Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Mesa

The gardens have been stripped from the grounds of the Mesa Arizona Temple in advance of a massive interior and exterior renovation of the iconic city landmark. Concurrently, the development arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is undertaking a huge redevelopment project in the immediate vicinity.

An air of resignation seemed to settle over the Mesa Historic Preservation Board last Tuesday as members realized they were powerless to protect the Temple Historic District as they heard that a redevelopment plan for the area will nearly double.

Carl Duke, vice president of City Creek Reserve, told the board that the first seven historic ranch homes planned for demolition last spring will be razed later this month on Udall street, west of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Mesa Arizona Temple.

City Creek, the real estate division of the church, also plans to level six additional homes on Udall to create room for an 8.2-acre redevelopment plan – which was expanded from an original 4.5 acres – to add single family townhouses and garden homes to the mixture of apartments, retail space and church facilities.

But City Creek must wait out another 180-day moratorium to knock down the additional houses.

 That follows the same process as Phase I, where the city rejected demolition permits, citing the homes historic value. The delay is largely meaningless, since the permits are automatically issued after the moratorium expires.

The ranch-style homes were built in the late 1940s after World War II. Although the mostly block and stucco houses are not considered architecturally noteworthy, they are viewed as an early example of Mesa’s suburbanization.

Board members were anticipating a second phase to the project along Udall street because the church owned the properties.

 They  seemed relieved when Duke said City Creek plans to enhance the historic character of homes along First Avenue and has no immediate plans for redevelopment south of First Avenue.

“We think the historical value of those homes are important from a curb appeal standpoint,’’ said Carl Duke, vice president of City Creek Reserve. “We have made the decision to upgrade those homes.’’

Greg Marek, the board’s chairman, said he would like to form a new, smaller historic district along First Avenue, narrowing the boundaries from the original district formed in 1990.

 First Avenue originally was envisioned as a boulevard leading to the temple.

He said that’s about all the board may be able to salvage from the original district, although the state Historic Preservation Office plans to reevaluate the district after the redevelopment project is completed.

“I think the board is just resigned that there is nothing we can do to stop it. We learned that from Phase I,” Marek said.

Duke said City Creek expanded the project to offer a wider variety of housing choices, with the new homes in Phase II likely to resemble townhouses or garden homes that would face a landscaped courtyard.

He said City Creek would like to finish the project by summer 2020, so it can open in tandem with the re-opening of the newly renovated iconic temple.

The temple is undergoing a massive interior and exterior renovation that will expand and enhance the replanted gardens surrounding it.

The renovation has forced the church to cancel its famed Christmas lights display and Easter Pageant. It hopes to reopen the temple in time for the Christmas season of 2020.

The church considers the opening of the new Family Discovery Center and a large underground parking lot vital components to the temple’s re-opening, Duke said.

“It’s a mess. It’s active construction. It’s like tearing off a Band Aid. We’d like to get it all done if possible,’’ Duke said. “We are building it, trusting that it will lift up the area. It will transform the area.’’

Built in 1927 as Arizona’s first temple, the Mesa temple is now surrounded by a beige construction fence. The large lawn where the church hosted the light show and pageant is largely gone, and the white Visitor’s Center also has been razed.

The new Family Discovery Center will replace the Visitors Center and will be located near the light rail stop at Mesa Drive.

Removing the old Visitors Center also improves the view of the imposing temple for Main Street motorists and light rail passengers.

Duke said that the addition of Phase II means that the project will take up most of Udall, with a couple of private homeowners choosing to hold out and stay, rejecting church offers to buy their house and tolerating the long construction period instead.

The city has abandoned Udall, but it will become a public street again when the project is over.

Duke is planning to fence off the 13 homes involved in the project, with the Preservation Board’s approval.

He also said City Creek has encountered problems with the homeless camping in the empty homes.

He said Mesa police and fire also want to use the abandoned homes for training exercises before they are torn down.

Mesa fire wants to practice rescuing victims from tight quarters, while Mesa police want to practice “invasive entries, such as knocking down doors and using flash bangs,’’ Duke said.

Dale Bills, a City Creek Reserve spokesman, said the church is willing to give away the houses earmarked for demolition for free, along with a $10,000 allowance, for any house that is moved before it is razed.

But officials have said moving a house is very expensive, costing an estimated $80,000, and that such a move has to happen quickly because of the church’s tight construction schedule.

Duke said the offer applies mostly at this point to the houses in Phase II, because the moratorium period allows for time to arrange a move.

Phase I includes 240 apartments, 12 townhouses and 7,500 square feet of retail space. A 450-stall underground parking lot creates room for 70,000 square feet of open space, which will include landscaped gardens.

But while the underground parking garage removes unsightly street-level parking, it also creates the need to demolish the historic homes. Duke said the first seven houses will be demolished by the end of this month and that excavation for the parking garage will start in November.

Duke said that at some point, City Creek might consider a commercial project, redeveloping some properties it owns on Hobson Street east of the temple.

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