Creative Movement

Historic preservation effort displaces charter arts school

The Metropolitan Arts Institute, downtown Phoenix's well-regarded charter arts school, will be moving to new digs in the middle of the school year.

The school is being forced out as part of the city and landlord Jim Kaufman's plans to preserve historic buildings at the former Phoenix Union High School campus. The adjacent Web Theater also will close, on May 31.

An agreement reached May 22 will allow the school to remain at its current location until January when Metro Arts will relocate to a new, 20,000-square-foot building on Third Avenue, between Van Buren and Fillmore streets.

Metro Arts opened in 1998 with 50 students and now has an enrollment of about 150, according to administrative director Matt Baker.

Metro Arts is well thought of as an institution where kids with creative talents flourish, often going on to some of the country's premier arts colleges. But the school also is known for its slim budget and reliance on grants and donations to stay open.

Still, Baker says, the charter school will begin a three-year fund-raising drive June 11 to raise $1 million. That money will help the school buy the Third Avenue building, which also is owned by Kaufman, and secure its presence downtown, he says.

The school also plans to work with a consultant to develop a proposal for a fine arts college to be located — possibly — on the Phoenix Union High campus.

"We've always planned on having a high school and then creating a great arts college," Baker says. "The only way to help my kids get integrated into the adult creative business community is to help develop and evolve the arts and business community downtown."

A fine arts college, he says, would provide an alternative for local students who otherwise might consider going to Chicago, New York or San Francisco. A proposal to develop a college is long-term, Baker says, and likely would not be ready for discussion for several years.

The city also would like to see Metro Arts remain downtown.

"It's become a very viable school that's providing an alternative for students here in the Valley," says Bob Wojtan, the city's economic development administrator. "It's a use we'd like to encourage in our downtown area, and this way we feel it's a win-win for both of us."

The city, meanwhile, is in the process of hiring a consultant to evaluate the best use for the Phoenix Union historic buildings and land. The city already owned about eight acres of the campus along its northern border. The entire 13-acre site stretches west from Seventh Street to Fifth Street and north from Van Buren to Fillmore.

The city hopes to have a consultant in place by July.

"The consultant will be talking to lots of groups of people, including the [Phoenix Union High] alumni and the Metro Arts people," says Rick Naimark, executive assistant to City Manager Frank Fairbanks, who worked on the purchase. "Demolition of those three buildings is absolutely not part of the consideration."

The Phoenix Union High School alumni association has long wanted to move back into the administration building and open a museum showcasing the school's history.

Alumni president Lionel Sanchez, a 1965 graduate of the school, says the group is pleased the buildings will be saved. Now the alumni association wants to work with the city to make a lasting memorial to the city's first public high school.

"We have a lot of stuff from athletics to theater to letter sweaters, trophies . . . you name it," Sanchez says.

The alumni association has begun its own fund-raising drive to raise $3 million so it can "be on the bargaining table when it comes ready to negotiate," Sanchez says.

Before this year, preserving the historic campus seemed unlikely.

After buying the Phoenix Union property in 1984, Kaufman worked to renovate the existing school buildings. The auditorium, called Union Hall, was refurbished and reopened as the Web Theater, a popular downtown venue for national music artists. The 20,000-square-foot science hall became home to Metro Arts.

But in January 2000, fearing the city might try to acquire his land for a planned Civic Plaza expansion, Kaufman requested a demolition permit to raze the historic buildings and up the property value.

The city had indicated it might move to develop its portion of the campus to the north.

Kaufman's request was denied, but the threat of demolition continued until mid-February this year when the city accelerated talks with him to buy the remaining land and buildings. A deal was struck, but neither side could agree on a price.

While the city will take control of the property May 31, officials won't know for some time how much the city will have to pay Kaufman.

Naimark says the price will be between $7 million and $15 million. The city has moved to condemn the site, and the property's value will be decided in Maricopa County Superior Court.

The money will come from two sources — historic preservation funds and dollars that had been earmarked for a downtown Arizona Cardinals stadium.

The Phoenix City Council is allowing Metro Arts to remain on-site through mid-January because the school has agreed to assume full responsibility for utilities and maintenance.

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