The Holdouts

The owners of two homes refuse to sell to developers of a 22nd Street student-housing complex

The mini-dorm issue has plagued neighborhoods around the University of Arizona, most notably to the north and west. Lawsuits and community outrage have become the norm as residents and developers battle over land use.

Avoiding those problems was the goal of a Georgia developer when it set out to build a large-scale student complex about two miles south of the UA. Known as the Retreat at Tucson, the 21-acre project at 22nd Street and Park Avenue will house more than 770 students when it opens in the fall of 2013.

"It's going to be a great development," said George Kalil, owner of Kalil Bottling Co. and president of the Millville Neighborhood Association, where the Retreat is being built. "It's going to be the best-run student thing in town."

Kalil, representatives from the South Park neighborhood on the project's south end, the Tucson Urban League—which owned land needed for the development—and Tucson City Councilman Richard Fimbres had numerous meetings with Landmark Properties and project co-owner Harrison Street Real Estate Capital before ground was broken.

"When we started negotiating with (Landmark) on this, I told them they needed to talk to everybody," Fimbres said. "This is not a minidorm concept. Those have been controversial. We have to be good neighbors."

Acquiring enough space to build the Retreat required buying land from numerous parties, including individual and even nonprofit groups such as the Urban League. All told, 28 parcels were purchased from 15 different property owners in order for Landmark to get the land it needed.

While those acquisitions were mostly a slam dunk—real estate records indicate most properties sold for between $100,000 and $200,000—two homeowners have chosen to turn down escalating offers to sell their homes.

"They want a million each," said Joaquin "Kino" Abrams, whose relatives own side-by-side homes on 23rd Street, which stand as bulldozers and earthmovers rumble on all four sides. "They just don't want to sell."

Abrams, a Realtor who grew up in one of the homes, said he's negotiated with Landmark and Harrison Street to secure offers exceeding $500,000, total, for the parcels, which combine to make up one-third of an acre and had 2012 assessed values of $83,000 and $98,000, respectively. The homes were built in the 1970s.

Kalil said, "I talked to (the holdouts) three times myself, just to make sure they understood (that with) what they were being offered, they could buy a really nice house anywhere else in Tucson and put the rest in the bank. But they wanted more money. I said, 'Are you sure?' I begged them, begged them, begged them. They're a lovely family. I made sure they heard it from my lips that, once (the developers) close down the planning, they can't just come back."

Abrams, who said his family did not wish to be interviewed for this story, hopes he may eventually get his parents, who live in one house, and his aunt, who lives in the other, to come around.

But time for that to happen is running out.

The Tucson City Council approved the Retreat's final plan in January, and 23rd Street has been officially abandoned. A tiny sliver of that road still exists where it intersects with Highland Avenue on the development's east side, leading to the still-standing homes that are now surrounded by chain-link fences.

David Rivera, a principal planner with the city of Tucson, said the progress made on construction could eventually make adding the land where those houses sit impossible.

"We would have to go back to the original approved development plan to see if (adding more land affects) the density ratio," Rivera said. "I haven't seen something like this in quite a while."

Landmark plans to move forward as if the island of unsecured land will remain unsecured.

"We've designed around it," Landmark spokesman Jason Doornbos said. "There's a public road that runs through the middle of the site, and they'll still have access off (of what's left of 23rd Street). It's actually laid out very well, considering those people wanted to stay there."

Doornbos said his company never considered trying to force the landowners to sell through means such as eminent domain.

"We're big believers in property rights," he said. "You just build a wall around the perimeter (of the remaining homes). We were going to do it anyway. Hopefully, the plan is you won't even know we're there when the property is done."

Noted Kalil: "They're going to be tactfully surrounded."

The Retreat at Tucson is slated to be a gated community with 183 casita-style residences that have between two and six bedrooms apiece. The facility will include a 10,000-square foot clubhouse, an enormous swimming pool and, rumor has it, a watering hole of a different variety.

"There are a bunch of amenities that are for college students," said Doornbos, adding that bedrooms will rent for an average of $625 per month. "Our projects have actually drawn students away from projects in single-family neighborhoods."

Landmark has similar developments near 11 colleges in nine states, mostly in the South. It has 12 projects surrounding the University of Georgia.

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