Will Tucson's historic warehouses be sacrificed to a road no one needs?

By Dave Devine

THE CITY COUNCIL will soon face a choice about Tucson's historic warehouses that will go a long way in determining the future of the north side of downtown.

In the mid-1980s, the Arizona Department of Transportation purchased almost two dozen warehouses on either side of the railroad tracks from Sixth Avenue to west of Stone Avenue. ADOT planned to demolish the buildings to make way for the planned last mile of Aviation Parkway, which would stretch from Broadway to the St. Mary's Road/I-10 interchange.

But while they still stood, the state offered to lease the warehouses with the provision that tenants had to leave on 30- days notice. Artists gravitated to the buildings, which had plenty of space and low rent. By 1989, political pressure combined with rapidly escalating costs to force ADOT to abandon the last-mile project. The agency maintained ownership of the buildings but turned responsibility for planning a revised roadway over to the City of Tucson. Several years ago, the state notified city officials that they wanted to dispose of the structures. The city studied the idea of acquiring them, but never made a final decision. Recently, however, the state decided to just get rid of the buildings. If the city doesn't take them, they'll go up for auction.

Currents City transportation planners want to assume ownership of the properties and hold on to them for the 20 to 25 years it's expected to take to complete work on the last-mile project. But representatives of the Tucson Arts District Partnership have different ideas.

THE PARTNERSHIP, A city-sponsored organization which encouraged artists to use the warehouses, has organized the soon-to-be-completed process of listing most of the buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Partnership Director Sarah Clements believes the city should acquire the warehouses, then sell those buildings not needed for the future roadway to the artists who presently occupy them. If that isn't done, Clements says, "The city stands to be the biggest speculative landowner in the downtown area."

"The longer the buildings are in public ownership, the more they're at risk," adds Clements, who predicts that financing to fix the old and deteriorating buildings will be hard to come by for current tenants if the city owns the structures. If the city holds onto the warehouses, Clements darkly predicts, "they'll have a hand in the demise of the buildings."

Jim Glock, deputy director of the city's Transportation Department, disagrees. He thinks the city should acquire all the warehouses and hold on to them because the exact future route of the roadway hasn't yet been determined. Glock fears the government could sell a building now and then might have to buy it back later. As for concerns about maintenance of the structures, some of which are almost a century old, Glock says the city would offer long-term leases. That, he thinks, would make loans more available for needed repairs.

Local artist David Aguirre, who manages two of the ADOT-owned properties, thinks if a "give-and-take" relationship exists between the artists and the city regarding property maintenance, continued government ownership might not be so bad.

The City Council will hear the issue within the next several weeks.

Of course, the Council may want to consider abandoning the idea of completing Aviation Parkway's final mile. While several million dollars have already been spent on plans for the project, funds do not--and may never--exist to construct any of it. (See "Highway Robbery," December 4, 1997.)

When a high-speed roadway from Golf Links Road to I-10 was first proposed almost 20 years ago, it was intended to carry between 40,000 and 60,000 cars a day--an estimate based on the belief that downtown Tucson would continue to grow as an employment center.

But that hasn't happened, so it's no surprise that traffic today on the Barraza- Aviation Parkway southeast of Broadway Boulevard is very light. Only 11,500 cars a day drive there--about what a low-volume, minor arterials in other parts of the city carry.

SO WHY DO Tucson transportation planners want to spend more than a million bucks they don't have on continuing this project? Glock says rapid population growth on the city's southeast side will mean the road will be needed to get people downtown. If not for work, residents of Rita Ranch and other outlying hinterlands will be coming downtown, Glock suggests, "for entertainment."

Gene Caywood, longtime chair of the citizen committee overseeing planning for Aviation's last mile, believes traffic volumes will increase once people learn more about the existing parkway. He also thinks both Congress Street and Broadway Boulevard downtown eventually will become very congested if the last-mile project isn't built.

But with growing transportation problems throughout the city, will local elected officials continue to support a project which has no funding and no present need? The money, if it's ever found, could be spent somewhere else. TW

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