Whither Warehouse?

The county's new downtown jail would destroy valuable pieces of Phoenix's past

Looking over my county government's plan to destroy the warehouse district south of downtown Phoenix, I wonder if the schizophrenic crackheads who roam there at night came up with the concept.

A jail, a morgue and a parking garage.
Maricopa County intends to build this loathsome trinity on the fresh grave of Phoenix's last hope for the kind of renovated, mixed-use historical district that separates world-class cities from map dots.

A jail, a morgue and a parking garage.
Cons, cadavers and cars.
Boring, boring, boring.

I know of a better idea. There is an alternative vision for the old freight depots, railroad stations, dairy buildings and citrus warehouses in and around Union Station square.

Quick orientation: Located where Fourth Avenue terminates at Jackson Street, 11 blocks directly west of Bank One Ballpark, Union Station square includes, obviously, Union Station, built in 1923 by the Union Pacific and Santa Fe railroads; the Chambers Transfer building, built in 1923 and listed on the Phoenix historical register; the Borden dairy building, a quintessential example of 1930s design; and the Icehouse, built in 1920. The Icehouse is probably best known to contemporary Phoenicians, already renovated as a venue for corporate parties and art exhibitions with a character that is now unique, a sweet taste of the cultural smorgasbord the warehouse district could become.

This alternative vision for the warehouse district is one I share with the downtown artists who Paul Revered the county's plan, the city politicians and neighborhood leaders who shook themselves from slumber, and now the redoubling legions of citizens jumping into the civic street fight.

Urban planners and historical preservationists describe this vision as "adaptive re-use."

I call it cool.
Adaptive re-use means that instead of knocking down old buildings for new ones, we find new uses for old buildings. Uses like brew pubs, coffee houses, art galleries, nightclubs, clothing boutiques, record stores and loft living spaces, organized together into a colorful walking district.

Prime examples abound: Soho in New York City; Soma in San Francisco; Pioneer Square in Seattle; and, most recently, the glorious renovation of the Lodo (lower downtown) warehouse district in Denver.

We could do it here, too, but not if the wrecking ball swings.
I agree the county needs a new jail. The existing ones are dangerously overcrowded, and last fall, 70 percent of voters approved a tax for a new jail, which the county has a mandate to build. The jail-tax measure approved did not specify a site for the new jail, though, so the county has no voter mandate to knock down historical buildings situated in a prime spot for renovation.

Creating a Soho- or Lodo-like warehouse district near downtown Phoenix is not just good for culture. It's good for business. Think of the dumbbell-shaped shopping malls, which have big anchor stores on the ends, and a retail corridor of smaller stores in between.

Now picture the sports complex of America West Arena and Bank One Ballpark on one side of a dumbbell, the performing arts center Jerry Colangelo plans to build on the other, and the warehouse district--the retail corridor--in the middle.

Cash flow.
And--stop me if I get too excited--real live pedestrians (other than crackheads) traversing downtown Phoenix after 6 p.m., giving it flair and vitality--not cons, cadavers and cars.

We need to move quickly.
On June 9, despite a sudden burst of public protest, the county obtained the first demolition permit, which allows it to reduce to rubble the old Santa Fe Railroad freight depot at Fifth Avenue and Jackson.

That permit expires August 8.
The Santa Fe freight depot, built in 1929, is the future lair of a six-story county parking monster.

Can they do that? You bet.
In 1993, the city of Phoenix rezoned the warehouse district south of downtown as a historic overlay district, which was supposed to shield it from just the sort of monolithic, spirit-crushing development the county has in store.

The problem is, the county is a separate, autonomous government entity, and does not have to comply with Phoenix zoning laws. Once it owns the property, the county is free to do with it what it wants.

The county has already bought up many of the lots in the warehouse district, including all those needed for phase one (jail, morgue, garage) of an expansion plan that would eventually transform the warehouse district into a county government megaplex, no butter on the popcorn. The county can wrest ownership of lots away from reluctant sellers by invoking its power of eminent domain.

In other words, the county already owns most of the warehouse district buildings, it can pretty much seize the rest, and has the legal authority to destroy them and build whatever it wants to on the razed lots.

The county can do that, but there are signs it may do the right thing instead, if the public pressure continues to escalate.

The county's leader on this issue is supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox. The day after the county obtained the Santa Fe demolition permit, she and I had lunch, and I sensed she was feeling the pressure.

Maybe it was the protest rally Phoenix city councilman Phil Gordon called in Union Station square on June 4, to announce he was joining the fight to renovate the warehouse district--as a citizen as well as a councilman.

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