Kate Singleton seemed like the perfect person to rebuild Mesa’s historic preservation program when she started her job with the city in April.
She drew accolades for her work over a 41-year career devoted to preserving history in Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin, Texas.
But less than four months on the job, Singleton resigned — accusing city officials of hindering her attempts to overhaul Mesa’s outdated preservation program and refusing to listen to her ideas.
”I have encountered reluctance to change or strengthen regulations, even when that was the logical approach and required by the city’s status as a certified local government and federal law,’’ Singleton wrote in a stinging letter of resignation to Planning Director Nana Appiah dated July 29 with an effective date of Aug. 4.
“It appears the city administration does not fully understand what a good, well run historic preservation program should be and there is ongoing surveillance from those in the city who are concerned that the program would disrupt the status quo, a factor that has hampered the program.’’
Mesa City Manager Chris Brady said Mesa has had a strong commitment toward historic preservation for decades and he can’t understand why anyone would question it.
He said the city’s eight historic districts are ample evidence of Mesa’s commitment and that Singleton’s hire just did not work out well.
“There’s no question about it. You can see it in our actions,’’ Brady said.
He said Singleton “wasn’t a good fit’’ and was trying to expand her authority by advocating for historical reviews on city bond projects, which are not required by law.
Federal law requires formal historical reviews when federal money is spent on major projects, such as the recent Metro light rail expansion to Gilbert Road.
When city money is involved, experts at the Mesa Museum of Natural History and others will be consulted on a case by case basis if there is a suspicion that a city project might disrupt ruins, Brady said.
“We do a very good job at historical reviews,’’ he said.
Singleton’s resignation has upset other preservations, notably members of the city Historic Preservation Advisory Board.
It also has illustrated a tension between advocates of a more robust historic preservation program and most city officials’ desire to push forward with projects they say will breathe new life into some of Mesa’s deteriorating neighborhoods while delivering much-needed facilities to newer ones.
For example, Mesa has no intention of imposing more regulations that would slow down construction of new facilities, such as parks, libraries and police and fire stations, approved by voters, Brady said.
In an interview, Singleton, 65, said the city needs to decide if it even wants a historic preservation program after officials refused to listen to her suggestions. She is headed back to Fort Worth to work as a preservation consultant.
“I felt like every time I brought something up, I was told, ‘We can’t do that, we don’t do it that way in Mesa,’’’ Singleton said. “I think the city might need to do some soul searching. They really need to decide if they want to do this.’’
Although Mesa has several historic districts and some notable landmarks, it has no cohesive plan to tie preservation efforts together or support historic neighborhoods, Singleton said.
City Councilwoman Jen Duff, who represents downtown Mesa and lives in a historic district, said she is convinced Appiah is committed to improving the historic preservation program.
“I think Nana has historic preservation as a priority,’’ Duff said, adding that he needs more time as the city seeks a replacement for Singleton.
Duff, a longtime advocate of historic preservation, said the city needs to find the right person who can combine a knowledge of historic preservation with an ability to navigate the nuances of city government.
“We didn’t have a historic preservation officer for 10 years. A lot of things fell through the cracks,’’ Duff said. “I think it’s been a rough 10-12 years.’’
Singleton’s resignation frustrated the city’s Historic Preservation Advisory Board.
When Singleton started her job, board Chairman Greg Marek, a former historic preservation officer, thought he finally had someone who could make progress after years of indifference.
Board members openly questioned the city’s commitment to historic preservation in the wake of Singleton’s resignation.
“Why continue wasting my time?’’ wondered board member Milagros Zingano. “The time I invested, it doesn’t pay off.’’
Appiah sought to reassure the board that the city is working towards finding a replacement for Singleton.
“I have received nothing but great support for historic preservation,’’ Appiah said. “Unfortunately, this is a setback.’’
Despite Singleton’s resignation, “we see historic preservation as very critical,’’ he said.
The historic preservation position remained unfilled for years since the 2008 Great Recession and only recently was restored. It was filled by longtime former Planning Director John Wesley on an interim basis before his retirement. Appiah replaced Wesley eight months ago.
Marek said he is concerned that the city apparently does not have a standard procedure for running development proposals through the historic preservation officer.
He noted that Hohokam canals were found, documented and protected during the construction of Mesa Riverview a decade ago.
He said the same procedures should be followed as the city builds a series of major public improvements in the next few years.
Such reviews can occur during the planning process and don’t necessarily cause delays, Marek asserted, adding:
“They are saying all the right things, but I want to see action.”
But Brady said there is no need to change city policies.
He envisions the historic preservation officer working as a team with the planning director to flag projects when they could potentially unearth historical artifacts.
One area where everyone seems to agree is the need to revamp the city’s 25-year-old historic preservation ordinance and the design standards associated with it.
“The ordinance here was done in 1994. It’s had no substantive changes. It needs to be updated,” Singleton said.
Chris Cody, assistant director of the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office, said the Mesa program needs an overhaul, and pledged to help in any way possible.
“You are in desperate need of an update,’’ Cody told the board at a recent meeting. He described the present Mesa regulation as “a dormant ordinance.’’
“This is the start of a journey,’’ he said. “Right now, you have the best efforts of your staff. This is the old model.’’
Although a newly updated ordinance is vital to reinvigorating the Mesa program, a commitment to historic preservation is also paramount, Cody said.
“You can’t just have an ordinance in name only. You have to use it,’’ Cody said.
Brady strongly disagreed with Cody’s description of Mesa’s ordinance, saying it was used when City Creek Reserve documented the historical significance of 13 homes along Udall Street.
Those homes were demolished to make room for The Residences at Main Street, a redevelopment project west of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple.
“Maybe it needs to be updated, but the word ‘dormant’ is a misrepresentation,’’ Brady said.
Christine Zielonka, Mesa’s development services director, said that she and Appiah met for two hours with state officials about the future direction of Mesa’s program.
She said Mesa plans to apply for a state grant that focuses on re-writing the city’s historic preservation ordinance.
But Singleton cited the City Creek Reserve project as an example of where Mesa went wrong on historic preservation.
She said she was taken aback when a city official told her that it was OK to demolish homes in the Temple Historic District because only the larger homes on First Avenue were worth saving.
She said Mesa is clearly behind other Arizona cities, such as Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff and Prescott, in historic preservation, and is not getting the maximum benefit from carving out a clear identity and a unique sense of place.
“People want authenticity. You are selling a quality of life,’’ Singleton said. “What do you think Prescott sells itself on? Besides the cool weather, it’s the historic downtown.’’