projects manager for the city of Tucson, says he will support that idea.

When asked whether ADOT would be agreeable to the extension, spokeswoman Teresa Welborn replies: "When they submit the proposal, we'll respond to it."

The first inkling of this major blow to downtown's historic Warehouse District came at a meeting on Nov. 13. Calling it a "kick in the butt," Ginsberg reported City Hall would help tenants with relocation expenses, finding other downtown locations and working out a future plan of action.

In a later interview, Ginsberg added: "It's the city's intention to gain some sort of control over the properties." The municipal government has the right of first refusal to buy the buildings, and if they don't, under state law, the structures would be appraised and put on the market for anyone interested in buying them.

Ginsberg, though, says the city's goal is to have the structures rehabilitated and then repopulated by the artists who now occupy them.

But Zee wants to purchase his 20,000-square-foot structure. "I don't see why ADOT doesn't offer the buildings to the tenants," Zee says. "I'd absolutely buy it."

Aguirre says the chances of him purchasing the Steinfeld Warehouse are "minuscule." But another building tenant, Charles Alexander, thinks artist equity in the property is essential.

Ryan says of Ginsberg's relocation proposal: "The chances of me moving back in (to the Steinfeld Warehouse) are practically zero. I'm looking to move and stay put, but I do want to stay downtown."

On the other hand, Alexander, who leads the Warehouse Arts Management Organization (WAMO), hopes to one day reoccupy his Steinfeld space. But he also thinks some impacted artists will leave downtown entirely.

"I'd bet some of them will throw in the towel," Alexander says, "but some of us have a 20-year commitment to the Warehouse District, and that's not easily abandoned."

As for the possibility that current occupants won't reoccupy the Steinfeld building after it is renovated--sometime in the unknown future--Ginsberg replies: "If they're not willing to go back, we can't hold a gun to their head, but we will repopulate it with artists.

"If we create a jewel, they may be amenable to moving back in," Ginsberg continues. It will help them make more money. ... And even if the rent is more expensive, it can still be affordable."

For his part, Aguirre believes there won't even be a Steinfeld Warehouse down the road.

"I don't see anyone moving back in," Aguirre suggests, "because the next topic will be the rehabilitation costs." He thinks those expenses, combined with the structural impacts from a proposed underpass beneath the nearby railroad tracks on Sixth Street, will doom the historic warehouse.

Aguirre also sees City Hall's hand behind ADOT's action. "I think the city wants the buildings vacant," he declares.

Ginsberg denies that charge: "The city had nothing to do with it."

At a WAMO meeting on Nov. 15, artist Steven Eye expressed the frustration of many long-term Warehouse District tenants. "We've heard so many stories from the city," he says after years of meetings, "and so many lies."

At the same time, Zee suggested another rationale for ADOT's move. Pointing out the two affected buildings are on the sides of a proposed new condominium project, he asked the 50 or so artists in attendance: "We're close to a planned development, so is this a coincidence?"

Zee thinks the whole issue "smells funny."

"If you take people who have busted their asses for 20 years to build up downtown and throw them out, that's no way to approach the situation," Zee says.

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