Art Zone or Dead Zone

Got no place to show off your crucifixes-in-a-jar-of-urine and your photos of nekkid perverts? Bring 'em to Phoenix; we're into weird art. Our city council, for instance, has such a weird sense of art it's got the downtown art zone confused with the Dead Zone.

Strange but true, the next tenants of the cultural arts district will be dead people, thanks to a city council decision last week allowing an organ-tissue bank to be opened at Third Street and Willetta. Samaritan Health Services, owner of the site, says it will sell the rezoned property to a group of doctors who, in turn, will own and operate the little shop of horrors.

The doctors have promised to be discreet. Once in a while--two or three times a week at most, they say--an ambulance or "hearse-like" vehicle will arrive at the door and deposit a modestly clad cadaver. (The doctors promise there won't be any frightful sidewalk surprises for live persons who might be wandering around trying to find the arts district and note that back-door deliveries are possible.)

Working fast, for bodies rot quick in these hellish parts, specialists will remove the heart, lungs, eyeballs--whatever the dear departed was willing to give up--for storage under modern, refrigerated conditions until needed by one of the area's hospitals. What's left of the dear departed will be reassembled for burial and transported away in the same manner it came.

Phoenix City Councilmember John Nelson explains his rationale for initiating the motion to approve Samaritan's request. "There was already a building there, the old Samaritan Health Services administration building, offices where minor surgery could be performed," Nelson says. "Logic says, if you could do surgery, you could do surgery. It shouldn't matter whether it's on a live body or on a dead body."

"But the planning department insisted it would require a zoning change," he says with a note of exasperation. "In my mind, there's not a negative impact on the neighborhood. I guess it's like living next to a cemetery; it's all in the eyes of the beholder."

As with all strokes of creative genius, however, the idea faced a certain amount of criticism. In this case from every group that has a voice in such things: the city planning department, the zoning hearing officer who reviewed the case and, by unanimous voice, the planning commission. "It does not implement the Cultural District Concept Plan," said the city planning department in summing up the opposition to the organ-tissue bank. The city planners, planning commissioners and hearing officer also expressed worry over the precedent this would set for future development in the art zone, located between downtown and the Heard Museum.

Two city councilmembers, Linda Nadolski and Mayor Terry Goddard, also opposed the application. Asked to explain the council's thinking, Nadolski responds, "You mean why are we putting cadavers in the arts district?"

As Nadolski sees it, the guys on the council (Goddard excepted) got swept up in a discussion of organ-removal mechanics, much as they tend to do when the subject turns to sports or cars, and more or less fogged out the bigger picture. "A lot of the discussion was about how the new technique of organ retrieval is not that gory, and so forth, and they just seemed to miss the point that how it's done is less important than what's being done and how this use fits in with what we want the arts district to look like," Nadolski says.

Jill Gering, a member of the Phoenix Arts District Committee, worries that the decision will set a bad precedent. "Is it simply to be a district where there will be a few pieces of art around because developers were forced to put in art in order to get zoning for their commercial developments, or are we supporting an underlying land use that will create a true arts district with galleries, studios and other things that attract people?"

Nadolski and other critics say Dr. Ben Van Der Werf, who will own and operate the organ-tissue bank in partnership with some other local doctors, should seek a site somewhere within the nearby redevelopment area surrounding Good Samaritan Hospital at Tenth Street and McDowell. "We have this huge Good Sam redevelopment area, it's intended to have a concentration of medical-related facilities; why aren't they going there?" Nadolski asks.

Besides blazing a trail for future arts-district projects, the Samaritan case offered the city council a chance to help settle a squabble between the area's seven hospitals, proponents say. In fact, intramural rivalry among hospitals is the main reason Van Der Werf isn't looking for a site close to Good Sam (where the organ-tissue bank currently is housed). "These hospitals are all in competition with each other," says zoning lawyer Paul Gilbert. "They are involved in turf-war battles with each other, and an independent location for the organ-tissue bank is needed."

In addition, he says, Van Der Werf can't afford to operate the organ-tissue bank, which is nonprofit, unless he is able to lease out the rest of the building for a profit. The plan, Gilbert explains, is to house the organ-tissue bank in a portion of the old Samaritan administration building and lease out the rest as doctors' offices.

The city's professional planning staff was unmoved by these arguments. Samaritan's zoning request was skidding down the tubes until about a month ago, when the health-care giant hired Gilbert, one of the city's most influential zoning lawyers, to handle the case.

"He's like the Pied Piper," claims Gering. "He can make anything sound like it's marvelous, like you're getting something very special."

Gilbert sweetened up Samaritan's offer with promises that Van Der Werf and his business partners would donate oodles of cash to other arts-district projects in years to come, would send the Phoenix Arts Commission on a $25,000-shopping spree for art to be displayed at Cadaver Place, would lease office space, rent free, to a professional theatre group for two years and would donate space for art displays and programs within the building.

"Bear in mind the building was already zoned to allow doctor's offices," Gilbert says. "That left the city with two choices: a building full of doctors' offices with no way to compel their involvement in the arts district or a medical-office building offering many times over what would be required under the city's proposed art guidelines."

Mindful that not everyone agreed with the aesthetics of the basic proposal, Gilbert scaled back the requested zoning to include just a small portion of the 17,700-square-foot building. "It's like, what's the big deal here?" he says. "It's a little 4,000-square-foot tissue bank. Somebody's got something all out of proportion."

Nadolski notes that none of the promised concessions is enforceable as part of the zoning agreement, and she and Goddard remained opposed when the vote went down last Wednesday. Bedazzled by Gilbert's wizardry, not to mention the miracles of modern organ-transplant technology, however, Nelson and councilmembers Paul Johnson, Calvin Goode, and Bill Parks, voted in favor of the organ-tissue bank.

The council's decision leaves arts-district advocates pondering an uncertain future. "What's next?" says Gering. "`Sweeney Todd's Bakery Shop'?