An extensive renovation of the iconic Mesa Arizona Temple has the potential of becoming a catalyst for the transformation of the city’s downtown.
Using Pioneer Park and the revamped Temple as its anchor, that transformation could attract an unparalleled revival, said Maricopa County Supervisor and East Valley Partnership President Denny Barney.
“We’re talking about tens of millions of dollars in private investment down there,’’ Barney said. “I think this will be a catalyst for future investment.’’
Details of the multimillion-dollar plan are trickling out, posing a classic confrontation between neighborhood revitalization and historic preservation with a landmark of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the center.
That confrontation involves a request to demolish nine World War II-era houses in the Temple’s shadow.
Although a formal plan has not been submitted, Property Reserve Inc., the LDS church’s property wing, submitted requests to demolish nine houses to the west of the temple on two streets named after Mormon pioneers – Udall and Lesueur.
Now, the still-unannounced plan and the controversy over that request have some Mesa residents demanding a more complete overview and more transparency from both the church and the city.
Barney and his late father, T. Dennis Barney, a well-respected Gilbert developer, have quietly played a pivotal role in setting the stage for the redevelopment by acting in concert with the LDS church and acquiring numerous properties west of the Temple and turning them over to the church.
He said several similar mixed-use developments have been proposed downtown to take full advantage of light rail, but the LDS planned development may be the first actually built.
“It will set the stage for future development in downtown Mesa,’’ Barney said.
But historical preservationists are alarmed over the potential cost to Mesa’s heritage.
“It’s an emotional thing for a lot of people in the district. It’s to make sure that the district doesn’t just go away because nine houses are gone,’’ said Lori Osiecki, a longtime neighborhood preservationist. She’s worried that plan will eliminate the historic district, of which the Temple is a part.
City Planning Director John Wesley told the Historical Preservation Board at a meeting last week that city officials have rejected three demolition requests for the homes inside the Temple Historic District and are still reviewing six more.
The rejection triggers essentially a six-month reprieve for the homes and an opportunity for Property Reserve to appeal the decision to the board, likely at its June meeting, Wesley said.
In broad terms, the conceptual plan outlined to Wesley would knock down the Visitors Center in front of the Temple and replace it with a new one in the area between Udall and Lesueur – where ranch-style homes built in the late 1940s and the 1950s are located.
Wesley said the church also plans a mixed-use development along Main Street, across from the Mesa Drive light rail station, that would feature businesses on the first floor and housing on the upper floors.
The Visitors Center was built in 1975. Removing it would create a much better view of the Temple from Main Street and return it to the appearance it had when it opened in 1927.
“Overall, the plan is a pretty good concept. It would restore the visibility of the Temple,’’ Wesley said.
Barney, who cautioned he is speaking as church member and not as an official spokesman, said the plan corrects a mistake made when the Visitor’s Center was built.
He envisions a day when people riding on the light rail to the new Gilbert road extension will look to the south and see a glowing view of the Temple lit up at night.
“It blocked the true gem of the area, the Temple itself,’’ Barney said. “They are going to see a beautiful renovated Temple,’’ he said.
But the houses targeted for demolition are considered a part of what makes the neighborhood historic, Wesley said, noting their appearance has not been significantly altered since they were built.
He said some options could be discussed for saving the houses, such as changing the plan or moving them to another location.
In the end, the LDS church could simply let the 180-day period expire and bulldoze the houses because of it holds the property rights.
But that’s not what Wesley expects to happen.
“Most people, they want to work with the community. They don’t want bad press,’’ he said.
The plan is hardly a shock.
During a 2011 interview with a reporter, Barney said he and his father bought the houses west of the Temple when the houses started falling into decay. The idea was to remove blight while making the property available for redevelopment.
An LDS architect also met with Mesa and helped redesign zoning for light rail.
Barney described the acquisitions as “a legacy project,’’ motivated by his family’s love for the Temple rather than profit.
“We want to make sure the neighborhood is just as beautiful as the Temple itself,’’ Barney said.
Barney said his father started buying the properties at the LDS church’s request in 2000 and that the purchases probably included 40-50 houses and other buildings.
He described the mixed-use development long Main Street as a “high-intensity use,’’ with a Visitors Center nearby for the convenience of light rail riders.
The area would gradually transition into new housing for families and eventually reach the historic bungalows built in the 1920s along First Avenue, which once functioned as a boulevard leading into the Temple.
When the full plan is announced – possibly within weeks – Barney said, “They will see an organization willing to invest over and over again in people and neighborhoods to make things nice.’’
While the homes targeted for redevelopment are located in a historic district, some have been altered through additions and other changes that make them “non-contributing properties,” Barney said. He said the best historic properties will be spared and the entire development will fit into the area’s historic character.
The city has been reviving the area through light rail and a major renovation of Pioneer Park across the street. The park features a large statue commemorating the contributions of the city’s Mormon pioneers. Barney said he is related to two of the four represented in the statue.
Daniel Woodruff, an LDS spokesman, declined to discuss the renovation plan in detail but did not dispute the version recited to him by a reporter. He said the church plans to release further details at a press conference in coming weeks.
Woodruff released the following statement:
“The Mesa Arizona Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been a part of the community for more than 90 years. It has become a community gathering place for holiday and cultural celebrations. As announced, the temple will close this month for needed repairs and upgrades and is scheduled to reopen in 2020.
“Part of the construction will include redevelopment of the land surrounding the temple grounds. The Church has worked extensively with city and county officials to ensure these plans will benefit and enhance the downtown Mesa area. An announcement on detailed plans is expected in the next several weeks.’’
Vic Linoff, a longtime neighborhood preservationist, said he is hoping for a compromise between the city and the LDS church that would spare the houses through changes to the plan, or as a last resort, moving the homes elsewhere. That approach has been used in Mesa before, including during construction of the Mesa Performing Arts Center.
He said it’s possible, but probably not likely, that the state’s historic preservation office could yank the area’s status as a historic district if the homes are removed and destroyed. He said the district has about 61 homes.
Linoff said the project represents the biggest test of a historic district and that he knows of no historic districts that have lost their lofty designation.
“What a black eye that would be for the city and Arizona,’’ he said.
While the housing development coincided in the area with Temple’s construction in the 1920s, records show the house targeted for demolition were built in 1947 and 1949, and probably sold for $5,000 to $10,000, Linoff said.
“They represent the ranch style of architecture that was emerging after World War II. They were basically starter homes, adjacent to the Temple,’’ he said. “We would like to see more transparency when an issue like this moves forward.’’