Whither Warehouse?

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

Maybe it was the editorial in that morning's Arizona Republic titled "Save Downtown's History," which singled out Wilcox for a lashing. Maybe it was the chorus of voices singing out against her, including all 27 members of the Phoenix Arts Commission, the Phoenix Historical Neighborhood Coalition and former Phoenix mayor Terry Goddard (the quasi-governmental Downtown Phoenix Partnership, by contrast, has shown the backbone of breakfast yogurt on this issue).

Whatever the cause, Wilcox retreated a few steps during our conversation before she stopped, turned and fixed her bayonet.

Initially, she said she did not want to give the false impression that she is close-minded to compromise. In that spirit, Wilcox told me, she planned to appoint, as soon as possible, a committee to decide if the new county morgue could be located elsewhere.

Also, she promised to make sure the façade of the new jail "will reflect the character of area." That is, look old.

Finally, Wilcox told me she had decided to throw away the county's demolition permit and "save the Santa Fe building."

The location of the parking garage will remain the same, I was informed, but instead of demolishing the Santa Fe depot, the county's architects will "incorporate it into the design and build over and around it."

In other words, Wilcox's working concept is now to graft a 1929 freight depot onto the first floor of a modern parking monolith.

See previous, schizo crackhead theory.
Wilcox presents the idea as a gracious concession, reminding me that the county hired a historical consultant who reported that the Santa Fe depot (along with the other structures the county intended to purchase, condemn and destroy) is of no historical significance.

Councilman Gordon asked the state preservation office for an independent, third-party opinion of the Santa Fe building.

"Built along the point where the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads met, the only place in Arizona where these two major railroads connected, the depot was important for the transferral of trade goods between the two," state historian John Akers replied in a letter in which he described the building as a vital cultural resource, eligible for the National Historic Registry.

"Phoenix's warehouse district developed in this area because of the importance of this connection point."

Significant enough for me.
But not for the county's historical consultant, former city of Phoenix historical preservation officer Debbie Abele. In this unfolding redevelopment/preservation drama, Abele is playing the role of Sellout.

Abele has also signed off on the county's proposed site for a new, 10-story jail--to be built on the square lot between Madison and Jackson streets, Fourth and Fifth avenues--where the old Borden dairy and Maricopa creamery buildings now stand.

Wilcox says that site is non-negotiable.
"I don't mean to be stubborn, but that jail is not going to move," she says.
The current site is the only logical one, Wilcox says, because it's right next door to the old jail, with the Maricopa County superior courts across the street. The new jail could easily link with the old jail's subterranean tunnel system for transporting prisoners back and forth from court appearances.

Any other location, Wilcox argued, would force the county to transport prisoners above ground, which looks bad, costs more, and poses a greater risk of escape.

"The security issue is a valid issue," says Phil Gordon. "But surely, if the world's toughest sheriff can safely put chain gangs on the street, he can handle transporting more prisoners the extra distance."

Besides, Gordon says, the county already has plans to build a second new jail next to its Durango jail, which is miles from the superior courts, near the big bend in Interstate 17. Why not simply expand those plans and eliminate the new downtown jail site in the warehouse district?

That's one option.
Here's another: Build the new jail on the vacant, blighted lots the county owns at the intersection of Third Avenue and Lincoln Street, just southwest of Union Station.

That site, separated from the Grant's Park slum area by a power station, would move the jail farther from downtown Phoenix, and outside the warehouse district, but only three blocks from Madison Street Jail.

The extra length of tunnels would be prohibitively expensive, Wilcox protests. How expensive she couldn't say, because no one in the county has run the numbers.

Let me hazard this guess: Long-term, the price of moving the jail will be less than the price of knocking down the warehouse district. And I don't mean spirit of the value of Phoenix's heritage stuff. I mean hard currency.

Right now, the buildings in the warehouse district generate $600,000 a year in property-tax revenue, according to Gordon. If the area were redeveloped, obviously, that number would go up. Also, consider the sales-tax revenue that would accompany an influx of retail businesses.

"Moving the jail may cost more money," says Gordon. "How much money we don't know yet, because we haven't taken the time to find out."

In any case, Gordon says, "If you take all these properties off the tax roll, forever, that carries a financial cost for the citizens as well. Why not work together, the city and the county, on a symbiotic approach? A beautiful approach?"

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