A feud is taking shape over Phoenix's plans to start a Latino Cultural Center, with Councilman Michael Nowakowski and arts leader Joseph Benesh accusing each other of having a conflict of interest when it comes to where the center should be located.
Nowakowski co-chairs the city’s ad hoc Latino Cultural Center committee. Benesh heads Phoenix Center for the Arts, which sits next to one of the sites Nowakowski wants the city to consider.
It’s a red brick building called the North Building, which is located on Third Street just north of Phoenix Center for the Arts. Benesh wants to expand the center's campus by adding the North Building.
The North Building is one of two sites Nowakowksi clearly favors, based on repeated statements made during a Latino Cultural Center meeting held at City Hall on May 29.
It was the first meeting for the subcommittee, which is focused on location options and operations. Benesh doesn’t sit on the committee, but meetings are open to the public and he’s one of a handful of community members who have been showing up at them.
Most meetings happen during the day when people are at work, by the way. And the city is only posting them on its meeting notice page, rather than the arts and culture department’s web page about the Latino Cultural Center, which has been stagnant for some time.
Nowakowski and Benesh traded barbs after city staff gave a presentation that included four possible locations for the center, including the North Building. That’s when Benesh suggested the city allow the arts center to expand its campus to incorporate that building.
He’s part of a coalition of mostly music-focused creatives who’ve already presented the city with a plan for transforming the building into a performing arts center. The coalition is one of three groups that responded after the city issued a request for information in June 2016, seeking to determine who might have the capacity to renovate and activate the building.
“If you were a city official, you would be conflicted out of this,” Nowakowski told Benesh during last week’s meeting.
Benesh has a different take.
“You identified this building before the feasibility study was done, so in my opinion if there’s a conflict, there’s a conflict on both sides,” Benesh countered a bit later in the meeting. Benesh didn't elaborate further, and declined to talk with Phoenix New Times on the record about the exact nature of the alleged conflict.
But city records show the two have disagreed in the past about how the North Building should be used.
With dozens of supporters in attendance, Benesh presented his proposal for activating the North Building during a September 2014 meeting of the city's parks and recreation board. At the time, its members included Delia Ortega-Nowakowski, the councilman's wife. Meeting minutes show that the proposal was well-received, yet the board didn't move forward with Benesh's proposal.
Nowakowski spoke during the public comment portion of that 2014 meeting, noting that the city should issue a request for proposal for the building because he knew other groups were also interested in the space. That didn't happen. And the city never moved beyond its request-for-information process launched in 2016, leaving the future of the North Building in limbo. New Times reached out to Nowakowski after last week's Latino Cultural Center meeting, but the councilman hasn't responded.
Even so, it's clear that Nowakowski has at least one reason to favor the North Building, based on his own comments during last week's meeting. "I run a Spanish radio station, and it's a problem trying to find a big enough space to do our events," Nowakowski told the committee.
Nowakowski is the vice president of communications for Radio Campesina, a network of 10 radio stations with Spanish-language programming, which includes a station broadcasting in Phoenix. "Often the city streets are too hot, so I'm leaning towards something with a park," he added. "I'm leaning towards the North Building."
It’s just the latest twist in a drawn-out process that began back in 2001. That’s when the city approved nearly $1.4 million in bond funding for renovating and expanding a downtown arts space called Museo Chicano. The museum shuttered in 2009, before it used the funds.
A group called Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center took over its space, by the way. It’s located on the ground floor of a parking garage for the Hyatt Regency Phoenix, across the street from the entrance to Symphony Hall. Its $10-a-year lease recently expired, but the city is letting ALAC stay on while city officials prepare an RFP to redevelop that garage.
Two people with long ties to ALAC are part of the 10-member ad hoc committee, and the group’s current president, Elizabeth Toledo, has taken an interest as well. Erlinda Torres, who served as ALAC’s president and CEO for many years, expressed her support for the North Building during last week’s meeting, after Nowakowski asked committee members to state their site preferences.
Toledo favors the Hyatt Regency garage. “I like where ALAC is now because it’s home,” she told the committee. “I’ve already designed up how we’re going to fix it up.”
Clearly, Benesh isn’t the only person with a stake in the Latino Cultural Center site decision. And at least one committee member has taken notice.
Casandra Hernández, who heads a Latinx organization called CALA Alliance, pointed out that the Latino Cultural Center project is separate from ALAC, which means that ALAC’s current arrangement with the city shouldn’t affect the city’s choice of where to locate a new Latino Cultural Center.
She’s concerned the committee is rushing the process without getting enough community input. “This should be driven by a community process versus some other agenda,” Hernández says. Nowakowski says that input already happened, while the city was working with a consultant a few years back.
The city commissioned a feasibility study in 2016, many years after Museo Chicano closed and the city decided to use the funds for a new Latino Cultural Center. The consultant issued her report in October 2017, after holding three town halls and gathering community input through an online survey and two city meetings.
The project stalled until February 2019. That’s when the city council approved a new ad hoc committee, which Nowakowski co-chairs with councilwoman Felicita Mendoza. At this point, the city has just under $1 million set aside, which has to be used for capital expenses – meaning a new build or renovations to an existing site.
Nowakowski is eager to pick a location, although not everyone agrees. “I don’t think we’re ready to answer that question fairly,” Hernández told the committee. “It’s clear that there are people in this room that have had that discussion among themselves.”
In early May, several committee members toured the North Building, as well as Grant Park and a fourth-floor space inside Burton Barr Central Library. The library is still on the short list, according to Christine Mackay, director for the city’s community and economic development department. But Grant Park got taken off the list, because there’s not enough space to create a new center without hurting existing programming at the site.
During the May 29 meeting, Mackay provided basic details about four options noted below:
• Public Market Parking. A 20,250-square-foot lot located on the southwest corner of McKinley and First streets, which is currently used for overflow parking.
• Herberger Grounds. A 20,400-square-foot, undeveloped portion of the Herberger Theater Center campus, located at the southwest corner of Monroe and Third streets.
• Regency Garage. A 41,250-square-foot space located on the southwest corner of Third and Adams streets, which is part of the city’s Adams Street activation project. This is where Museo Chicano was located.
• North Building. An existing building on 48,900 square feet of land, located on the northwest corner of Third and Moreland streets.
Nowakowski suggested several times during the May 29 meeting that the committee narrow its search to focus on the Hyatt Regency garage and the North Building. But that didn’t happen for a couple of reasons.
Sam Gomez, who owns a south Phoenix gallery called The Sagrado, attended the meeting as a member of the public. Gomez took issue with Nowakowski’s call for a quick decision on narrowing the site options. He urged the committee to consider whether it wants the center to serve tourists or the Latino community. “We need to have the community back into this discussion,” Gomez says.
Hernández asked the city to widen its perspective on the term "downtown" and consider whether other city-owned sites might be available. And she requested more information on the Mercado located on Monroe Street near Fifth Street. Although it’s slated to become part of the downtown biomedical campus, Mackay will include that site when she reports back to the committee.
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In addition, Hernández provided wider context for the site discussion, including decades of debate on a national level about whether cultural centers should be situated in urban centers or communities where people have greater access. She'd like the committee to have a serious dialogue about the issue before being asked to decide which location she prefers.“I feel very pressured as a member of the committee to make a premature decision now,” she told the group.
In the end, the committee directed city staff to report back at a future meeting about each option, with details including what it would cost to build or do renovations there. Ultimately, it’ll be up to the city council to decide how the city proceeds.
For now, the committee is continuing to weigh its options. Despite differing opinions about possible locations and the pace of decision-making, members agree that finally making the center a reality is a must.
“We all want to see this happen,” Hernández says. “It’s long overdue."