While the Benedictine Monastery might not be torn down, it remains in danger of becoming student housing.
In response to the Tucson City Council’s decision on May 22 to initiate an Historic Landmark designation for the 78-year-old monastery, the property owner Ross Rulney sent a letter to the council threatening to build four-story residential buildings throughout the property and repurpose the monastery into private residential or offices, which is allowed under the current zoning.
The project's architects, from Poster Frost Mirto, presented a proposal to 225 neighbors at the end of March, which included seaking the HL designation and repurpose the sanctuary for public use as a boutique hotel, coffee house or public pool—among other ideas. The plan also included eight-story market-rate residential apartments on the north and south side, and five-story apartments to the east.
Renderings of the high rises surrounding the monastery was met with audible gasps. The architects later lowered the taller buildings to six stories and the shorter to four stories in a new proposal. But Councilmember Steve Kozachik says the height is still too tall.
Former Ward 6 Councilmember Molly McKasson was at the public meeting and says the plans broke her heart. She lives in the Sam Hughes neighborhood, not far away, and grew up visiting the sanctuary.
She said she respects the current zoning but any higher would dwarf one of the city’s most famous and exquisite pieces of architecture. And although Poster cited her in his letter to Mayor and Council as saying six stories is acceptable, she says she doesn’t think that at all.
“There’s an opportunity here to develop that very ample parcel into something beautiful, in the middle of the city, and probably make a pretty good profit,” she said. “My hope is people will work together to come up with some sort of compromise to respect people who own property in the surrounding area as well as these historic structures all over town that people don’t want to see boxed in by six-story towers.”
An HL designation of the monastery would not likely stop Rulney from repurposing the inside of the landmark. The designation requires sensitive design that doesn’t diminish or detract from the primary structure.
Corky Poster, an architect with Poster Frost Mirto, wrote a June 1 letter to Mayor and Council warning that seaking the HL designation could lead to the city owing Rulney millions of dollars in compensation because of Prop 207, a 2006 voter-approved initiative that requires jurisdictions to reimburse land owners when new regulations decrease the property's value.
“In our view, the City of Tucson will likely wind up spending millions of taxpayer dollars to ‘save’ a building that we had agreed, for free, to ‘save’ and rehabilitate four months earlier,” Poster wrote.
He added that if the council shoots down the latest proposal, which would prohibit student housing and include 222 residential units, Rulney will likely decide to build student housing, which yields a higher square-foot rental rate. The monastery would have no public use and probably be turned into student housing itself. And Poster, who has worked on many preservation projects throughout Tucson, would resign from the project
“If the neighbors object to student housing, the City might extend the boundaries of the Landmark to include the whole site, effectively prohibiting any development. That would increase the condemnation payment to the owner substantially,” Poster wrote in his letter.
Kozachik said the city is pursuing the Historic Landmark designation for the entire site. Mayor Jonathan Rothschild declined to speak to the Weekly about the project, but sent a prepared statement saying he wants to see the design plans and then go through the public process.
“The owner has said that he wants to preserve the sanctuary and can build a project within the current zoning, so at this point I don't see any 207 concerns," Rothschild said in his statement.
Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation CEO Demion Clinco has previously cited numerous studies that show that the HL designation can actually raise a property’s value. He also there’s no need to frame the site’s development as an either/or scenario.
“‘Either let me have high density or it’s going to be student housing' is a false dichotomy,” he said, adding that Rulney should consider selling the property to a developer who wants to build a high-quality product that respects the historic preservation of the site.
The height of the developer’s latest proposal is shorter than the height of the monastery if you’re measuring from the height of the steeple. Kozachik wants to see it no higher than the mass of the building.
The Ward 6 council member met with Rulney on Friday, June 8, and said if the proposal reduces the height by a story, to five, and puts the parking underground, they have a deal.
And if instead, Rulney decides “he’s going to be the guy in the community that says, ‘I’ll turn it into a dorm,' that’ll be his legacy,” Kozachik said.