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.