A PAINTER PERCHED on top of the old Firestone Building at the corner of Sixth Street and Sixth Avenue one day last week, and carefully leaned over from the roof to brush a fresh coat of red-brown paint onto the store's faded walls.
Next door, an architect was scurrying around the massive Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Building, looking over plans to replace its raggedy sheets of plywood with a grid of fashionable glass brick for a new gallery. A block south, on Seventh Street, a team of dancers was hauling debris out of the old Rainbo Bakery. Just to the north, on Fifth Street, seven artists were lugging paints and canvases and clay into spanking new studios in a former dental parts factory. And a hop, skip to the east, at Sixth Street and Fifth Avenue, workers in space suits were gingerly removing asbestos from the basement of the old YMCA building, to make the place safe for the ambitious new International Arts Center.
The hammers and the paintbrushes were just the most visible sign of the new arts life pulsing in the warehouses that once were the hub of Tucson's industrial life. Many of the ghostly structures have leaky roofs and other woes, triggering a nightmare of permits skirmishes with the city. Almost all are cluttered with the detritus of their long-ago working life. But that hasn't stopped the new arts migration.
"The Arts District is pushing out and that's great," says Anne Bunker, whose Orts Theatre of Dance is refurbishing the former Rainbo Bakery at the southern end of the massive Tucson Warehouse and Transfer complex. The troupe is building two large studios in the old garage and baking rooms; they'll call the new place Tucson Movement Arts Warehouse. "With this building, and Paul's (at the old Y) and with the artists already here, it's starting to happen. They're finally not ripping buildings down. It's great."
THREADED ALONG THE Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific) railroad tracks that slice diagonally north and east across the city's downtown, the warehouses tell a short history of the Tucson that once was. In the years after the turn of the century, all manner of goods coming in by rail made their way into the buildings along Toole Avenue south of the tracks, and along Sixth and Seventh streets to the north. There were food depots, lumber yards, icehouses, a bottling plant, big commercial dry cleaners. By the 1930s, Sixth Avenue, just north of the downtown underpass, had become the pioneer forerunner of the Tucson Auto Mall. Sixth was the hot place to buy a new car, or to get your old car fixed. By the 1970s, though, times had changed. Businesses followed their customers to the edges of the exploding city. Others burned. The neighborhood started a downward slide.
Artists have been quietly moving into the raw spaces of the empty warehouses for at least a decade, setting up painting and furniture and small-press studios in the unfinished industrial interiors. But like an actor who becomes an overnight success in Hollywood after long years of hard work in the heartland, the warehouse district all of a sudden is the arty place to be.
Consider some of the new residents. Davis Dominguez Gallery, a leading Tucson purveyor of contemporary art, this summer will abandon its perch in the moneyed foothills in favor of a fashionably gritty warehouse location. Starting in August, the new gallery will occupy some 5,200 square feet in the Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Company, the flagship warehouse at 154 E. Sixth St., and display art in a cavernous room with a 20-foot vault ceiling and exposed trusses. Mike Dominguez could hardly contain his glee as he surveyed the building's exterior one cold morning a few weeks ago.
"I'm gonna double my business!" he exclaimed. "This may look dead and dull now...but just wait."
Owned for the last 10 years by Benjamin Plumbing Supply, the pockmarked 70,000-square-foot building with the landmark tower already houses Benjamin's storage and wholesale plumbing operation, and owner Mark Berman has long rented out some of its spaces to a photographer and a small recording studio. But now he's going into arts development in a big way, signing on Davis Dominguez and Orts as major tenants, and carving out more studio space for visual artists. He plans to move his retail showroom--with its trademark giant bathtub--over from Broadway Boulevard. Positioned side by side, the gallery and showroom will spruce up an entire city block that's long been an eyesore, right at the Stone Avenue entrance to downtown.
"The negative image of the area had always outweighed the idea of consolidating our operation in the building," Berman said. "But the image of the area has changed. People are seeing that things are happening. Now this is considered a nice old building that people want to fix up. The time is right."
Another investor, Ron Schwabe, "likes warehouses and downtown. He's totally optimistic about the neighborhood," said his spokeswoman, Patricia Esperilla. Schwabe has already converted warehouses into arts spaces in Portland, Ore., and he bought up the Firestone and Bookman Auto Parts buildings at Sixth and Sixth with two partners last fall. The group is actively rehabbing the 38,000 square feet in the two buildings into artists' rental studios and retail space. Tenants who've already signed leases include a graphic designer, a custom furniture maker and a painter who intends to open a gallery/tearoom.
"I've been searching," said the painter, George Saah, newly transplanted to Tucson from Washington, D.C. "I almost signed a lease on Congress, but it didn't feel right. This space felt right."
A trio of investors bought the gaping Y at 516 N. Fifth Ave. last October. Operating as Enseeko, they expect to open the International Arts Center in the maze-like building in April. Paul Schock, a sculptor who got his MFA at the University of Arizona in 1993, came back to the Old Pueblo to found an arts center because "Tucson is very supportive of programs for art." The building's roof leaked in the years since the Y left in 1992, destroying some of the fine wood gym floors, and Schock expects the renovation costs to top $300,000. That's over and above the $250,000 Enseeko paid for the building.
Schock, whose investment partners are Australian, expects to live in the building while managing it. The magnitude of his plans has raised some skeptical eyebrows around town. Besides offering dormitory-style housing and studios to some 24 artists, Schock hopes to bring in visiting arts groups from around the world. He envisions an array of rehearsal spaces in old racquetball courts, performances in the gym, and even, someday, an art gallery and café installed in the huge tile pool in the basement.
"We're the first art center in the states to cover all the arts," Schock said. "This is not a retreat. We want to be part of the community and actively bring the international culture here."
A more modest project is underway on Toole Avenue. Tucson Pima Arts Council has been occupying an Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) office building, 240 N. Stone, for several years at a rent of just $300 a year, under a special legislative dispensation that allows ADOT to rent almost free to groups helping youth. (ADOT otherwise is required to rent its properties at market rates.) TPAC plans to install its youth art program ArtWorks at 35 E. Toole, in the ADOT building just west of the homeless feeding center. Rehabbing the space over the last two years with an $89,000 community development block grant from the feds, Dian Magie, executive director of TPAC, said the scheduled opening is the end of this month, but "It's not finished yet! You get into these old buildings and find things you never expect."
Not to be outdone by the other investors, the Tucson Arts District Partnership, which has been promoting the warehouse district to artists for some years, upped and bought a building of its own, an old dental hinge factory, offices, Quonset hut and parking lot at 58 E. Fifth St. The former owner donated $300,000 of the value of the building to the Partnership, which financed the remaining $200,000 through city and county industrial loans. A sculptor is in the Quonset hut, while seven other artists moved into the studios partitioned into the building last week.
"If you don't own the dirt, you're at risk," says Sarah Clements, executive director of the Partnership for the last eight years. "Market forces being what they are, the arts have to be as aggressive as anything else. There's a market for this (artists' studios)."
The Partnership, a nonprofit charged by the city with developing the Arts District, last year started up a loan program targeted specifically to the warehouse district. The Partnership's Mary Ellen Wooten said they've already committed about $105,000 in loans to Berman, Schock and Jonelle Curry, who's developing a project farther north in the Spring/Dunbar neighborhood. The low-interest warehouse loans, available only to private owners, require the creation of new arts space and require that the place be kept up as an arts space for 10 years.
"It's a little bit of money directed in the right place," said Clements. "It encourages people to get creative."
The Partnership has been working for several years to have the whole area--with about 77 "contributing buildings"--declared a National Historic District. Wooten, who wrote the application, said she expects it be approved within the next six months. The designation can't prevent the demolition of private properties, but it will offer federal and state tax incentives to parties who buy up and rehab the old properties.
It can only help bolster the district's prestige. For Candice Davis of Davis Dominguez Gallery, the neighborhood is an obvious place for arts development, tucked between the UA, with its legions of artists and Museum of Art, and downtown's Tucson Museum of Art.
"(The neighborhood) is really starting to happen," she said. "A lot of our artists are university-area. We get a lot of referrals (from UAMA) to the TMA. It's between the two museums. It's clicking."
SIXTEEN YEARS AGO, the idea of an arts warehouse district didn't seem obvious at all. As a matter of fact, the State of Arizona planned to level much of it, burying a good chunk of Tucson's architectural and industrial history under a six-lane elevated freeway.
The Aviation Downtown Mile, as it was called, would have demolished more than 30 buildings, including three historic houses in El Presidio, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods. Among the victims would have been the Steinfeld Warehouse, a rambling red-brick building just west of the tracks on Sixth Street, that's been used as art studios and workshops for the last decade.
"At the Steinfeld Warehouse, that magnificent structure, there would have been an interchange at about 35 feet below the present grade," said Larry Evers, a UA English prof and El Presidio resident who opposed the highway. "The treatment didn't respect what existed on the ground. It was cooked up in an engineer's office somewhere."
The roadway would have sealed up the Fourth Avenue underpass, forever cutting off the traditional access between the funky shopping district--the city's first "suburban" shopping street--and the old downtown. And far from bringing people downtown, critics said, it would have helped suburbanites shoot right through downtown to the Interstate at St. Mary's Road.
There was opposition aplenty to the Downtown Mile. Most memorably, a team of downtown artists formed a human chain, linking hands from Congress Street, through the underpass and on up into Fourth Avenue. By 1989, done in by community opposition, lawsuits and escalating costs, the state gave up and ceded authority for a road to the city. The city, this time with a Citizens' Advisory Committee, got to work on a much less invasive plan that would take down only a handful of buildings (it's called DLUCS, after the Downtown Land Use and Circulation Study). But the funding--and the political will--for the new road is still uncertain.
In the aftermath of the Downtown Mile debacle, several dozen buildings slated for demolition now stood idle. The Arizona Department of Transportation went into the landlord business.
In a curious way, the limbo imposed on the neighborhood by uncertainty over the future road and by the unusual situation of the state owning property helped trigger the grass-roots arts revival. Barbara Grygutis, a nationally known sculptor of public art, got the idea that the idled buildings would make great art studios. She had her eye on the Steinfeld Warehouse, near her home in El Presidio.
"We watched ADOT empty out the buildings. I knew they were empty. Steinfeld is right around the corner from me. It's a historic building and I'm interested in historic preservation. I just called them (ADOT), and said, 'I hear you have vacant space.' "
AOT was receptive, but insisted on a set of conditions that ordinary businesses would never accept. Grygutis had to take a 30-day lease, with the building in "as-is" condition; she would be responsible for all repairs and for bringing the structure up to city code. Setting up a model for all the other artists who would later rent the ADOT buildings, she had to clean it of debris and filth, get liability insurance and find subtenants. The Alamo furniture artisans, Charles Alexander of Chax Press, painter Cynthia Miller and clay artist David Aguirre signed on. Aguirre eventually followed Grygutis's example and rented two more ADOT buildings just to the north of Steinfeld, carved them into 23 studios now occupied by 34 artists, and poured in $50,000 of his own money. ("I do the credit card dance," he said.)
All along Toole Avenue, as artists Steven Eye, Jessica McCain and Philip Hazard moved in, the peeling facades were transformed by brilliant color. The Toole Shed Studios formed a cooperative at the east end of downtown, offering studios to some 15 artists. Toole Shed, said co-founder James Graham, has always had problems with the roof: The recent rains poured so much water into the studios that several artists were forced to decamp.
The difficulties of artists in the ADOT properties go beyond leaks and wiring, though. Their top fear is eviction, and the experience of one artist demonstrated how vulnerable they are. A year and a half ago, Ned Schaper, a poet and performance artist and "kinetic sculptor," moved his Mat Bevel Institute into 530 N. Stone Ave., the space where Steven Eye had operated the Downtown Performance Center, an all-ages music club that became notorious for its skirmishes with neighbors over noise. Schaper had put six months of time and money into the building, clearing out the wreckage left by the teens. He said he asked his state landlords whether they might contribute to fixing his roof. The response, he said, was a notice that the state intended to demolish the building.
The artists' community, outraged, saw Schaper as a test case.
"They got such an incredible backlash from us," remembered Graham. After the Partnership paid for an architectural engineering study that declared the building sound, the state backed off. Larry Maucher, an ADOT engineer who's project manager for southern Arizona, said he doesn't know the particulars of Schaper's case, but he does know this: As far as ADOT is concerned, "Our desire is to unload these buildings."
"About a year and a half ago, ADOT approached us and asked if we'd be willing to take over the properties," said Jim Glock, deputy director of transportation for the City of Tucson. "We said, 'Whoa!' That's a lot to ask. Right now we're looking at the condition of the properties, the environmental impacts and archaeological resources. ADOT is willing to wait while we conduct the process."
But Maucher said the matter has to come to a head, and soon. In a month, the state will finish up all work on the Barraza-Aviation link between Kino and Broadway, and with that milestone, "Our funding source evaporates." There will be no money for repair if a building sustains some kind of serious damage. "As our pot starts drying up, if we don't have the money, these buildings will be history."
The city wants to preserve the buildings, Glock said, but there are roadblocks to an easy transfer of title. The buildings were originally bought with $11 million in regional highway funds, meaning that other governments in Pima County besides the City of Tucson have a financial interest in them.
The county, said Glock, could pounce on the warehouses as a fund-raising asset to sell. "Someone could say, 'There's money we could use to improve Tangerine Road if we sell these properties,' " he said. "Our perception (in the city) is that all these properties are important to us. We want to maintain the ability to mange them."
City transportation staffer Jyl Maratea says she's now compiling information on this complex of issues. If the city does get hold of the buildings, it might become a landlord like ADOT, or look into way for artists to turn their sweat equity into real equity. The possible changes in ownership--plus the tentative DLUCS plans--make the artists who've invested in the ADOT buildings downright nervous.
"It's a funny sort of thing," Aguirre said. "We're planting roots and trees with the idea that this thing is going to grow and we'll stay here. But this cloud has been around: Will it be a tornado and blow everything away, or will it be a shower that nurtures us?"
Cause, an exhibit and silent auction of works by the Toole Shed artists, is on display through Friday, February 27, in the TPAC Community Gallery, 240 N. Stone Ave. There will be a closing reception from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday in the gallery. For more information, call 624-0595.
The New Arts District Must Contend With Neighbors' Complaints And Homeless Issues.
WHEN NEIGHBORHOODS change, tension invariably follows, and the warehouse district is no exception. Already the new arts uses have run into trouble over noise with the West University Neighborhood, a place historically buffeted by loud fraternities and music clubs. The arts spaces are zoned light industrial, but at least one of them butts up against houses zoned residential. A woman who lives across the street from the new Partnership building on Fifth Street has complained of noise: The sculptor occupying the Quonset hut in the parking lot uses power tools to craft his found-metal sculptures.
"In general we're very supportive of the warehouse district," said West University Neighborhood Association president Michael Fiddes. "This is an area that's been allowed to decay, directly on our border. That hurts us. Our only concern is that what goes in close to our borders is compatible."
At a mediation meeting, the artist and the resident agreed to try to work out their differences, said the Partnership's Herb Stratford, who's managing the new studio building. Both promised to try to be more aware of the other's schedule. But there are other signs of tension as the neglected district evolves in a promising new direction. Hard by the railroad tracks, the warehouses have long been the stomping ground of the homeless. The feeding site at 119 E. Toole Ave. offers free meals to the hungry every day at 3 o'clock.
"We need to tone down the feeding site," said Berman, whose Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Building is an easy walk across the tracks. His tenant, Anne Bunker of Orts, said she welcomes the homeless people who wander in to watch dance rehearsals, but her landlord believes they cause trouble. "We get a lot of vandalism," he said, "and the police feel it's from the feeding station."
Graham, of the Toole Shed, declares the feeding station "is the hobo equivalent of the Grand Canyon...It has blighted Toole Avenue...Ideally, I'd like to see someone take responsibility."
Someone has, according to Karin Uhlich of the Primavera Foundation. Her organization and three other social service agencies took over the site from the Salvation Army in early January. They hope to provide more than food to their hungry clients, helping them with substance abuse, mental health and job searches. To help minimize the throngs at mealtime, the new managers will keep the center open from noon to 5 p.m. everyday.
"The needs of the neighbors are very real," Uhlich said. "If we engage people in other activities, it will move Toole into a more positive presence. This is not an overnight solution, but it will improve steadily over time...What we don't want to see is wholesale persecution of homeless people. There are a lot of good people out there looking for jobs."
Several of the longtime downtowners have some misgivings about the shape of things to come. After the Schaper contretemps, they even banded together in "an extremely temporary" group called the Warehouse District Artists (WDA), said Alexander of Chax Press, to declare that the Partnership does not speak for them. The WDA wrote a letter to city officials saying that they wanted the city to inform them directly of issues that affect them. Schaper, a WDA member, who's kept his warehouse open for performance space, says he's sorry to see so many of the buildings partitioned off into private studios, rupturing art's mission, as he sees it, to take a public stand in the community. Alexander is critical of the commercial landlord/tenant model that's governing most of the new projects, a model that deviates from the old cooperative spirit in Steinfeld and the Toole Shed. None of the new places is jointly owned by artists.
"I would like to hear more about artists' equity, and the ability to buy into buildings," Alexander said. "Would the Arts District be willing to help locate buildings and get artists in with equity? Would all the artists in there (Steinfeld) have the opportunity to develop equity interest? Or are we going with the conservative idea of property ownership meaning individual ownership?"
A long-standing environmental problem in the district is getting some attention. The City of Tucson has gotten a $200,000 federal Brownfields grant to study the extent of industrial contamination in the neighborhood.
"Whenever you have a railroad, there's generally some pollution," said Pete Chalupsky, who's heading up the study for the Tucson Office of Economic Development. "In these older industrial areas, you had dry-cleaning plants, garages. Back then, people threw things out or buried it. Any of the older industrial areas are like that. Brownfields asks: How do you bring activity back?"
Chalupsky is optimistic that the Brownfields study will indeed mitigate the problems. And like most observers, he's happy to see what many are calling the Warehouse District Renaissance.
"It's so close to downtown," said Chuck Koesters of Orts. "It could be the turning point...This could be the conduit between Fourth Avenue and downtown."
Warehouse district pioneer Barbara Grygutis pronounced the changes "exciting. It's fantastic that it's really happening. In Tucson it's been going slow...But it is happening. It's the efforts of a lot of individuals, not a big government agency. The Partnership people are doing their mission...All these individuals are putting in a piece of the pie in a really special way."
Margaret Regan wishes to acknowledge David Devine's historical research on the warehouse district, published in The Smoke Signal, in the issues of Fall 1995 and Winter 1996. Devine will lead a free tour of the warehouse district at 9 a.m. Saturday, March 14, for the Tucson Arts District Partnership. Meeting place is the Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St. For reservations call 624-9977.
Home | Currents | City Week | Music | Review | Books | Cinema | Back Page | Archives
| © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth