Marist College Building Looks for Redevelopment Ideas

February 5, 2012

By Teya Vitu

The last three-story adobe building in Tucson — the Marist College — may have a thriving future.

That’s what a team of Downtown and historic enthusiasts are trying determine before Arizona’s centennial arrives.

The Downtown Tucson Partnership has posted a Request for Interest (RFI) to gauge developer interest to restore the three-story adobe structure across from the Tucson Convention Center. Deadline to express interest is March 14.

“This is a stupendous opportunity for Downtown,” said Demion Clinco, president of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, which is collaborating with the Partnership. “Based on talks I’ve had, there would be interest in this property.”

The RFI mentions a boutique hotel as a possible use, but developers are free to suggest other uses. The Italianate and Spanish Colonial Revival Marist building sits on the San Augustine Cathedral campus.

“The parish would be willing to give up that corner,” said John Shaheen, the Diocese’s property and insurance director. “If they can find someone to develop it in a compatible way with the cathedral, we’d be willing to gift the property.”

This RFI is the closest the Marist College has come to a possible resurrection since a summer monsoon storm in 2005 tore into three upper corners of the 1915 mud adobe structure. The building has sat empty since 2002, when the Diocese moved its offices to Broadway and Church Avenue. The Diocese offices were in the Marist College from 1968 to 2002.

Although there had been conversations between the City and the Diocese to somehow pass the Marist into City ownership for redevelopment, the sticking point has always been money.

Stabilizing the unreinforced adobe to meet modern building codes and asbestos removal would cost an estimated $1.2 million – a sum referred to as the “preservation deficit.”

A breakthrough came in February 2011 when Downtown Tucson Partnership CEO Michael Keith, himself a passionate historic preservationist, made Marist a Partnership priority. Pam Sutherland joined the Partnership as economic development director at the end of February 2011, and since then she has built a team and assembled a variety of possible funding sources to bridge the preservation deficit.

These include historic tax credits, New Markets Tax Credits, Community Development Block Grants and other federal blight abatement grants and job creation funds. The property is within the Rio Nuevo District, the HUD Empowerment Zone and the Downtown Infill Incentive District.

A key funding component fell in place in August 2011 when the Marist College building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, mainly on the strength of it being the only three-story adobe structure remaining in southern Arizona. This qualifies a potential developer for a 20-percent tax credit on investments made in the building.

The Marist College was built in 1915 and served as the City’s first non-segregated boys’ day and boarding school for elementary school students through high school sophomore level. The school operated until 1968, at which time the Diocese moved their offices into the building.

Significant damage came just three years after the Diocese moved out, when a 2005 monsoon storm ate away chunks of three corners just below the roof. The City immediately stepped in with a $98,000 state Heritage Fund Grant that stabilized the corners with wood beams. Later, steel reinforcement braced the northwest corner, the most severely damaged.

What happened was about 35 years ago the façade was plastered with a plasticized composite coating that did not allow the adobe to breathe. That meant the mud bricks could not easily dry if water got into the walls.

That’s what happened in 2005, when the roof did not drain properly. A structural analysis in 2007 determined the adobe was 59 percent sand and 41 percent silt and clay, a lower percentage of the ideal sand ratio of 70 to 80 percent, structural engineer Jerry Cannon said at the time.

Shaheen, the Diocese’s property director for the past 10 years, said the building right now is in decent shape, despite the missing corners. Its lowest 14 feet are concrete with unbaked adobe bricks above.

“The adobe is fine,” Shaheen said. “We’re satisfied the building is stable. But it’s an eyesore. It doesn’t help what anybody’s trying to achieve Downtown.”

“We need to relieve the adobe walls of all the load. We foresee transferring the load with a steel structure.”

As sturdy as the building may be today, it is a “living” structure that remains vulnerable without modern reinforcement. The tarps draped over the corner holes in 2005 tore away in 2010 and “we are out of funds to retarp the building,” Shaheen said, adding that new tarps would cost $15,000.

But Shaheen is more concerned with the human element than Mother Nature.

“The building continues to deteriorate, mostly due to vandalism, broken windows,” he said.

The Marist College was put on Arizona’s Most Endangered Places list in 2007, and the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation nominated it for the National Register of Historic Places, a listing the Marist College won in August.

Successive generations of City Council members have dipped into the Marist College waters, mostly backing away from city ownership and insisting the private sector should take on the challenge. The structure is in Council member Steve Kozachik’s ward.

“I met with Pam (Sutherland) and Michael (Keith),” Kozachik said. “I say send the RFI out and see if anybody’s interested. Frankly, the thing is in horrible condition. Oh my god, somebody would have to be very interested in it. This is the time. It’s not going to last much longer.”

Council member Regina Romero suggested offering Community Development Block Grants to plug part of the preservation gap.

Sutherland has collaborated with a working group including all the above players since March. Early on, she brought in former Attorney General Terry Goddard to tap his expertise to find ideal financing. She said the Marist College is Goddard’s second favorite building in Arizona.

A 12-member committee will evaluate any responses to the RFI. The members or their appointees include:

Demion Clinco, president of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation; Albert Elias, director of the Tucson Housing and Community Development Department; Pima County Supervisor Richard Elias; U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva; Chris Kaselemis of the City of Tucson; Michael Keith, CEO of the Downtown Tucson Partnership; City Council member Steve Kozachik; City Manager Richard Miranda; City Council member Regina Romero; historian Ken Scoville; and John Shaheen, property and insurance director for the Diocese of Tucson.

“We’re looking for a project that will really succeed and add value to the whole southwest quadrant of Downtown,” Clinco said. “My hope is in one-and-half to two years we can look back and say ‘wow, what a success.”