By Christy Krueger
Ross Rulney was one of Tucson’s first contemporary mixed-use developers, buying his first property in 1999, years before the downtown streetcar came along. Today, he continues buying up properties and transforming them as part of downtown’s 21st century revitalization.
Rulney’s most recent purchase is the Veterans of Foreign Wars building at 124 E. Broadway, built in 1948 as Post 549, Arizona’s largest VFW post at the time. More recently, it housed Access Tucson, a public access television station. After closing the station in 2015, the city put the building up for sale.
“I wanted it for 10 years,” said Rulney, who owns the entire Julian Drew block on which it sits. He watched as the building went in and out of escrow, until this year when he was able to make an offer the city accepted. “I’m vested in the block and other projects. It’s a great contributing project.”
Because it’s a historic building, the city required preservation of the original north façade, where there are large terra cotta tiles, according to Rulney. He’s also restricted from adding to the height. On a historical note, the Julian Drew building next door opened in 1917 as a mixed-use operation, combining a hotel and retail space – long before the mixed-use trend of today.
This will be Rulney’s first experience working with Bill Williams of Engberg Anderson Architects. “Bill is an urban core designer and architect,” Rulney said. Sundt Construction will be the general contractor and is also currently working on his Benedictine Monastery renovation project.
Named The VFW for now, Rulney has a clear vision for the property. “It’s a more interesting building on the inside than I expected. They don’t build them like this anymore,” he said. “It has great height, with 17-foot ceilings on the top floor,” which will become nine loft apartment units, with a rooftop deck available to residents.
The street level is being developed for a restaurant, retail and a possible coffee shop, with a total of approximately 6,500 square feet, including courtyards and a patio. The 6,000-square-foot lower level is set to become offices. While it’s currently underground, a portion will be opened up for natural lighting. “We’re carving out the west side and putting in windows,” Rulney said. “There will be an outdoor garden to bring in light.
“I’m doing the infrastructure for a restaurant,” Rulney added. “I want to take advantage to build it now while interest rates are favorable. That allows me to do things now that I might not have the option for later in a healthier market.” Demolition of the building’s interior is underway, and Rulney estimates completion by the end of this year.
Rio Nuevo is giving funding support to The VFW, which is designated as a Government Property Lease Excise Tax project for property tax abatement. The VFW is also a Qualified Opportunity Zone development. “Rio Nuevo is involved in VFW and the Julian Drew block and they’ve partnered with me on that. Without the Opportunity Zone Fund and Rio Nuevo’s participation, this might not have happened,” Rulney said.
He praised Rio Nuevo for its backing of downtown’s redevelopment efforts over the past several years. “I think Rio Nuevo has been instrumental in positive growth and support of downtown. Without its partnership, a number of projects wouldn’t have happened, like AC Marriott and some smaller projects. The confidence the state has with the local Rio Nuevo board is extremely strong and that’s why we’ve had positive growth.”