It took more than an hour of discussion, but the Tucson City Council tentatively approved spending $1.1 million to stabilize Marist College, a crumbling downtown landmark owned by the Catholic Diocese of Tucson.
The council voted 5-2 Tuesday night to allocate federal Community Development Block Grant funds to repair the historic building's damaged support structure and veneer. The city's hope is that a developer will eventually come forward and transform the one-time parochial school, built in 1915, into an economically viable property.
Councilwoman Regina Romero said the vote was an opportunity for the council to avoid the sins of past city officials and preserve a piece of Tucson history.
"Back in the late '60s, early '70s, half of the historic barrio was bulldozed," Romero said. "Half of the history of Tucson lies underneath the (Tucson Convention Center) right now. The people of Tucson deserve the right to their history and that history comes in the form of a building, Marist College."
Many council members expressed concerns the project has many unanswered questions, such as: Who would pay for the additional repairs and upgrades? What happens to the city's money if the building is sold? And how can the city be sure $1.1 million is adequate to properly secure the structure if the costs are based on a 5-year-old construction analysis?
Albert Elias, director of the Housing and Community Development Department, said although he didn't know the specific costs, a study had shown the money would be sufficient to secure the structure and fix the external blight.
Mayor Jonathan Rothschild offered amendments that would give the city the right to refuse any future deal between the diocese and a potential buyer, designate a portion of the building as public space, and provide the city with an option to assume the title of the property, if necessary.
Councilwoman Karin Uhlich said the council specifically told the city staff to make sure the city can get its money if the property is ever sold or generates revenue.
"The agreement for preserving the building comes with the stipulation that the church does not financially benefit from that grant," Uhlich said. "So if they ever sell it or in any other way (receive) proceeds from the facility, those need to revert back to the city as repayment."
Councilman Steve Kozachik said he voted against the measure because the block-grant money would be better spent on housing rehabilitation, neighborhood enhancements and other issues where the city has a waiting list of residents who could benefit. "But instead we are going to give a gift to the Catholic Church," he said.
Kozachik said he also has reservations the diocese will ever commit to returning the money.
"When I asked them specifically: Will you (agree) to make the city whole, they wouldn't do it," he said. "If they aren't going to make the taxpayers whole, why should we be putting a million dollars into the collection plate of the Catholic Church when we have demonstrable needs?"
Paul Cunningham was the other dissenting vote, saying while historic preservation is important, the current proposal leaves too many unanswered questions.
The city staff will now negotiate with the diocese. Once terms are agreed upon, the agreement will go to the council for a final vote.
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Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at email@example.com or 573-4243.