The Block Busters

THE 1910 CITY Directory of Tucson had a piece of advice for the newcomer to the Old Pueblo: If you wanted to find your way around, head for Stone and Congress, in the heart of town.

Just about anything anybody needed could be found in a one-block radius of that bustling intersection in the robust year of 1910. On the block of Congress to the east of Stone, for instance, there were butchers--The Fulton Market, at Nos. 16, 18 and 20, and Pusch & Zellweger (34); bakers--City Bakery (22) and Wheeler & Perry Bakery (36); and candymakers, Mission Candy (9). Ivancovich sold groceries at No. 31, Fred Fleishman and Martin's dispensed drugs at 21 and 52, and clothing stores were everywhere in between.

If those new clothes got dirty, there was Hartley and Wheatcroft cleaners. If it was a job you were needing, there was an employment office. For a haircut, there were the rival Elite Barber and Alberto Felix Barber; for cigars, Cigar Center; for baubles, Capo-Hohusen Jewelry.

Feature Virtually every storefront on the crowded first block of East Congress was occupied. The street could satisfy nearly every material need (and the Cathedral of San Agustín was not far off). As the decades marched on, new businesses moved in and out of the block's turn-of-the-century storefronts, but its appearance didn't change dramatically. A changing series of banks planted themselves in the tall building at the corner of Congress and Stone, as did doctors, dentists and insurance brokers. Pool halls, jewelers, milliners all presided on the street for a time, and a wave of shoe stores made an incursion by the 1940s. Most of the stores were local enterprises, but early on there were prescient signs of Tucson's links to the larger economy. By 1919, a Woolworth's 5 & 10, was installed on the south side of the street at No. 36, displacing a local bakery; by 1940 the variety store had gobbled up all the stores from No. 36 to 48. Woolworth's gave way to Thrifty Drugs by 1970.

There were even some pioneering arts occupants in a place that would later become part of the Tucson Arts District: The architect Henry Jaastad had offices at No. 35 in 1910; the famous Buehman photography studios were at Nos. 15 and 17 in 1920; Tucson Opera House in different years occupied 40 and 49; the State Theatre was in No. 51 in 1950.

THIS HISTORY OF prosperity would be astonishing to even the most casual visitor to the block today. A glorious bank building, its lobby all pink marble and pillars, still stands at No. 2 on the southeast corner of Stone and Congress; its latest financial occupant is Bank One. But if you take a single step east of the grand old bank you enter an urban wasteland. Peeling plywood, blacked-out windows and iron grills block the entrances to abandoned stores most recently inhabited by Thrifty's, Field's Jewelers, a gun shop--all the way down to the corner at Scott, where the Indian Village Trading Post, all by its lonesome, is still open for business.

The north side of the street is even worse, since many of the old retail buildings have already gone the way of the wrecker's ball. Lerner's stoically held on until recently to the storefront across from the bank; a new restaurant/billiards club called Pockets bravely announces via placard that it's coming soon. The only other sign of life, if you can call it that, is at the Old Pueblo Parking Garage, its blank pink and salmon facade planted disastrously right on the street. Then comes a weedy open-air parking lot, and then the sad tower of the former McLellan store on the corner, its fine concrete Arizona map above the door looking decidedly forlorn.

How the block got from bustling then to moribund now is the typical sorry saga of the older American city. It's easy to round up the usual suspects: the rise of the shopping mall and suburban sprawl; the diversion of tax dollars from public transit to road construction for the rapacious automobile; the wholesale destruction of downtown residential neighborhoods by urban renewal; the evolution of the city center into a 9-to-5 office and government ghetto.

These generic villains are all at fault on East Congress, to be sure, but there's another culprit that gives the tale a specific twist. The federal government owns the whole south side of the block, from just past the bank to the Indian traders. Back in 1989, the feds bought the block as a site for a new federal courthouse. Since the plan was to demolish the structures anyway, the buildings were allowed to deteriorate and lie fallow, to the detriment of the city's revitalization efforts.

As downtown restaurateur Camille Bonzani puts it "Someone should be ashamed of the (federal government's) careless disregard of a city and its downtown."

But there's movement afoot. After allowing a whole city block to languish for close to a decade, the federal government is no longer interested. The Congress Street location is now considered too small for a courthouse, says Sheryll White, asset manager for the federal General Services Administration. It's not safe enough either. After the Oklahoma City bombing, curbside courthouses were deemed too risky, so the federal government is building its giant new courthouse in the roomier environs of Broadway and Granada.

"At the end of the calendar year," says White, "I plan to make my declaration that the site is excess federal property."

Naturally, the coming redevelopment of the comatose south side of the block will spur activity on the north side. There's no shortage of interested parties in both sides of the street. Real-estate entrepreneurs are nibbling. A multiplex cinema has been proposed. National retail chains have been envisioned. And a new Museum of Contemporary Art, grandly named by a grassroots group of Tucson artists, has been conceived.

A fight is looming. Under federal law, the structures could pass at low-cost or no-cost to a local government for a public use. Failing that, they could end up on the auction block for sale to the highest bidder.

What happens to the buildings will help shape Tucson's downtown for decades to come.

JAMES GRAHAM SLIDES into one of the vinyl booths along the windows at his restaurant, The Grill on Congress, at No. 100, a block east of the empty Thrifty store. The lunch rush at the 24-hour place is over, and the mid-afternoon sun slants through the half-drawn blinds, intensifying its retro-'50s look. Graham, 36, packs a lot of energy into his long, wiry frame, and it spills out in a non-stop torrent of words as he talks about his dream for a Museum of Contemporary Art on Congress Street.

"We want to show the world and show Tucson that there's some really exciting stuff happening here," he says fervently. "There are trends I see in art here that are consistent--certain aesthetics that this climate creates. This environment, this strange post-industrial, desert-dwelling Old West-meets-the-airplane graveyard kind of weirdness that really makes itself present in the art."

The way Graham sees it, the museum would boost art and downtown at the same time.

"We'll make something that will be clean, well-lit, glowing at night. It will have activity all evening long. That's when most museum traffic is, afternoons, evenings and weekends. Our classes will be set up for people who are working during the day. The performances will be in the evenings and on weekends. The restaurant that will generate revenue for the museum will be open in the evenings. It will be a real nighttime destination."

Graham, a photographer, and his wife, sculptor Julia Latané, have tackled a number of downtown redevelopment projects already. They've owned and managed the Grill for three years, despite dire predictions by others of financial suicide. Graham's proud that "the business has employed 33 people consistently over three years. It's moved over half a million dollars every year through the local economy."

The couple renovated a warehouse at University and Main, converting the old place into studios and apartments, one of which serves as their home. And as a founding member of the Toole Shed, a renovated warehouse of artists' studios, and an early resident of the artists' Shane House, Graham says he learned how to fix up old buildings on the cheap, where to get free paint, how to qualify for free construction materials from a Pima County recycling program, how to enlist the aid of volunteers. He intends to use these lessons in the new museum, nicknamed MOCA, that he wants to install in the empty Thrifty and nearby stores.

"You need to get the doors open, the lights on. You go from there. We take a very different approach from most development projects."

Graham and his partners, Latané and friend David Wright, who used to run Sixth Congress Gallery, incorporated the museum as a nonprofit a year ago. They want to transform the empty block into a cutting-edge arts space, suitable for installations, performance art, new genre, large sculpture and whatever other new forms contemporary artists might dream up.

To keep costs down, their architectural plans rely on the existing spaces in the old buildings. For instance, the vast Thrifty, with its ugly, '60s modernist facade, would lend its hulking spaces to a gallery for changing shows. An old stage in a store to the east would accommodate performance art, and an old oak bar in another would anchor the museum restaurant. A room with industrial sinks would evolve into a photography darkroom. The small basement rooms would become classrooms and more gallery space. The roof would be a sculpture garden, and a loft room a media gallery.

"This is modeled after other successful projects of the same kind of things, grassroots museums," Graham says. "We use P.S. One in New York as our biggest model. That's the most successful museum in New York in terms of contemporary art. It was an abandoned school. A group of artists just kept asking the Board of Ed for the building, and they kept asking. The Board of Ed eventually said, fine, take this thing, leave us alone."

GRAHAM'S GROUP HOPES to get hold of this big chunk of downtown real estate in a similar way. To get it, though, the MOCA people not only will have to drum up support on the Tucson City Council, they'll have to negotiate their way through the federal government's intricate rules for disposing of property.

The feds are strict about which activities constitute "public use," but White, the GSA asset manager, said by phone from her San Francisco office last week, "A museum can be an educational use." Still, she added, "Mr. Graham is being a bit too optimistic" in thinking that the property would be given away for free.

The rules are indeed tricky, says Carol Carpenter, the downtown specialist for the city's Office of Economic Development who helped put together the controversial new Business Improvement District (BID) last fall. (Carpenter is now a finalist for the BID's executive director position, as recounted in this week's Skinny column.)

While it's not unheard of for a public use project to get federal buildings for free, it's not common either. And a lot of other agencies would get the "right of first refusal" ahead of the museum project. Other federal agencies have first dibs on a property; barring any takers, GSA next alerts the state, county and city governments. Any of them can make a proposal. The museum group cannot on their own, Carpenter says. They would have to get their plan adopted by the City of Tucson, and the city would make the pitch to the feds.

The GSA keeps a close eye on buildings it gives away, to make sure no for-profit uses creep in, and if a project goes amiss, it doesn't hesitate to swoop in and take a place back. Any gift shop or restaurant would have to be owned by the museum, not leased out to a private operator, and all profits would have to be re-directed to the institution. Unfortunately, the retail outlets that have survived on the bleak block--the Indian Village Trading Post on the corner and tiny Café Poca Cosa on the building's flank on Scott Avenue--would have to go.

And there's another catch. The McKinney Act specifically names facilities for the homeless as a top priority for empty federal buildings. Could a homeless shelter sprout up on the main thoroughfare of a downtown desperate to revitalize? Not likely, White and Carpenter agree, but possible. Any federal projects have to comply with local zoning laws. New missile launchers for Davis-Monthan Air Force Base would be precluded, but a shelter might not be.

"Typically, they don't come in with a request for a homeless shelter in a downtown business district," White says, but added a word of warning to the city: With the divestment rolling by the end of the year, "there's still time to get your zoning cleaned up."

If the city declined to back the museum, and neither the county nor state had any use for the dilapidated old structures, they would be put up to public auction. Any developer could pony up the money and put in whatever they wanted that complied with local zoning. A developer might elect to knock down the buildings. And while the homely structures are not exactly pristine treasures on the lines of the coveted Stevens House, they're still visible relics of Tucson's past. The thought that a property now in public hands could go the way of the wrecking ball exasperates Graham.

"I'm not puzzled at all about how someone in Tucson would want to bulldoze buildings and put in parking lots. That doesn't puzzle me at all. They do that all the time. Whether they can do that here, no, I don't think that's gonna happen. Never say never but I think we've got a better plan."

Carpenter, though, insists there's no unanimity on what ought to be done with the block. The next six months, she says, will be a crucial time for downtowners to figure out the zoning they need to guarantee they get the downtown they want, possibly through discussions in the BID. Zoning rules could preserve the facades of old buildings, for instance, and parking could be hidden away behind useful retail fronts.

Carpenter says the office of economic development so far has no formal position on the best use for the Thrifty buildings--and she notes the decision is up to the City Council, not her office. Still, she has no trouble articulating the opposing position.

"Let's say the city says, 'I don't have a public use that works in there,'" Carpenter says. "If the city says, 'This should be the highest-paying-rent part of the entire downtown. This is the entertainment district. This is our spine. Why in the world would we put a museum there when we can be generating higher rents with lots of activity day and night? A museum closes at 5 p.m. We don't think that's the highest and best use for the block. We think it ought to go to public auction. And a developer ought to come in and buy it and do it.' Then it goes to public sale."

CARPENTER IS SPEAKING on one of the first hot days of the pollen season. She has a headache and it's not just from the rough and tumble of redevelopment politics. She rubs her temples as she sits in the city's Office of Economic Development in the historic El Presidio neighborhood.

Raised in Tucson, Carpenter came back to town a year and a half ago to work as the city's downtown development specialist. Fresh from a nine-year stint in a similar job in the inner-ring suburbs of Baltimore, Carpenter's new task is to market Tucson's downtown, a place that for years has seemed a lonely preserve of government workers, artists and an ever-changing lineup of artsy stores and cafés.

A successful downtown, she says, depends on a mix of enterprises--entertainment, retail, cultural attractions. She wants to "open up the market downtown, so that it doesn't just serve a particular clientele that's interested in art. It serves children, it serves seniors, it serves people of all types. It gets people east of Campbell to come downtown. I'm looking at all kinds of opportunities to be able to do that."

Right now, Carpenter is pushing for an "entertainment district" on Congress, bounded by the restored Fox and Rialto theatres at either end and anchored by a hoped-for multiplex cinema in the center. A movie theatre, she said, would trigger a host of other businesses.

"Cinema is a wonderful traffic generator for downtown," she says. "You would have retail on the first floor and cinemas upstairs, whatever would be attracted in relation to cinema. It could be restaurants, youth entertainment, bookstores. It could be local, it could be national. Cinema opens up the market."

Carpenter is undeterred by the failure of a movie theatre in La Placita some years ago.

"Timing is everything," she says. "You can't compare what's happened in past. There is a market for cinema in this location."

And Carpenter is hoping to lure a new kind of enterprise, Sundance Films and General Cinema, to the site of the old McLellan's at Scott and Congress. Sundance potentially could put in a building as big as 85,000 square feet, housing eight to 14 movie screens. The company, which produces independent films and runs the Sundance festival each year, is branching out into the for-profit theatre business. The company and its independent movies, she believes, would be a good match for the spirit of Tucson's arty downtown.

"We just think for a lot of reasons that Tucson is the kind of location that would be good for them. Our downtown has a very independent, organic flavor to it already. We're marketing that. I'm bringing together partners like Giulio (Scalinger) from the Screening Room, the Film Office, people from the film trade, so that we take our package together as a community. I've spoken with them (Sundance) and they are interested and we are putting together a formal proposal."

CARPENTER IS AWARE that some downtowners of the artier stripe are worried about getting pushed out. When Carpenter says, "There is room in the boat for everyone," they don't hear reassurance. They hear the ominous sound of chains clanking on the horizon.

And Scalinger, for one, thinks of Sundance as the worst kind of chain of all, intent on putting out of business the little theatres that have kept independent film alive for years. Director of the Arizona Center for the Media Arts, he operates the Screening Room on Congress Street, which shows small, independent films. He's upset when he hears about Carpenter's Sundance plans from a reporter. First he's heard of it, he says.

"It would definitely affect our business," he says angrily. "The types of programs we show, that's what they would show."

Scalinger says last he heard, Carpenter was talking about a more mainstream theatre along the lines of Cineplex Odeon. "They show Hollywood films; we don't object. It would be like at the Catalina, no direct competition. Sundance Theatre would be direct competition.

"My question that I would pose is: Why is there no support for us? We've been downtown for 10 years struggling. Sundance is a big corporation."

Scalinger believes the Museum for Contemporary Art would be a real asset to the Arts District, a venue where overflow movies and innovative media might flourish. And like a lot of the Congress Street merchants, he's suspicious that right now, to the city, economic development means national chains. For many, it's the old story of arts making a place more interesting, then the big money coming in and pushing the arts out.

If Scalinger worries about his nonprofit being run out of business by a giant chain, for Fred Huntington, proprietor of Huntington Trading Co., purveyor of fine Latin American crafts, at 111 E. Congress St., that worry is already past. He's shutting his shop after roughly eight years downtown. He recently wrote a letter to his customers explaining, "We are finally giving up on the hope of a revitalized downtown."

Huntington is disgusted about what he sees as the city's lack of help.

"I don't see the city doing anything except for talking," he said. "There's no creativity in the city. They'll bring in a cineplex or a Gap. Their idea is to do something big. They can't see that they should grow it from the grassroots."

Huntington also supports MOCA, which he thinks could serve as an anchor to the Arts District, and he admires Graham and Latané's successful run with The Grill. But in the new business climate, he believes, local entrepreneurs like them will be shut out.

"We already have a Tucson Mall. They can't think past that quick fix. The money from chains goes out of town, and then the city turns into Downtown, U.S.A."

Caroline Reed is artistic director of Damesrocket Theater, 125 E. Congress, which took over the old aka Theatre last fall. The museum, she says, "would be a draw for the city, tied to tourism. I can see it being a charming area."

But she's less sanguine about the proposal for a big cineplex.

"That's what they do: They can get more for the properties if they do a whole sale of the block," she says. "There's been demolition by neglect here and then they sell it off in big blocks at a time."

After an 11-year run, Bonzani, a photographer, has decided to sell Magritte's, her restaurant at 254 E. Congress. Her impending marriage to a "country boy" is one reason, she says, but it's also true that after years of trying to promote the downtown, "I'm not part of the energy that's going to push it back up."

Bonzani is philosophical about downtown's cycles of boom and bust. Right now the city's core is at one of its lowest points, and she thinks a kind of generational change is at work. The arty types of the last decade were urban pioneers, and they're beginning to give way to the real-estate interests. Her words echo Carpenter's.

"The cycle of revitalization in the last 10 years was based on a sincere intent of honoring and nurturing arts and culture," Bonzani says. "With the BID (Business Improvement District), there's a new cycle that's mainstream real-estate oriented. I don't judge it right or wrong. A cineplex is related to what is appropriate, but you can't forget where you came from. The energy of the maverick establishments is essential, too. There's room for both."

ROOM OR NOT, Graham and his partners are hustling to get the political support they need for MOCA. City Council members Janet Marcus, Steve Leal, José Ibarra and Jerry Anderson are all encouraging, and so is County Supervisor Raul Grijalva. Terence Pitts, director of the Center for Creative Photography, has signed a letter of support, as has Albert Soto of the Tucson Pima Arts Council. Graham's circulating petitions, and his partner David Wright briefly buttonholed Governor Jane Dee Hull at a Republican fundraiser last Saturday night.

They hope to assemble of a board of directors this summer and go full-speed ahead on their fundraising so they can make their big push before the federal government makes its move. For now, there's nothing for them to fight against. They don't know for sure who their rivals for the block are.

"We're the only people who've come out, put in print what our intentions are, what we are, what we're doing and what we want to do," Graham says. "No one else has actually signed their name to any other plan for the block." TW

The Museum of Contemporary Art will hold a fundraising party from 7 to 11 p.m. Thursday, July 16, at 821 Main Ave. There will be a presentation about the museum. For more information, call 624-5019. The website is

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