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Q&A With Jodie Brown, Tucson Historic Preservation Officer

As the City of Tucson Historic Preservation Officer, Jodie Brown plays an important role in protecting and promoting the community’s architectural and cultural heritage. Now that the 21st Annual Arizona Historic Preservation Conference, held in Tucson, is over, let’s get to know more about Jodie and the work that she does in this Q&A with Alesha Adolph, Public Ally Apprentice for the Arizona Preservation Foundation:


Q. Could you tell us about yourself and what your position is?

A. My name is Jodie Brown, and I am the Historic Preservation Officer/Principal Planner for the City of Tucson. I’ve been in this position for almost 5 years. Prior to this, I was a City Planner in Historic Preservation for ten years for the City of San Diego. Prior to San Diego, I worked for the City of Phoenix as an Associate Planner in Historic Preservation. Except for brief stints, I have always been doing historic preservation.


Q. How did you get into the field of historic preservation? What inspired you?

A. I have an undergraduate degree in History, and an undergraduate degree in French. With History as an undergraduate degree, it is difficult to get a job. Most go on to get a master’s degree in something else. When I was a kid, my dad was in the military, so we travelled a lot. My mom made sure we saw different sites and experienced life in Europe and wherever we were stationed. It created a love of old buildings, wanting to save them, and preserve them. After I got my history degree, I went on and got my master’s in Environmental Planning with a specialization in Urban and Regional Planning at Arizona State University. When the opportunity arose to do an internship, I went directly to the City of Phoenix Historic Preservation Office. Luckily, they were understaffed and happily hired me on. The internship was unpaid, but then they hired me on as a paid contractor. Eventually when a position opened, I was able to get that position. It was not a quick thing. Because they were understaffed, I had the opportunity to do a lot of things that maybe other interns wouldn’t have gotten the chance to do. I ran the Exterior Rehab grant program where we provided matching funds to property owners to do work on the exterior of their house. Having the opportunity to run the grant program was nice. It was a good experience, and I learned a lot. I am grateful for that opportunity.


Q. What do you see as the greatest challenges for historic preservation in Tucson?

A. It is kind of a bummer but it’s a challenge for everybody nationwide, which is people doing work without a permit. You have the group of people who are very knowledgeable, and they want to do the right thing and do their due diligence, so they understand where they’re at and what needs to be done to maintain that property as a historic resource. Then you have the group of people who either don’t really care or don’t know; they haven’t done their research, so they end up doing work that is detrimental to the property – replacing windows, stuccoing the exterior, or modifying the resources to an extent that it no longer conveys its historic character and gets delisted. It’s an issue nationwide, not just in Tucson. You have a lot of people that come in and flip properties. They want to get in and get out, they want money for these properties. They are not necessarily getting the permits or the reviews or even caring. So, you get these wonderful original double-hung windows that are swapped out for vinyl windows, and it changes the character of the building. It’s a huge challenge. To me that’s one of the bigger challenges that everyone nationwide faces.

In Tucson specifically, we need to look at sustainability. It’s getting hotter and you want to make sure that historic houses can deal with it. Unfortunately, they’ve had maybe some modifications over the years, or they still have unrepaired windows that allow leaks. It’s a challenge, but you must think about ways to make the houses and the buildings relevant for today so that they keep their character, but they can also deal with the heat. Maybe dealing with the heat isn’t just replacing windows, maybe it’s doing an energy audit to understand where you have this heat loss or gain. Is it in the attic where you don’t have insulation? Is it around your doors where you don’t have proper weatherstripping? You can have that with windows too. People automatically go to replace the windows, but maybe you can be better served by replacing the glass, or making sure that the sash isn’t tweaked in the frame, or putting weatherstripping in. Sometimes it can be achieved by putting in a storm window or blinds that stop the heat gain. That’s a challenge here for sure, to make sure that we keep the houses relevant and we’re not just tossing the historic materials. It’s looking at the overall picture to understand what the issues are with the building or house and doing an energy audit to figure out what can be improved while keeping the character.


Q. Is there anything that you would say Tucson is doing well or right within historic preservation?

A. In terms of involving the community, the way that Tucson is set up to have the advisory boards and the plans review subcommittee. For clarification, the way that we do the reviews here is if a project comes in within a Historic Preservation Zone (HPZ), which is one of our locally listed districts, they go to an advisory board. Each HPZ has its own advisory board made up of members who own, rent, or have a special qualification and are all appointed by the mayor. The project first goes to them for review, and they make a recommendation, then it goes to the plans review subcommittee. The plans review subcommittee is a subcommittee of the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission. They will also make a recommendation. Both recommendations go to the director, and the director issues a decision letter. It does help to educate and inform the neighborhood so they are informed of new construction and can have input. In that instance, I would say that the neighborhoods are well informed.


Q. What are some of the most rewarding projects that you have been a part of?

A. In San Diego, they are set up a little differently with reviews where projects came in and we as the historic preservation staff did the review. If I needed input, I had the design assistance review panel which was some of the historic resources board members who sat on that, and they would advise me on the proposed project. Because we were in California, if the project met a certain threshold, then it became a discretionary project meaning that it had to get approved by higher levels. It wasn’t just a staff level approval, there were multiple steps of planning commission, Mayor and council, and others that it had to go through for approval. I had a project with San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and they were building a new building in the downtown area, and it somewhat impacted a historically listed fire station and impacted a historic warehouse building. The original plans included not touching the fire station but slightly overlapping on the warehouse. They were talking about taking down the warehouse and just keeping the façade. There was quite a bit of back and forth between me and the architect. The buildings ended up just overlapping a little bit. The two bays that were originally there were used as entrances to their parking garage. It still looked like the old building, and they even stepped back with their new building. It turned out to be a really nice design. The architect was receptive and willing to work with historic staff, so they got our input early and were thoughtful in including our concerns into their design. I would say that was a successful project. It was successful both on the side of SDG&E because they came out with a great product, and for historic preservation because we preserved historic buildings, and we incorporated them so that they were able to reuse part of the historic building.


Q. What about a most disappointing project that you have been a part of?

A. When you’re dealing with historic preservation, you have people who understand and purposely buy historic properties to maintain them, and then you have the people who don’t really care. It’s always a little disappointing to work with property owners who really don’t want to modify their plans in any way, shape, or form. In historic preservation you always must have an idea of compromise. You’re never going to get a fully preserved building. If it is going to be used today as something other than a house museum, you are always going to have to have compromise. When you are doing design review, you’re always working with the property owner to try to find what we can do to make it work for both you and me. It’s disappointing when you run across property owners who don’t want to do that. They are unwilling to compromise and what they are proposing is not appropriate for the historic building. It becomes a battle. It really becomes a battle between the property owner and what they are trying to achieve and what you are trying to achieve. I tend to give a lot and try to work with property owners but that’s probably my most disappointing. I won’t pin it down to one project, but it’s my most disappointing experience for sure.


Q. Does Tucson have a Preservation Plan?

A. We do not have a Preservation Plan. It’s something that I have been thinking about. In some ways Tucson is ahead of the game a little bit with archaeology. They were on par for sure, they have archaeology sensitivity zones, and they have a monitoring and discovery plan to go with those archaeology sensitivity zones. We have an administrative directive that addresses how you treat city owned property in those archaeology sensitivity zones. In terms of other elements, Tucson was a little bit behind. Right now, I am trying to work through surveys with the CLG pass-through grants. We did an Asian American Survey Part 1, so I will be doing an Asian American Survey Part 2. We have an African American Survey that we are currently working on. We did a Mid-Century Modern Commercial Survey. I have plans to do Native American, Hispanic, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ Surveys to bring us up on par with what other cities have done. A lot of other cities have done those surveys, but we lack in those surveys. The Preservation Plan is also on my list. Having items to have in the Preservation Plan would obviously be Goals and Objectives. The survey plan is on my white board in my office, but maybe formalizing that into the Preservation Plan and looking objectively at the whole city and how to do that. Maybe it’s expanding the HPZ’s, maybe it’s expanding the Neighborhood Preservation Zones. A Neighborhood Preservation Zone is like a conservation district, it is not as strict as a Historic Preservation Zone.


Q. What would you like to see in a Preservation Plan?

A. Surveys, goals, and objectives for the city. How to address everything and have the goals that we want to have like preserving the landscaping or looking for more districts, or doing more surveys, those kinds of things. I haven’t put a ton of thought into it. We are a small office with only two of us in the Historic Preservation Office in the City of Tucson. We have an overloaded plate of work to do. It’s something that I’ve thought about and put on the list but haven’t put down pen to paper yet.


Q. What advice would you give to someone entering the historic preservation field?

A. Because it’s such a niche field, you need to be prepared to move if you want to promote up. I had to move from Arizona to California to go from an Associate Planner to a Senior Planner. Then we moved again to Tucson for me to become a Principal Planner/Historic Preservation Officer.


I would say that when you’re dealing with design review and other aspects, you’re going to have to compromise. Nothing is perfect. You are going to deal with a lot of homeowners when you are working in historic preservation. It’s not just going to be house museums or these perfect picture things. Learn to listen to property owners. Everyone has different ideas and different levels of education and understanding. It’s a lot of talking and working with property owners, architects, engineers, and archaeologists. You have to be open and listen to everybody.


For more information about the City of Tucson Historic Preservation Office, click here.



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