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.

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?"

Gordon plans to conduct more protest rallies in the warehouse district, and is organizing a series of walking tours of the area led by loquacious historian Marshall Trimble. Gordon also plans to meet with real estate and retail developers "to discuss the great possibilities." He speaks gleefully of perhaps reestablishing a trolley line through the warehouse district from Seventh Avenue to Seventh Street, on tracks that still gleam in the sun.

Just before this column went to press, Mary Rose Wilcox threw jail-site critics one more bone: an offer to alter the design of its new jail so the main entrance would face Madison Street instead of Jackson, allowing for retail shops on the jail's first floor, facing Union Station.

Wilcox just doesn't get it.
First of all, who wants to go shopping in a jail?
Secondly, for a historical warehouse district, you need historical warehouses. Together. All of them. Not one here and one there with a 10-story jail between them.

"If you only save some of the buildings, the overall historical context of the area will be gone, and you get into a question of why save them at all," says James Garrison, the state's historical preservation officer.

"We're in danger of blowing right through a critical point where the potential for the area will be lost forever."

There is a renaissance under way in downtown Phoenix, long in the coming. Witness the new library, the Science Center, the art museum, the sports coliseums, the restored Orpheum Theatre, and Colangelo's plans for a performing arts center. Phelps Dodge recently relocated its headquarters downtown, and there are 15 designated historical residential districts in the area now, drawing a migration of homebuyers who want wood floors and chess-board tiling, not popcorn ceilings and cookie-cutter design.

A renovated warehouse district would perfectly complement this renaissance. Or we can accept cons, cadavers and cars.

Say it with me: No way in hell.

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: dholthouse@newtimes.com

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