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There were no tenants and no financing available, she says, and studies showed it would be too expensive to renovate these buildings from the 1940s and 1950s in any case. She considered trying to extend the Trammell Crow deal to give the developers more time to come up with funding, but in the end, the city budget was a crisis, the downtown retail market was dominated by the Arizona Center, and the market for office space was stalled. A parking lot became the only solution.
"I am emotional about this, I know," says McKeough. "My feelings have been hurt by people who work with me in the city every day thinking I just want to throw a parking lot up there, and it was not that way at all."
Not everyone is buying it. Critics like urban designer Michael Dollin and David Therrien, a first-time developer " who is building a center for leading-edge art in the old Ice House at Fourth Avenue and Jackson Street, are troubled by the scant information made available to the public at July's fateful city council meeting. No figures relating to rehabilitation costs or records of studies performed to assess the downtown retail market were provided on the vague, page-and-a-half report prepared by city staff that, even before the vote was taken, seemed to regard a parking lot as a fait accompli. (McKeough says that an extensive environmental study was performed on the buildings that showed the cost for asbestos abatement alone would be a prohibitive $300,000 to $400,000, and she makes this report available to the press. Further studies of rehabilitation costs were not performed. Another study, one assessing the downtown retail market, was apparently performed by the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, an association of downtown property owners who supported the parking-lot proposal and whose wishes carry enormous clout with the city council. DPP's director, Margaret Mullin, says she doesn't have this study's figures.)
"They used asbestos as a scare tactic, but there was no structural report on specifics about what buildings were unsafe," complains Therrien. "I think they were trying to make it happen fast, during the summer, when we wouldn't have a chance to work up a head of steam."
Therrien is interested in downtown events not only because of the future of the Ice House but because he continues to buy up downtown land for later development--development that he plans to do on a shoestring and with lots of creativity and sweat equity, in contrast to the slick, new, expensive sort of development that the Arizona Center personifies. He estimates that he owns enough land at this point to build "three Square Ones," including the old Santa Fe freight terminal that adjoins the Ice House property to the west. One of his most recent acquisitions, a building at Jackson and Ninth Avenue, was inhabited by transients who'd filled it with piles of thrift-store clothing they'd used for toilet paper and hundreds of aerosol spray cans that had been the source of highs. Therrien spent months gathering and discarding the disgusting garbage because he wanted to save an old building.
He believes there are others like him who'd have put their muscles where their mouths are in order to save the piece of Phoenix heritage that is Square One, and that a city needs the sort of funky project that could have resulted. In particular, he believes that in an economic downturn city staffers must use their imaginations rather than waiting for the big developers with deep pockets who are now nearly nonexistent.
"At the Ice House, I will do all six buildings on two acres for less than $2 million, what a usual developer would ask as a fee alone. And the architect is getting stock options," he reveals. "If you don't have the financing, you just have to figure out a different way."
All of which sticks in Margaret McKeough's craw. "I consider myself a creative person," she says of her ability to find unconventional funding sources and her understanding that raw-edged "alternative" development is vital to a city environment. She points to the Jackson Street studios at Second Street, a row of excellent and airy spaces for artists that was financed with a combination of the artists' relocation funds and city subsidies when artists were forced out of other spaces downtown, and which McKeough first located and then helped make possible by designing the funding package. "Jackson Street was definitely sweat equity and doing it on a shoestring in a way that had not been done before," she says.
And who is David Therrien anyway to be criticizing her ability to get things done? "David Therrien needs to finish a project and gain some credibility," she says, echoing a concern that's sounded often by observers with an eye on Therrien, who for years owned and operated CRASHarts with his wife, performance artist Helen Hestenes, just south of downtown. He bought the Ice House two years ago and so far he and Hestenes have only managed to mount occasional exhibitions; there has been no major renovation. He and Hestenes say he has been busy "stabilizing" the property--which is to say, buying more land for parking and working with asbestos abatement--but onlookers wonder whether he has spread himself so thin, borrowing from friends and family to buy one parcel of land after another, that he'll be unable to follow through on the original project that could establish him as the leader for the artsy, alternative development downtown.