Ice Try

Frozen out of the downtown art scene, Helen Hestenes turns the heat up under the Icehouse

The current scene outside the Icehouse, on downtown's West Jackson Street, isn't the one that owner Helen Hestenes and her former husband, David Therrien, imagined when they bought the neo-classical cement bunker of a warehouse a decade ago.

They envisioned a thriving hub of experimental art amid a historic neighborhood reborn with a hip acronym that flashed "Artville" in everyone's minds. They imagined the derelict warehouses and streets reclaimed as live/work lofts, pubs, cafes, galleries, shaded plazas and other friendly urbanities.

Hestenes didn't foresee the round-the-clock dust and the gargantuan new county garage a block away, or the closed-off streets and construction trucks barreling back and forth between the holes in the ground that will soon contain a new county jail and morgue.

And she didn't imagine the isolation that has engulfed her historic building and hopes for an art life at the city's core.

"We're pretty much alone down here right now," says Hestenes. "We never wanted to be alone. We always wanted to be part of whatever happened with the arts downtown."

In a way, she is.

Several weeks ago, she applied to the City of Phoenix for a permit to demolish the 80-year-old Icehouse. Hestenes says she doesn't really want to destroy the building, but hopes the move will enable her to find a way to make the building viable.

Whatever her intentions, the action signals the demise of the last slim hope for a downtown art scene. That has been dying one or two blocks at a time since the late 1980s, when the America West Arena first began pushing artists and studios out of the area.

Since then, the jockstrap and bureaucratic aristocracies that rule downtown have finished the job, scattering artists west and north, to old commercial buildings along Grand Avenue and a few blocks on Roosevelt.

The city's historic preservation office denied Hestenes the permit because the building is historic. The denial requires a year's wait before anything can be done to the building, and owners often use the city's demolition regulations as a cry for help.

"After that, they can tear it down, but they have to have a viable plan," says Kevin Weight, the city's historic preservation officer. "They couldn't just tear it down to a vacant lot."

The demolition request could make it easier for Hestenes to sell the property, and recoup her family's investment, which she says has amounted to close to $1 million -- much of it from her father.

"That's money owed," says Hestenes. "It has to be paid back."

The building, which was purchased for about $150,000, could bring as much as $1.5 million today, according to some experts.

Hestenes says monthly costs run around $7,000 and annual taxes around $20,000. To pay the way, the Icehouse went from being an art house to a party palace in recent years, charging up to $4,000 for raves and other events.

The identity shift rankled some arts mavens.

"What people didn't realize," says Hestenes, "was that the art events didn't pay for anything. We had to stop doing them because we couldn't afford them. We have to make an income somehow."

That hasn't been easy in recent years. Fire and safety-code violations forced Hestenes to abandon use of the second and third floors of the building, eliminating space that could produce rental income. Hestenes estimates that it would take about $500,000 -- money she doesn't have -- to bring the Icehouse up to current fire and safety codes.

The cash-flow problems have been compounded by the county's demolition and construction of buildings in the area.

"She's in a tough spot now since the county has come in and taken over that part of the district," says Weight.

The county has leveled seven buildings in the area in the past few years.

"They've done it with no respect for the historic character here," says Hestenes.

In July, the county filed an application to demolish the Arizona Wholesale Supply Company Warehouse, at Fifth Avenue and Madison Street. At the time, the city was considering designating the 1940s building as historic. So it denied the permit and scheduled a public hearing. The county withdrew its application and, over the city's objections, began destroying the building before dawn on August 8.

Hestenes has other plans for her building and is hoping to get "survival money" from the historic preservation office.

Weight says the city would be willing to work with Hestenes to save the building. His department has more than $5 million to spend on special projects over the next five years and has been identifying other historic properties in the downtown warehouse district.

In the 1990s, the Icehouse had been awarded a $149,000 special-project grant to upgrade the building. But most of the grant was revoked after Hestenes and Therrien failed to raise the necessary matching funds.

Councilman Phil Gordon, who has been the city's lone champion of historic preservation in the warehouse district, says the demolition permit won't make it easier for Hestenes to get a second grant.

"I told her, 'I can't back even giving you money unless you're going to agree to give up the demolition right.' She said she couldn't do that do. I don't fault her for that, but you can't expect me as a public official to give you money knowing that maybe six months later the building's going to be knocked down. My gut tells me she's going to end up marketing it to a private developer."

Hestenes wasn't the first to dream of a downtown art center. In the 1970s, then-mayor Margaret Hance toyed with the notion of buying the Monroe School, on Seventh Street, and converting it into studios for the visual and performing arts. But her conservative backers feared the precedent of spending public money on art.

So the development of a downtown arts neighborhood fell to the artists who, in the 1980s, began trickling into the old warehouses and abandoned bars south of Jefferson Street, between Seventh Street and Seventh Avenue.

"They were cheap places in those days," says Beatrice Moore, who led various fights against eviction before finally moving to Grand Avenue and becoming a small-scale developer of art spaces. "They were pretty funky, but they gave us lots of room to work, and nobody really wanted them."

The influx accomplished something that the stadium, arena, museums and other large governmental projects downtown still haven't been able to. They began putting people on the street after hours and after events.

Numerous city and private plans from the past decade spell out the advantages of building upon the historic structures on Jackson Street. But the city never implemented the plans. Too preoccupied with producing big-splash projects, it neglected the small but essential developments that would give the city's downtown blocks some genuine life.

Had the city followed through with the plans, the historic buildings of downtown wouldn't have become such easy targets for county bulldozers.

And the Icehouse, problematic as it is, would be surrounded by more than just empty streets.

Proof of what can be done is sprouting along Grand Avenue, where Moore and other artists are repeating what they began downtown. But this time, they're buying the properties.

"Getting scattered the way we were was probably a blessing in disguise," says Moore. "When we came out here, the buildings were even cheaper than they'd been downtown."

Moore and her partner, Tony Zahn, also an artist, bought their first building for about $17,000. They now own about a dozen, which house numerous artists. Other artists are moving into the area and adding life to streets and properties that were on the slide. The same thing is occurring along Roosevelt, just north of downtown.

"When I was downtown, I used to think the city could help us," Moore says. "But they always kind of blew it."

Not long ago, she attended a meeting with the city's economic development staff, to discuss ways to encourage storefront operations.

"I sat there and listened, and the longer I listened, the more I thought that maybe the best thing the city can do for us down here is to just leave us alone."

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