Meet the woman who’s fighting to save San Jose’s history
Juliet Arroyo was hired as San Jose historic preservation officer, a job kept vacant for the last decade. It's her mission to save San Jose's history.

After leaving the job vacant for nearly a decade, San Jose City Hall has hired someone to protect the city’s historical assets or — at the very least — remind the city’s lawmakers that they’re there, especially as the city’s growth explodes amid an economic boom.

Juliet Arroyo is the city’s new historic preservation officer. She hails from Southern California where she served in the same role for the city of Glendale. Arroyo now lives in the Vendome neighborhood of San Jose and says she is charmed by its “storybook village” style.

Since taking the job in April 2018, Arroyo’s worked on simplifying the process of nominating historical sites on the city’s inventory list — which contains about 4,000 designations and growing — and now she’s working on a citywide historic survey to look at sites dating from 1850 to 1979 in an effort to add inventory to the list. The survey will also explore ways to reuse clusters of historical landmarks.

But as San Jose’s growth accelerates with dozens of new downtown high-rise developments on the horizon and tech giant Google’s plans to transform Diridon Station, many San Jose natives worry about the city losing its history and character amid growth and development.

Arroyo is fighting to ensure San Jose doesn’t wash away the “old” while making way for the “new.”

The first step: Arroyo is attempting to make sense of what historic landmarks are still standing in San Jose’s downtown core.

“It’s difficult to understand the historic fabric that’s left,” Arroyo said. “Because so much erosion of the historic fabric happened, what I’m trying to do is make sense of the historic fabric (that) remains… how can we help convey its historic significance?”

Arroyo doesn’t have that answer yet, but it’s a question she’s keeping front and center during her career. One possibility for saving San Jose’s history, said Arroyo, could be to marry preservation interests with the need for new development. For example, she said, adding new units to the back of a historic structure.

“Increasing density actually helps preservation because there isn’t demolition,” Arroyo said.

San Jose also has a collection of more than 200 designated historic landmarks. Unlike inventory items which can be nominated by anyone, landmark designation must be initiated by the property owner, Arroyo says.

The Mills Act, which provides 50 percent off the owner’s property taxes over a 10 year period, helps incentivize property owners to make such a designation.

“A lot of times new homeowners just bought because the market value is so high,” Arroyo said. “That savings would really help them and it’s intended to be reinvested in the property for upkeep.”

Arroyo doesn’t support demolition of historic sites, but said those decisions lie in the hands of the City Council. Sites listed in the inventory or those given a historic landmark designation simply provide a sort of “red flag” for city lawmakers.

While historical preservation is a part of the city’s general plan, it competes with other interests such as housing, transportation and social services, Arroyo says.

“They’re the decision makers,” she said. “It’s my job to let them know here’s a historic property and here are ways we can protect it, but ultimately it’s up to them.”

Sometimes balancing historical and development interests come down to compromise. That was the case for the historic dome theaters on Winchester Avenue — Century 21, Century 22 and Century 23.

Built in the 1960s, many long-time San Jose residents had their first theater experience inside these iconic theaters, says Andre Luthard, who serves as the president of the Preservation Action Council of San Jose. His group fought to keep the theaters, but ultimately, only Century 21 will be saved from the wrecking ball — and it’s expected to be turned into office space.

The preservation council was created in 1990 in the wake of the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, which ravaged the city’s masonry buildings. The group helped bring reinforcement to some of the other buildings, Luthard said.

The Historical Preservation Officer role — Arroyo’s job — was eliminated amid budget cuts roughly a decade ago. Funding for the position came from funds the city collected from developers for illegal demolitions over the years.

Luthard says that the hiring of Arroyo — whom he describes as possessing a depth of experience in the field — is a step in the right direction, but that the city still has a lot of work to do to save its history.

“(There is) still fundamentally a disconnect between folks in the city in terms of what the value of historic preservation brings,” said Luthard. “We’ve lost so many (historical sites) over the years… We want to save what’s left because there is so little left.”

Contact Carina Woudenberg at carinaw86@gmail.com or follow @carinaew on Twitter.

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