By Ray Stern
By New Times
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By Stephen Lemons
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And it's not as though there's a mad rush to rent retail spaces in metropolitan Phoenix, either. There are numerous areas of the Valley that have more empty space than Old Town Scottsdale. All across Phoenix, there are hundreds of thousands of square feet of space that has sat unused for months or even years. Artists would love to turn those echo chambers into art galleries.
"What area couldn't benefit from that?" Spiak says. "There's that area at Central and McDowell, where there's a whole group of buildings across from CVS and the Phoenix Art Museum that are sitting empty. You have Bunky Boutique and other stuff there, and if some galleries opened around them, it would be a great hub area."
"Some of the malls are not doing so great, either, like Superstition Springs and Fiesta Mall," Spiak adds. "There are tons of strip malls built that were never even occupied."
In Mesa alone, there are 14 almost completely vacant strip malls currently listed for sale with commercial real estate company LoopNet, not including the barren Fiesta Village strip mall at Southern Avenue and Alma School Road. There are two new strip malls — Pioneer Plaza, across from the Mormon Temple, and the Shops at Bella Plaza, off Baseline Road and Superstition Springs Boulevard — that have maybe one or two tenants, and a former Walmart at Main Street and Signal Butte Road that Spiak says artists have had their eye on for a while. That building is 88,878 square feet of empty space.
Unfortunately, there are no immediate plans to transform any of those spots into pop-up galleries. Bill Jabjiniak, director of Mesa's Office of Economic Development, said he applauds the landlords who let artists use their spaces for pop-up galleries, but the city's focusing revitalization efforts on the Mesa Arts Center and downtown Main Street, where Second Friday art walks are becoming popular.
Revitalization plans for Mesa's foundering Fiesta Mall were made in 2007, but were put on hold when the economy started to tank. "Those plans are just being implemented. They're in their infancy," Jabjiniak says.
In other words, nothing's really happening there anytime soon.
But Mesa's not the only place in the Valley with surplus space. There's also 120,000 square feet of empty retail space on the west side, off 38th Avenue and Bell Road near Glendale, and a prime spot in Sunnyslope off Central Avenue and Hatcher Road, within walking distance of Sunnyslope High School.
Then there's Mill Avenue in Tempe. The street that housed so many independent businesses and nightclubs through the '90s is now, more a less, a series of gaping, empty spaces interspersed with staples like Monti's Casa Vieja restaurant and chains like P.F. Chang's.
"Frankly, there's some spots down there where there's nothing. It's empty," Baron Gordon says. "That lends an opportunity for artists in the area to say, 'Hey, let's get together and do a revitalization project similar to what's going on at Marshall Way.' I think it's on the way. I think it's a matter of months."
Actually, it is a matter of months. John Spiak is spearheading a project on Mill Avenue called "Open for Business," which would run from October 9 to January 29. The project would allow local artists to show their work in a collective exhibition in businesses along Mill Avenue. Businesses that have signed on include La Bocca, The Shoe Mill, Brand X T-Shirts, Rúla Búla, and Caffe Boa.
Spiak's inspired by what he sees happening on Marshall Way and hopes something similar can happen on Mill. "No one was going down to Scottsdale's Third Thursdays art walks anymore," he says. "[The artists are] giving it a shot in the arm with new visions."
That isn't just beneficial for the artists, but the property owners as well. Sheila Martin-Castillo says sitting on an empty office building in Central Phoenix was "a nightmare," but now that it's Gallery 2345, she sees hundreds of people coming in for art shows.
"There's a lot that can be done if you refuse to be defeated by this horrible economy," she says. "I refuse to be defeated. We need some success stories right now. We need some hope."
By 9 p.m. on the first Thursday in June, the traffic on Marshall Way has slowed to a trickle. Spencer Hibert and Emmett Potter still have the doors to Soyal gallery open, and they're chatting up a trio of well-dressed women.
Hibert, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt bearing a cartoon image of John McEnroe, steps outside for a cigarette. Tall and thin, with shoulder-length blond hair, Hibert is cautious in his optimism. "I just hope we don't get kicked out anytime soon," he says with a nervous laugh.
He's joined shortly by Potter, who reiterates how thankful they are to Bentley Calverley. "None of this would be happening without her," he says. "Bentley doesn't have to do this. There's nothing she can gain. She's doing it because she loves the art and the area."
Calverley continues to champion the cause, frequently attending openings at the pop-up galleries with her friends. When Potter and Hibert sold their first piece out of Soyal, Calverley said they'd made her day.
There's still plenty of room around town, including several spaces on Marshall Way. Many have art visible through the windows behind big yellow "space available" signs. They're there for now, but the future, of course, is uncertain.
See it while you can.
Bravo!! A truly accurate representation of what is going on!!
Very well done. I'd like to see more of this type of in-depth reporting on the arts in the valley. a good news story with wide appeal that does justice to the art it covers, too. good job. more, please.
Kudos on this excellent article! Proof positive that art/culture can be reported as NEWS without having to marginalize creative-types' work & efforts via "What Are You Wearing/Eating?"-type puff pieces that barely mention the art itself.
This story is the real deal. Thanks!