The Warehouse Tape

I don't wish ill on the clerk to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, but it's a good thing she was sick on June 15.

That was the day the Board of Supervisors met in a hastily called "special study session" to discuss the media melee over their plan to knock down historic buildings near downtown Phoenix to make room for a jail, a morgue and a parking garage.

Normally, the only public record of such a session would be minutes taken and compiled by the board's clerk. But since she was sick, they ran tape.

Summarized, sanitized minutes are nothing next to a candid, word-for-word feed.

For example, the minutes of the June 15 special session might have read, in part, "Supervisor Brewer reminded the board of its past efforts to obtain funding for the new jail project, and reaffirmed her support for the current status recommendations . . ."

What Brewer actually said was:
"We all went out and gave our rah-rah speeches, and we promised to build the no-frills jail Joe Arpaio wanted, and the parking to accommodate that. The jail site's a done deal. I think we're all in collective agreement on that."

Brewster's right on one point.
Judging by the tape, she and the other supervisors--Fulton Brock, Don Stapley, Andy Kunasek and Mary Rose Wilcox--are thus far refusing to budge on their decision to build a new jail on what's now called the Borden block.

A one-square-block lot that now holds a 1930s warehouse, the Maricopa creamery and the Borden dairy building, the Borden block is a crucial piece of the historic warehouse district south of downtown Phoenix--the same warehouse district which is this city's last chance to create a historic, mixed-use area such as Denver's Lodo (lower downtown).

There, a similar cluster of dilapidated warehouses and freight depots was transformed into a vivacious economic and cultural district with loft living spaces above shops and nightclubs, with pedestrian traffic and a restored trolley system.

If the county builds a 10-story jail on the Borden block, it will crush the heart of Phoenix's historical warehouse district. The chance for its resurrection will be lost forever.

Thus the controversy.
The two weeks prior to the board's special study session last week were tumultuous for the county's jail project (which also includes plans to place a new morgue and parking garage in the warehouse district, demolishing more historic architecture in the process).

"I leave town on Wednesday, and everything was on track, and I get back and call my office, and everything's off track," Brewer says. "What happened?"

Basically, this:
On June 4, Phoenix city councilman Phil Gordon held a rally in the warehouse district to protest the county's plan and to advocate a Lodo-esque alternative vision. His rally got play on the evening news and in the next day's papers. A week later, the Arizona Republic wrote an editorial titled "Save Downtown's History," which blasted the county's plan. Former Phoenix mayor Terry Goddard came out against the plan. So did the Phoenix Arts Commission and the Phoenix Historical Neighborhood Coalition.

And, we know now from the tape of the board's study session, county supervisors, and especially Mary Rose Wilcox, were slammed with phone calls, e-mails and letters from angry voters.

Wilcox, who represents the county district encompassing downtown, began to make concessions to the county's critics. She held a press conference on June 11 where she announced that while the jail site would not move, the county had scrapped its plans for a morgue in the warehouse district, and would "incorporate" the Santa Fe depot (built in 1929, on Jackson Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues) into the design for the county's new parking garage.

Instead of being demolished, she said, the old railroad freight house would become part of the parking garage's first floor.

Last week in this space, I harshed on Wilcox for that panicked suggestion, and criticized her obstinance on the jail location. It was my hope that the other supervisors were more flexible in their thinking.

The tape of the June 15 meeting dashed that hope. Wilcox is apparently the only supervisor willing to even sit down at the table with the City of Phoenix and the rest of the county's critics. When she was offering deals, she was doing so with a false sense of authority.

The special session recording contains several terse exchanges between Wilcox and other board members. They take turns castigating Wilcox for making deals on her own, and she accuses supervisors Stapley and Kunasek of coming at her back with knives.

"Last week, we had so many calls coming in, and stacks of letters piling up, I felt we should make it clear to the public that we are flexible on the morgue, that there are other sites," Wilcox tells Stapley.

"I talked to both you and Andy last week, and I thought we all felt we could use some more study, and the current site for the morgue was not the most desirable one.

"Now I understand both of you are changing your opinions. But I will stay on board, though, to say that we are damaging the warehouse district."

"Perhaps you misunderstood me," Stapley replies. "I never said anything meant to make you believe I did not support the current status recommendation.

"I think what makes the most sense now is for us to work together and move together and put all personal preferences aside, because I think it encumbers us for anyone to encourage these organizations and neighborhood associations to in any way inhibit our alliance."

Who is this guy, Darth Vader?
We shall crush these meddlesome rebels who dare defy our plans for the downtown Penal Star.

And God forbid a county supervisor should form and act upon a personal preference, or change a position after listening to constituents.

Stapley doesn't think too highly of the intellect of critics of the county plan.

"I think people have gotten emotional about this morgue, like it's this deep, dark thing going in downtown. Well, I don't think it's the offensive use everyone conjures in their mind that, oh, God, it's horrible, it's the dark side going on down there, or The X-Files or whatever else."

Oh, I see. It's not the whole downtown cultural district thing people are howling about. It's their fear of zombies, slithering off the cold, steel slabs in the new county morgue, slouching toward the Arizona Center to feast on the brains of the innocent.

"You know, a morgue, it's not like a homeless shelter, where there's all these people milling around, panhandling," Stapley continues.

"It just says 'Forensic Science' on the concrete wall, and I would submit that most people don't even know what that means."

Yeah, well, Stapley doesn't know the politically correct name for morgue.
"To call [the Forensic Science building] a morgue is an antiquated, derogatory term that I find objectionable," county administrative officer David Smith admonishes the board.

So there.
Smith, who is charged with implementing the board's plans and policies, is the first invited speaker at the session. He sounds wounded by the uproar.

"My staff is feeling discouraged at this point," he says. "This thing has gone into controversy before the professionals have had a chance to do their work."

Let me stop for a second. Isn't going "into controversy" part of a process that's supposed to be public?

Now, back to Smith, who says that while the jail, morgue and parking garage locations are set, the structures themselves are still in the design phase, and afford the county a chance to prove it can be "a good corporate citizen."

"We could create an exciting array of softening and humanistically pleasing physical changes," says Smith.

"We can make the final design be compatible with the larger issue of some kind of neighborhood theme. Let's at least look at whether or not we could pull off the trick of making a medical examiner's office compatible with a parking structure compatible with a jail compatible with some kind of artists and retail community and so forth.

"Just because it hasn't been done anywhere else in the country doesn't mean we can't do it here."

I once saw a guy try to unclog a septic tank by dropping a stick of dynamite down the pipe. I'd never heard of anyone doing that, either. And as I watched him light the fuse and shout "Fire in the hole," I felt the same queasy anticipation as when I visualize the county using a new jail as the centerpiece for restoring a historical district (with a parking garage and a morgue--sorry, Forensic Science building--as trimming).

Smith characterized the new county building locations as "rebuttable presumptions."

"If someone has one that's better, then, gee, let's hear it."
Allow me to rebut.
I reiterate the alternative jail location suggested to the county, over and over, by its opposition: the larger, county-owned lot on Lincoln Street between Third and Fourth avenues. That's where the jail could go instead, or as a massive addition to the current expansion plans for the county's Durango jail, which is miles from downtown.

Neither the Lincoln nor the Durango sites were even discussed in the board's special session.

Instead, once they finish slapping Wilcox around, the four other supervisors spend most of the hour reassuring their staff the project has a green light, patting one another on the back, and vowing no retreat, no surrender.

Wilcox, facing unanimous opposition, protests to the end that the morgue should move and the Santa Fe building should be saved.

"I think we've heard from citizens pretty loudly, and if we do put the morgue on Jackson Street, we're losing a base of people," she says.

Before the session adjourns, Stapley asks the county's project manager, Bob Williams, and its hired historical consultant, Debbie Abele, to reaffirm that none of the buildings the county intends to destroy are on the National Historic Register.

"After hearing a lot of mumbling and grumbling, there is still nothing on the jail site or garage site that can't be demolished because of any historic registries," Williams says.

But just because a building isn't listed on the national registry doesn't mean it's right to knock it down. It just means it's legal.

Six years ago, the City of Phoenix declared the entire area in question a historic overlay district, with zoning that would prohibit a private developer from building anything close to the overwhelming 10-story jail and six-story parking garage the county has planned.

But the county doesn't have to abide by the city's laws, just as it doesn't have to abide by the people's wishes.

"We shouldn't second-guess any of this," Stapley tells his cohorts. "We're not in a position where we can go back now."

Sure you can. You haven't knocked down any buildings yet. Keep an open mind. I am. I changed my mind about the morgue after listening to county medical examiner Dr. Tom Keane, who rescheduled his testimony at a murder trial to speak before the supervisors.

Keane convinced me of two things: The county needs a new Forensic Science building, badly, and it needs to be located near the Superior Court, because he has to testify a lot, and his testimony is often delayed by an hour or two that would be wasted if he couldn't walk back to his office and work.

Okay. So compromise.
First, move the jail to the Durango or Lincoln Street site, and put its parking garage underground, if that's possible (we don't know, because the county hasn't thought it out).

Second, convert the Santa Fe building into the new Forensic Science building, which will be by far the least imposing of the three new county structures.

Also, a morgue would complement a resurrected warehouse district much better than a jail or a parking garage, which lack the same macabre cachet--especially if the new morgue were to house a gift shop of Maricopa County Medical Examiner gear, a good idea the county supervisors tossed around, then threw away.

Finally, the county and city should match funds, lure developers, and otherwise work together to renovate the warehouse district into a vital retail and residential zone.

Then Dr. Keane can stop for a latte on his way back to the office from court.

The tape I heard, though, is not encouraging. It sounds as if the county's leaders were treating the warehouse district controversy as a matter of personal pride. Instead of thinking outside the box, they've begun to box themselves into a philosophical fortress.

If they don't get through the walls of their own making, it will be a great shame. I can think of no other issue that so clearly delineates and symbolizes which course this desert metropolis will set in the new millennium.

If the county demolishes those buildings and sweeps away their ashes, Phoenix cannot rise.

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: [email protected]

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse