City to weigh spending $1.1M to fix crumbling Marist building

2012-07-09T00:00:00Z 2012-07-09T13:08:57Z City to weigh spending $1.1M to fix crumbling Marist buildingDarren DaRonco Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 09, 2012 12:00 am  • 

The city of Tucson may help save a nationally recognized downtown landmark.

After years of deterioration, the Marist College building is in danger of collapsing.

So on Tuesday, the City Council will discuss giving about $1.1 million of Community Development Block Grant money to stabilize the structure.

"This is a significant historic building. ... It's the tallest structure in Arizona built of unfired adobe brick," said city Housing & Community Development Department Director Albert Elias.

The structure, built in 1915, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and on the Most Endangered Historic Properties in Arizona.

Marist operated as a Catholic school from 1915 to 1968. It has been vacant since 2002. During that time, the building has been damaged by water penetration. For years it has been supported by temporary bracing.

Elias said the building still maintains some structural integrity and if the city provides federal block-grant money to repair the exterior and secure the building, it could attract a developer willing to invest in and restore the historic building.

"The goal is to adaptably reuse the building," he said. Even though the Diocese owns the property, it does not expect it to be used for any religious purposes, Elias said in a recent memorandum.

To gauge interest in the property, the Tucson Diocese asked the Downtown Tucson Partnership to assess investor interest in preserving the building.

Michael Keith, who is with the Downtown Tucson Partnership, said they have received two strong proposals that prove the Marist College project is economically viable and worth the investment. He wouldn't give any specifics about the proposals.

With its prime location across from the Tucson Convention Center and with an entrepreneur considering reopening the Samaniego House restaurant, a new tenant in the Marist College building could transform the west side of downtown into a vibrant destination, Keith said.

Although most everyone connected to the city wants to see downtown revitalization, not everyone supports a $1.1 million handout.

Republican Councilman Steve Kozachik said he needs to see language in the contract that prevents another "Gadsden Flip," referring to the 2011 deal between the city and Gadsden Company that let the developer buy city-owned property for $250,000 and then immediately sell it for $1.43 million.

"I'm fine funding the upfront costs for stabilizing the building," he said via email, but only with "explicit language" that outlines the terms of repayment to taxpayers.

"It's a wonderful old building that I'd love to see rehabilitated," Kozachik said, "and yet, there are so many question marks about how much it will cost to stabilize, what the tenant improvements will cost, what the eventual use will be, that we've got to see beyond the historic issue and make sure the city isn't just giving away taxpayer money so somebody else can profit."

Kozachik also said he wasn't sure why block-grant money earmarked for small business development is now going to historic preservation.

"There is a small business in town that could put the $1 million to good use," he said.

But the city's historical preservation officer, Jonathan Mabry, said there are measures in place to protect the city.

"In exchange for the public funding, the city is obtaining conservation easements on the facade," Mabry said. "What that means is, the city literally owns the exterior of the building for a specific term."

As for the block-grant money being allocated to historic preservation, Mabry said federal guidelines allow it, and many cities across the country use such funds to restore historical buildings.

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at ddaronco@azstarnet.com or 573-4243.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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