Owner, councilman butt heads over development of midtown monastery

Benedictine Monastery (Source: Tucson News Now)
Benedictine Monastery (Source: Tucson News Now)
Published: Jun. 5, 2018 at 1:59 AM MST|Updated: Jun. 18, 2018 at 9:59 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - A midtown Tucson community is at a crossroads as a developer and the city may have reached an impasse over what will become of a local landmark.

On Monday, June 4, Tucson Ward 6 Council Member Steve Kozachik revealed an email sent by a local developer to the mayor and city council.

In it, the owner of the Benedictine Monastery, Ross Rulney, detailed his frustration over the "obvious disagreement" with the city of Tucson's move to "unilaterally" designate the building and site near Speedway Boulevard and Country Club Drive a Historic Landmark.

Rulney purchased the property in September 2016 from the nuns for nearly $6 million with plans to building a large apartment complex on the grounds. In a reported agreement with the monastery's nuns, Rulney vowed to not demolish the monastery building.

His most recent proposal, after hearing from the community, noted that he would no longer pursue the option of student, by the bed, housing, and would instead turn the proposed units into luxury residential apartments.

During the impasse in recent negotiations, Rulney has threatened, in the email, to move forward on repurposing the monastery for private use, including potentially turning it into UA student housing.

"We will continue moving forward with the historic landmark rezoning. With or without his involvement, we're going to do that. Because that building is uniquely suited to that zoning classification. If he wants to turn the interior into a dorm, go for it, Ross. I think there are better uses that could be had."

By most accounts, Rulney has been able to keep the surrounding neighbors satisfied with his compromises.

"It's beautiful," said Mary Kay Thompson, as she looked out her front yard at the church's steeple. "Yeah, and I think a lot of people feel like that. Even people who don't live in the neighborhood. They feel the beauty of that building."

It's been her gorgeous architectural view for 33 years, ever since she first purchased her home across the street in 1985. In fact, Thompson's neighborhood has changed and grown more than the Benedictine Monastery across the street.

"I like to see it standing there and see the mountains surrounding," she said about her hope that it remains. "But of course, it's not my property so I can't say that."

What will the landscape and skyline look like? Apartment units are expected to surround the north, south, and east sides of the monastery building. Rulney has lowered the height of the apartment buildings since his initial proposal, but it's still not low enough, according to Council Member Kozachik.

At this time, there is a fight over the height.

"It's surrounded by single family residences," Council Member Kozachik told Tucson News Now. "Putting up an 86-foot tall, seven-story structure makes absolutely no sense to anybody. Especially adding 880 student housing beds immediately adjacent to single family residences."

In an emailed statement, Rulney told Tucson News Now that he has been more than willing to work with the Ward 6 office and surrounding neighbors.

Rulney stated that he has agreed to several demands, including preserving the monastery, forbidding by-the-bed student housing, lowering the height from the original proposal, saving the avocado tree, keeping the eastern building lower in height compared to the buildings on the north and south, eliminating the parking garage along the eastern border of the property, and agreed to retain the current architectural firm, Poster Frost Mirto, in Tucson.

Rulney planned to even repurpose the monastery building for public use.

"What I ask in return is an additional 26' in height in order to make the development economically viable given the concessions I've offered," he said in the statement to Tucson News Now. "I hope Mayor and Council supports our plan but if not, I will proceed under the current zoning and the entitlements it offers."

Tucson's mayor and city council will move forward in designating it a historic landmark, Kozachik said. The process will likely to take six to eight months.

The neighbors hope for a compromise.

"It's just a treasure," Thompson said.

A gem, for the entire midtown community. It remains to be seen how long that treasure will keep its shine.

"Come on back in, let's have a conversation," said in a plea to the developer. "We know where his last pitch was. He knows what my last pitch was. Let's find a middle ground."

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