Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik represents midtown Ward 6, which is seeing a lot of proposed infill development that has some residents unhappy. He recently appeared on Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel to discuss some of these issues. This is a condensed and edited transcript from that program.
The Benedictine Sanctuary on Country Club Road has recently been purchased by a developer who wants to rezone the property and build some surrounding mixed-use residential and commercial property. What do you want to see happen there and what are the city’s options?
The city’s options are slim. Not none, but slim. It’s about 6.2 acres—it’s not just the building. It’s surrounded by open land on both the north and the south and on the east. On the east it abuts Miramonte neighborhood. Across Country Club is the Sam Hughes neighborhood. The sanctuary has been there since the 1940s. It is revered as an architectural monument in this community. The nuns simply ran out of the capacity to sustain it and the grounds around it. They wound up getting about $6 million from new owner Ross Rulney. Now he’s in a situation where the underlying zoning, the existing zoning on the property, would allow him or anybody else to put in 880 student-housing beds and knock down the monastery in order to achieve that. When he bought the property, he knew that was his right by entitlement. The city would have nothing to say about that. Zero. Neither would any of the members of the community living around it. So his option is to go through a rezoning process. That’s where the city has a little bit of say. We have say because it’s a very public process and we can approve or we can reject his planned area development. What he wants to do instead of the student housing is build a seven-story structure on both the north and the south of the monastery and a four-story structure on the east and surround the monastery with multi-family housing. High-end apartments, high-end condos. Ross is in a position, and he did say at the meeting, “If I’m the developer it’s going to be seven stories. If you don’t go for that I can turn around tomorrow and sell it to other people who will come in from Atlanta or Chicago and build student housing and you’ll lose everything.” He really is in the catbird seat as far as the negotiating. I’m meeting with him and his architect, Corky Poster, who has a good reputation in the community with respect to historic preservation. I’m still hopeful, not optimistic, but hopeful that he will lower the scale of what he wants to build. Take it from seven stories down to the existing height of the monastery.
There’s a controversial proposal for the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Sixth Street, where the Flycatcher nightclub now sits. They’re talking about tearing that down, putting a three-story apartment building right there and then a seven-story right behind it. You’ve expressed concerns about this. But does the city has leverage here?
The developer does student housing all over the country. What they’re saying, though, is, “We’re not going to sell the student housing units by the bed,” which would make it a group dwelling, which is prohibited by the Infill Incentive District. When we put the IID together, we were going to prohibit group dwellings in the Fourth Avenue area. We were going to prohibit student housing. Right across the street from it is the District on Sixth and that has been nothing but a problem. By the way, the people who want to build the Union on Sixth own the District. It’s the same ownership group. The conversation we’ve had is that, “Look, you knew when you bought this site that you couldn’t put your product, The District, on this site because we prohibited group dwellings, so you’re threading the needle and you’re saying that, instead of undergrad students we’re going to rent to graduate students and we’re going to just put in efficiencies and 1 and 2 bedrooms.” It’s still student housing. It’s a rose by any other name. They’re saying, “Well it’s a different cohort of students, these are different, these are serious students. They’re not going to party.” The argument that we have going on is that what they’re doing is technically legal, according to the letter of the law in the IID—it’s not a group dwelling because they’re renting by the room and not by the bed. It violates the spirit of the IID. We clearly said we don’t want student housing on this site. So what leverage do we have? We can say that it doesn’t meet the spirit and the intent of the IID and they can go out and build something else, but they’re not maxing out the height. It’s another one of these situations like the Benedictine. We have a bad choice and we have a worse choice. In this one we have a bad option and we have potentially a worse option. I’m trying to convince them that this is not the product that we want. We want local business. We don’t want you bringing chains in. They are committing to some level of that. It’s not something the city can force.
There’s another development planned for Fourth Avenue as well, up near the underpass where the bar Maloney’s now sits. You’re not as concerned about that one.
This is not student housing. The guy is stepping back off Fourth Avenue. He has committed to local businesses in his retail component. He’s actually going to have parking for the building. It’s a different level of conversation. Here you are agreeing to local businesses.
In terms of Fourth Avenue itself: Is there a concern about the future of the avenue? This is a place that has a very special sense of place. Are you concerned that that’s going to be changing as more of these things happen?
It’s one of the reasons that we’re so insistent with both of these developers, that they include a local component to the commercial piece of their projects. We want to see local dollars stay locally. We don’t want to see some corporate chain come in and wind up sending 60 percent of the dollars that they generate locally back to their corporate office in Topeka. That’s one of the benefits of the local commercial ordinance we’re trying to establish with the one over at Maloney’s. When we put in the IID, I mentioned that one of the goals of that was historic preservation. People are concerned that if they knock down the Flycatcher, it’s going to be the first domino and we’re going to see historic buildings along the avenue start to be demolished. We wrote into the IID very specifically, “If you take advantage of the IID, the Infill Incentive District, you can not demolish an historic building.” The historic properties along Fourth Avenue are protected. The avenue just got its own historic designation. You mentioned the sort of cool, kitschy, urban reputation and vibe that happens on the avenue. Everybody that I’m talking to along the avenue—the merchants and the people who live around it—want to protect and to preserve that. That’s one of the reasons that these two conversations with these two developers has turned so contentious. We want to make sure that at the end of the day, when we cross the finish line with either of these projects, that that vibe of Fourth Avenue is not eviscerated.