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Steinfeld Warehouse Interior, February 2013

Excerpted from the book, "Citizens Warehouse," published spring 2013.

by Ann Vargas
Vice President, WAMO

The Warehouse Arts Management Organization (WAMO) came into existence after decades of escalating tension between two competing agendas for Tucson’s downtown warehouse district. Long-standing artist studios and galleries were at risk of becoming displaced by automobile-oriented development and gentrification of the city’s central business district, or they could be redeveloped as a catalytic for a mixed-use, economically vital urban environment focused on the arts.

The district’s warehouses, like the one built by Albert Steinfeld in 1907, were points of transfer between the Southern Pacific Railroad and destinations in and around Tucson.

As the American transportation landscape transformed in the post-World War II era, the warehouses began to lose their industrial tenants. Artists began adapting the warehouses for studio and gallery space, reinvigorating the area.

Beginning in the 1980s the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) decided to construct the Barraza-Aviation Parkway, which would have destroyed the area now designated as Tucson’s Historic Warehouse Arts District. This discouraged outside investment in district properties, resulting in deterioration of buildings and streetscape.

Long-time residents, businesses, and artists had limited resources to preserve this fifty-acre swath of downtown with its historic structures, including the Citizens Warehouse. This twenty-three thousand square foot, multi-story building and several other historic warehouses were slated for demolition.
The high-speed bypass link between downtown and Interstate 10 would have dissected Tucson’s central business district, taking out these landmarks and replacing them with an auto-dependent pass-through. 

Year after year the unexecuted ADOT plan held the warehouse arts district hostage, and the historic properties fell into disrepair. As the properties declined, artists continued to maintain their working studios patching leaks and making small improvements to keep the buildings occupied.

Because of its grass-roots origins, no one has a complete history of the activities that took place inside Citizens Warehouse. But for many years it was where artists and neighbors gathered to make puppets and props for Tucson’s All Souls Procession. According to John Laswick, a former artist-in-residence who takes credit for the free-hand symbol of a heart painted on the west-facing parapet, the creative process and sense of community stemming from his connection to the Citizens Warehouse property was unparalleled.  

The Warehouse Arts District struggled in limbo for two decades. It became increasingly difficult to reverse the impacts of long-term neglect. The challenge was to save the historic structures without also dismantling the opportunities afforded to the arts community.  

The artists feared that bringing attention to the substandard conditions would make the buildings vulnerable to premature demolition. The reasonable rents, bartering, and sharing of resources, artistic advancement, and grass-roots gatherings that took place in Citizens Warehouse and surrounding properties could be lost, perhaps leading to the district’s destruction. By the late 1990s the historically significant warehouses were at risk of demise.   

In the summer of 2002 the City of Tucson contracted with the Tucson Arts District Partnership to produce the Historic Warehouse Arts District Master Plan.  The mayor and Council’s adoption of this plan became the foundation for rescuing the district. It established public policy to protect the contribution of the historic warehouses and arts-related activities to the revitalization of Tucson’s downtown.  

Acknowledging that an artist-led redevelopment perspective was needed to refocus on the district as a significant community asset, one of the six master plan’s recommendations was the formation of the Warehouse Arts Management Organization. This body was charged with revitalizing the district while also promoting the arts.

Made up of a collaborative and diverse group of artisans, business leaders, organizers, and advocates, the WAMO board set on a course to make sure that the warehouse district survived and thrived as a community arts center area where artists could work, exhibit, sell, teach, entertain, and reach out to the community

When plans for the Barraza-Aviation Parkway were abandoned, Tucson’s Department of Transportation and its Historic Preservation Office stepped in to help WAMO reassemble the district’s properties. State-owned properties, made available through government auction, facilitated the acquisition of the historic Steinfeld Warehouse, the Toole Shed artists’ studios, and the adjacent building that serves as a downtown youth center.

As stated in Tucson’s master plan goals, “The  Historic Warehouse Arts District shall be recognized for the important contribution that the arts make to our local and regional economy. The focus of the arts shall strive to be outward looking, encouraging exhibition, sales, education, festival, and the participation of the public. An outdoor performance venue is a high priority. Coordinated arts programming is an essential part of a successful arts district.”

WAMO’s overall mission has been to preserve, protect, promote, and develop the Historic Warehouse Arts District. The role of this non-profit has evolved from years of fear that Tucson’s Arts community might be displaced and the hope that the district will remain a foundation to secure the shifting landscape and economy.