Months after a bitter rift with its former historic preservation officer, Mesa believes it has found the right person to steer its program into the future.
Arianna Urban, a Phoenix native who spearheaded historic preservation projects in the Bay Area, joined the city late last year in the role of historic preservation coordinator.
She is digging into the job with the same enthusiasm she led in the award-winning preservation of an 1892 railroad station in Livermore, California, while she was working for an environmental consulting firm.
“It was a move-it-or-lose it situation,” Urban said. “My firm was contacted in sort of a flurry. They needed a qualified historic consultant to help them figure this out.”
Cutting the building in half, moving it a mile, reassembling it and seeing it come back to life as a functioning railroad depot was “probably my proudest historic preservation achievement,” Urban said.
Urban honed her preservation skills in previous stints as an intern at Frank Lloyd Wright historical sites, including Taliesin West in Scottsdale. She holds a masters degree in historic preservation from the University of Oregon.
There aren’t any endangered train depots to save in Mesa – the city’s abandoned 1930 Southern Pacific station on the south edge of downtown burned in 1989. But Urban faces other challenges as Mesa races toward its 150th birthday, now just eight years in the future.
Some of those challenges involve the need to balance preservation with the constant, almost organic, tendency of a city to constantly reinvent itself. Nowhere is this more evident than on the east end of downtown, where a massive redevelopment program near the Latter Day Saints temple has swallowed up a slew of post-World War II homes.
“It’s always a compromise,” Urban said. “We really feel like historic preservation and new development progress are not at odds with each other. They don’t need to be. There’s always a middle ground.”
Apart from specific preservation issues, Urban knows she is stepping into a role that in recent years has been problematic for Mesa.
The city thought it had a good match last year when veteran preservationist Kate Singleton became its historic preservation officer. But within months Singleton resigned, accusing city officials of obstructing her efforts and blocking any real progress in the preservation field.
Mesa staffers rejected this accusation, and Nana Appiah, the city’s planning director, said the hiring of Urban shows preservation is important to the city.
Preservation is “a very central part of our function as a planning division,” Appiah said. “We are very serious about historic preservation.”
And, he said, with Urban on board “I think a year, two years from now we’re definitely going to be up there with one of the best historic preservation programs in the nation. That’s our goal.”
There is a slight but significant difference in the job title between Urban and her predecessor.
As historic preservation coordinator – not historic preservation officer – Urban lacks the legal authority to make property-use rulings affecting historic structures and neighborhoods.
The authority still resides with Appiah, just as it did with his predecessor, John Wesley. But Appiah expects Urban to transition into a meatier role with the requisite legal clout before long.
In the meantime, Urban and Appiah, who is her boss, see her role as one focusing on education and advocacy.
“We were looking for someone who has strong foundations and a strong understanding of the principles of historic preservation,” Appiah said. “And Arianna, it’s one of the things she brought to the table. One of the things we wanted … was to be able to go to the community, which is very critical, to educate the community on the importance of historic preservation. She has the passion. That’s really something you cannot instill in somebody.”
Urban described her two-day job-interview as “intense,” including conversations with City Manager Chris Brady and members of the council-appointed Historic Preservation Board.
One keen observer of the process believes Mesa has made a good hire.
“I think it’s a positive thing, certainly, for Mesa,” said Vic Linoff, a prominent local historian and president of the Mesa Preservation Foundation.
“We’ve had our ups and downs over the past couple of years with preservation and I think Arianna will be a good fit,” he added. “She’s young, she’s very high-energy, which I think is something that will be an asset to the preservation program.”
Linoff said, “I’m particularly excited and energized because if preservation is going to be a success in this city or anywhere else, it’s got to come up with another generation and she’s part of that generation.”
“There’s a lot at stake in this city right now,” Linoff said.
Probably the top item on any preservationist’s list of must-do items in Mesa is the Buckhorn Baths, the 1930s motel at Main Street and Recker Road is widely regarded as the reason Arizona attracted Major League Baseball teams for spring training.
Now unused for years, the motel and its famous neon sign are deteriorating. Linoff fears it could be lost if remediation doesn’t happen soon, but the city’s leverage is limited because the property remains in private hands.
Urban and Appiah also are keeping their eyes on neighborhoods not yet qualifying for historic designation but could do so within a few years. It could include areas like Dobson Ranch, which will see its 50th anniversary early this decade and the adjacent Park Place neighborhood, which dates to the late 1970s.
“We’re looking to preserve some of their historic integrity,” Appiah said. “As much as our goal is to protect the already-designated properties, we also want to look to the future.”
Urban believes historic preservation is no mere luxury in a world of dizzying societal and technological change.
“The historic buildings and resources and landscapes and objects around us give us a chance to anchor ourselves in both space – where we are geographically – and also time – where we are chronologically,” she said. “It gives us a chance to reconnect ourselves to where we came from. We can’t ignore those things. For us to disregard them, we’re doing a disservice to ourselves as well as to the past.”