40+ Artists Have Filled Four Auctioned Toole Warehouses

November 16, 2011

By Teya Vitu

Nobody knew what to expect when real estate investor Steve Fenton started buying up Toole Avenue warehouses in late 2009.

Steven Eye with the artistic stairway arch at Solar Culture

Most certainly not Steven Eye, whose Solar Culture Gallery had occupied the Fenton warehouse at 31 E. Toole for 24 years. Warehouse Arts Management Organization (WAMO) members were equally alarmed.

“I was really upset after the auction,” Eye said. “It was very hard.”

Fenton at Arizona Department of Transportation auctions acquired 15-17-19 E. Toole and 31 E. Toole in November 2009, 35 E. Toole in April 2010, and 174 E. Toole in July 2011.

What neither Fenton nor Eye knew at the time of the first auctions was the encompassing mutual relationship that was to quickly build between landlord and tenant.

Today, Eye is renting four of the six warehouses from Fenton and they are on a joint venture on a fifth.

“It’s a whole new era,” Eye said. “The good part is we decided we had a lot in common and our mutual interest is the historic buildings. We were able to work together to create something that is really amazing.”

In early 2010, five of these six warehouses were empty. Only Solar Culture had artists, eight of them. Today, the four warehouses Eye has rented are 100 percent occupied by about 43 artists.

“I think it’s incredible,” Fenton said. “I give him a lot of credit for it.”

These 43 artists plus those at the Toole Shed Studios and Dinnerware Artspace give Toole Avenue likely more artists than ever before.

“Yeah, actually, yeah,” Eye agreed.

Eye uses the word renaissance to describe today’s Toole art scene. All the Toole property on the railroad side between Stone Avenue and Sixth Avenue is now in private hands after 25 years of ADOT ownership.

Fenton first acquired the Solar Culture Gallery warehouse and the adjoining 15-17-19 E. Toole. His initial intention was to sell 31 E. Toole to WAMO.

“He said ‘What do you want?’” Eye said. “ I sent him an email of what I wanted and it’s not what he thought he’d get. One: Create beauty. Two: Inspire people. The idea was to make this the most beautiful arts block.”

Then Fenton and Eye got to talking about Eye leasing the Solar Culture warehouse from Fenton and perhaps also 15 or 19 E. Toole. Nothing happened with 15 and 19 in early 2010, but what did happen in those early months was Fenton got to see in Eye a viable tenant, even property manager.

Steven Eye is renting 19 E. Toole (left) and Solar Culture (right).

“First off, he’d been at Solar Culture for 25 years,” Fenton said. “He was extremely well connected to the arts community. He loves the building. He loves the block. I got extremely lucky to run into Steven Eye. I definitely appreciate it. He’s also a very nice person.”

Eye also gained a positive regard for Fenton.

“I started noticing he had a deep love for history and historic buildings,” Eye said. “I started to feel there are ways we could work together. The beauty of what’s happening with our relationship is we’re developing a new direction that’s never happened here before. He’s the most sensitive developer toward historic buildings.”

Eye paid rock bottom rent during the ADOT days. Fenton adjusted the rent closer to market rate, a huge increase for Eye, who wondered if he’d be priced out.

“With his encouragement, he helped me learn about the business,” Eye said about Fenton. “He helped me understand how I could (pay higher rent). I’m an artist, learning about business. At first, I thought it unimaginable but it ended up I could do it.

”With ADOT we had super cheap rent but we always thought ‘oh, no,’” said Eye, referring to the month-to-month lease arrangement with the state with eviction possible at any moment. “Now we have a realistic rent but we have a chance to work for a future. Even though we pay a lot more money,  it feels much better because they (Fenton Investment Co.) are caring and supportive.”

Next on the auction block in April 2010 was 35 E. Toole, Solar Culture’s neighbor to the right, the structure with the arches. Eye had his eyes on that building for years, even coming close to a deal with ADOT to take over the building now called The Arches. Nothing ever came of the deal with ADOT, but then Fenton won that auction and went right to Eye.

“He said, ‘Let’s see what you can do with that building,” Eye recalled.

“The thing he liked about 35 is it’s divided into a lot of spaces,” Fenton said.

The Arches had been vacant about six years since Pima Prevention Partnership moved out. Eye has found artists for each of the 22 studio spaces of varying sizes, shapes and configurations.

One of the cave temples Eye is creating at 35 E. Toole.

The largest space, thorough the front doors, is the events space that Eye is calling The Gallactic Center. Inside, Eye is creating two Cave Temples, each with three tiny spaces that can be used for meditation, ceremonial purposes or meetings of not more than two or three people.

Early in 2011, Eye rented his third Fenton structure, 19 E. Toole, adjoining Solar Culture to the left. Eye now managed the buildings on both sides of his Solar Culture, where he is director.

Eye never envisioned himself as a serial warehouse renter.

“I stepped up,” Eye said. “I just listened to an inner voice of what comes next. I was in a position that it could happen. It just worked out. No one could see that or plan that. The only thing I visualized was we’re going to stay here and create a community.”

19 E. Toole has three basement studios and a huge, 2,000-square-foot street-level space filled since September by painter Chris Wilson, who calls his gallery The Future’s Antiquity. Wilson, who paints acrylic on canvas, is representative of many of the artists Eye has brought on board.

“This is definitely a dream come true,” Wilson said. “I worked out of my home. I kept myself a secret.”

Wilson has the largest space of all the artists subleasing from Eye.

“He was bold and daring enough to do it,” Eye said.

Fenton recently added 174 E. Toole in July 2011. That’s the cadmium red building across the street from all the warehouses. He went right to Eye.

“Because it has all those rooms, it fits you business model. Why don’t you do that one, too,” Eye recalled Fenton saying.

The cadmium red 174 E. Toole that Fenton acquired in July.

Eye weighed how foolhardy it is for him to rent four warehouses. What if artists move out and nobody moves in? Supply and demand seems to be cascading in Eye’s favor.

“People keep coming to me wanting spaces,” he said. “With the economic downturn, how can people rent studios? People are turning inside themselves for what is most important to them. This is the most important. A bunch haven’t had studios before. I get a lot of people who say ‘I feel so isolated at home.’

Right now it doesn’t look like it will be a clean sweep for Eye. Fenton has different ideas for the 7,000-square foot space at 15 E. Toole.

“15, I haven’t finalized anything for that,” Fenton said. “My preference for that would be to get a large tenant. I would prefer to do that.”

Fenton has said that before.