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Issue 1: Community Revitalization

The Arts Give New Life to Tucson's Warehouse District

by Margaret Regan

A painter perched atop an old building in Tucson carefully leaned from the roof to brush a fresh coat of red-brown paint onto the faded walls. Next door, an architect scurried around the massive Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Building, looking over plans to replace its raggedy sheets of plywood with a grid of glass bricks for a new gallery. A block south, a team of dancers hauled debris out of an old bakery. To the north, seven artists lugged paints and canvases and clay into spanking new studios in a former dental parts factory. A hop, skip, and jump to the east, workers in space suits removed asbestos from the basement of an old YMCA building, to make the place safe for an ambitious new International Arts Center.

The hammers and the paintbrushes were visible signs of the new arts life pulsing in the abandoned warehouses that once had been the hub of Tucson’s industrial life. Many of the ghostly structures have leaky roofs and other woes and almost all are cluttered with the detritus of their long-ago working life. Obtaining permits from the city for renovation has been challenging, but none have stopped the new arts migration.

"The Arts District is pushing out and that’s great,” says Anne Bunker, whose Orts Theatre of Dance refurbished the former bakery at one end of the massive complex. “They’re finally not ripping buildings down.” The troupe has built two large studios in the old garage and baking rooms, calling the new place Tucson Movement Arts Warehouse

Decline of Industry

Threaded along the Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific) railroad tracks that slice diagonally across the city’s downtown, the warehouses tell a story of the Tucson that once was. There were food depots, lumber yards, icehouses, a bottling plant, big commercial dry cleaners. 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.

Fashionably Gritty

Artists had 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 place to be.

For Candice Davis of Davis Dominguez Gallery, the neighborhood is an obvious place for arts development, tucked between the University of Arizona, with its legions of artists and Museum of Art, and downtown’s Tucson Museum of Art. Davis Dominguez Gallery, a leading Tucson purveyor of contemporary art, abandonded its perch in the moneyed foothills in favor of a space in the Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Company, the flagship warehouse of the district.

Owned for the last 10 years by Benjamin Plumbing Supply, this pockmarked 70,000 sf building with a landmark tower houses Benjamin’s storage and wholesale plumbing operation. Owner Mark Berman has long rented some of its spaces to a photographer and a small recording studio, but now he is investing in arts development in a big way, signing on Davis Dominguez and Orts as major tenants, carving out more studio space for visual artists, as well as moving his retail showroom into the warehouse building. Positioned side by side, the gallery and showroom will spruce up an entire city block that’s long been an eyesore, at an entrance to downtown.

Another investment group, Ron Schwabe and two partners, who had previously converted warehouses into arts spaces in Portland, purchased Tucson’s Firestone and Bookman Auto Parts buildings and is actively rehabbing the combined 38,000 sf into artists’ rental studios and retail space.

Plans Both Ambitious and Modest

Another trio of investors led by sculptor Paul Schock bought the maze-like former YMCA building, in which they opened an International Arts Center. The building’s roof leaked in the years since YMCA left in 1992, destroying some of the fine wood gym floors. Renovation cost were $300,000, over and above the $250,000 for the building. The ambitious new Arts Center offers dormitory-style housing and studios to some 24 artists and hosts visiting arts groups from around the world. Schock envisions an array of rehearsal spaces in old racquetball courts, performances in the gym, and someday, an art gallery and cafe in the tiled pool in the basement.

A more modest project is underway nearby. The Tucson Pima Arts Council has been occupying an Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) office building for several years at $300 a year, under a special legislative dispensation that allows ADOT to rent almost free to groups helping youth. TPAC has installed its program, ArtWorks, there after rehabbing the space with an $89,000 community development block grant from the federal government.

Not to be outdone, the Tucson Arts District Partnership, which has been promoting the warehouse district to artists for some years, purchased an old dental hinge factory. 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.

“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."

The Partnership, a nonprofit charged by the city with developing the Arts District, established a loan program targeted specifically to the warehouse district, including about $105,000 in loans to Berman, Schock, and others. Available only to private owners, these low-interest loans require the creation of new arts space, and insist that the place be kept for arts use for 10 years.

The Partnership has also been working for several years to have the whole area of about 77 buildings declared a National Historic District. Though the designation can not prevent the demolition of buildings, it would offer federal and state tax incentives to parties who buy and rehab the old properties.

Rescued from Demolition

Sixteen years ago, an arts warehouse district did not seem an obvious idea. The state of Arizona had planned to level much of it for a six-lane elevated highway, and bury a large component of Tucson’s architectural and industrial history.

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. The Steinfeld Warehouse, a rambling red-brick building famously used as art studios and workshops for the last decade, would have been among the victims. The highway would have created fast access between the city’s shopping district and the Interstate, entirely bypassing old downtown.

There was strong opposition to the Downtown Mile. By 1989, because of community protest, lawsuits and escalating costs, the state ceded authority for the road. The city, this time with a Citizens’ Advisory Committee, got to work on a much less invasive plan, based on the Downtown Land Use and Circulation Study (DLUCS), that would take down only a handful of buildings. But the funding and the political will for the new road is still uncertain.

Uncertainty Creates Opportunities In the aftermath of the Downtown Mile debacle, several dozen buildings, waiting for demolition. Barbara Grygutis, a Tucson resident and nationally known sculptor of public art, had the idea that the idled buildings would make great art studios. She had her eye on the Steinfeld Warehouse.

“We watched ADOT empty out the buildings. Steinfeld is a historic building and I’m interested in historic preservation. I just called them (ADOT), and said, ‘I hear you have vacant space.’”

ADOT was receptive, but insisted on a set of conditions that ordinary businesses would never accept. Grygutis would 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 cleaned it of filth and debris, got liability insurance and found subtenants.

One of them, clay artist David Aguirre, eventually followed Grygutis’ example and rented two more ADOT buildings, and with $50,000 of his own money carved them into studios now occupied by 34 artists. All along the area, as artists moved in, the peeling facades were transformed by brilliant color.

Uncertain Future

The difficulties that artists face in the ADOT properties go beyond leaks and wiring, however, and the ending remains to be written. Besides a long-standing problem of industrial contamination, which the City of Tucson has funding to study under a $200,000 federal “Brownfields” grant, there is the newer problem that ADOT’s funds for maintainence and infrastructure are drying up. According to Larry Maucher, ADOT’s project manager for southern Arizona, these buildings will be transferred to the City if there is a serious lack of funds.

“ADOT asked if we would be willing to take over the properties,” said Jim Glock, Deputy Director of Transportation for the City of Tucson. “That’s a lot to ask. Right now we are looking at the condition of the properties, the environmental impacts and other resources.”

The city wants to preserve the buildings, but there are roadblocks to an easy transfer of title. The buildings were originally purchased 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 could pounce on the warehouses as an asset. “Someone could say, ‘There’s money we could use to improve suburban roads if we sell these properties,’” said Glock.

If the City does get hold of the buildings, it might become a landlord like ADOT, or look into ways for artists to turn their sweat equity into real equity. The possible changes in ownership — plus the tentative DLUCS plans — make the artists who have invested in the ADOT buildings downright nervous.

“We’re planting roots and trees with the idea that this is going to grow and we will stay here,” David Aguirre said, “but this cloud has been around. Will it be a tornado and blow everything away, or will it be a shower that nurtures us?”

Margaret Regan is a staff writer for the Tucson Weekly. Full text originally appeared in Tucson Weekly, Vol. 14, No. 52.

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