Saying the threat of demolishing the Benedictine Monastery must be taken off the table, a city councilman wants to initiate the process of designating it a historic landmark.
On Tuesday, the Tucson City Council will decide.
The monastery, at 800 N. Country Club Road, was bought by a local developer last year who planned to build student housing at the site, per the current zoning and entitlements.
Under the existing zoning, there is no historic protection for the monastery and group dwelling (student housing) is an allowable use with no required neighborhood participation or design review. Up to 222 units are allowed regardless of unit size or bedroom count with up to 40 feet maximum height.
After pushback from some neighbors about the possible loss of the monastery and arrival of student housing, developer Ross Rulney and architect Corky Poster presented an alternative.
The proposal would give the monastery landmark historic protection, prohibit group dwelling and include full neighborhood review with three formal public reviews.
Rulney wants to build structures taller than the four-story limit currently in place to construct 300 apartments units in two six- or seven-story complexes north and south of the monastery and a smaller structure on the east. All parking would be under the structures with access from Country Club Road.
Possible uses for the monastery include a boutique hotel, restaurant, coffee house or community spa, neighbors were told during a meeting in March.
Contacted by a reporter Friday morning, Rulney said he had not been informed about the pending vote and could not comment at the time.
Tuesday’s agenda item to initiate historic designation was scheduled at the request of City Councilman Steve Kozachik, who represents the area neighborhoods.
“The Benedictine Sisters hired Tucson architect Roy Place to develop the monastery site (and) using concepts provided by Josias Joesler, Place developed a design reflecting his signature Spanish Revival style,” Kozachik wrote in his request for the topic to be on the agenda. “The building remains one of the last expressions of this architectural style in the Tucson area. I am requesting Mayor & Council approve initiation of the Historic Landmark rezoning process.”
He cited the Unified Development Code in requesting the city’s intervention, saying the purpose of the Historic Landmark designation is “to ensure the harmonious growth and development of the municipality (and) ensure the preservation of significant historic and archaeological resources, and the keep them in active use or management in their historic appearance, settings and locations.”
If the council approves initiating the process, there are several steps that must be taken, including review by the City Historic Preservation Office, review by the zoning examiner, public hearings and a legal analysis by the city attorney.
Kozachik is the first member of the council to use a 2014 ordinance that would allow the council to start the historic designation process.
He said it was a “favor” to Rulney, who had already said he would seek historic landmark designation.
“The reality is it’s an architectural landmark, and having that reality threatened will no longer be used as leverage by any developer trying to force inappropriate and out-of-scale development on the grounds that surround it,” Kozachik said. “If Rulney wants to sit and discuss a development that makes sense to the community on that site, I’m happy to do that. But we’re taking the threat of demolition off the table so the conversation is about good design, and that’s all.”
Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who occupied the monastery, closed it in September 2016. They tried to find another religious buyer but could not and sold it to Rulney for $5.9 million.
The nearly 80-year-old monastery was not protected from demolition by historic listing because having it listed would have reduced its sale value, Kozachik said.
“I simply want the mayor and council to do what the nuns never got around to,” he said.
Sam Behrend, with the Miramonte Neighborhood Association where the monastery sits, said he was pleased with the councilman’s move.
“I’m very gratified that what the community feels is important — the preservation of this historic property — may be closer to reality.”
Neighbors for Reasonable Monastery Development, a group of about three dozen neighbors from Miramonte and Sam Hughes commended Kozachik “for taking action to preserve the monastery for future generations of Tucsonans.
“Both the monastery and its grounds … are among our city’s most treasured historic assets,” the group said in statement to the Star. “We urge the mayor and council to support this action to ensure their preservation.”
Dennis Rosen, a local attorney who specializes in real estate law, said if the property values drop as a result of the council’s action, the developer might have a claim for inverse condemnation.
Inverse condemnation occurs when the government acquires or appropriates private property without following eminent domain procedures or paying “just compensation,” the law reads.
It can also occur when government regulations “burden a property in such a way that you cannot derive any economical use out of it.”
“The law in these areas are very complicated and not black and white,” said Rosen, who does not represent the city or Rulney.
City Attorney Mike Rankin said the decision before the council on Tuesday night doesn’t have any legal ramifications that would allow the developer to sue the city.
It is premature, he said, noting that any binding decision related to the historic landmark designation by the council would be made only after a series of reviews by the city’s historic preservation officer, a citizen-run committee and the zoning staff. That process could easily take months, Rankin said Friday.
The matter will be taken up during Tuesday’s study session, which begins at 12:30 p.m. at City Hall, 255 W. Alameda St.