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West Side Story: What will it take to revitalize Salt Lake’s less-than-thriving districts?

Utah’s economy is booming, and with gleaming towers and bustling shopping centers rising downtown and neighborhoods flourishing in Salt Lake City’s eastern and southern reaches, it appears the state’s capital city is enjoying the growth fueled by economic success.

But as more polish is rubbed on downtown, the Avenues, Sugar House and other jewels in the city’s crown, city planners, entrepreneurs and others are looking to the west to see if that area can be elevated to new heights, as well.

The “West Side” of Salt Lake is a generic term that, depending on who you ask, can mean anything from everything west of the freeway to the airport, the Rio Grande-Gateway business district, or the quaint neighborhoods tucked between I-15 and the industrial district. And for each definition of the phrase, there’s someone with a plan to make it a destination all its own, rather than a stop on the way to somewhere else in the city.

Building economic value

Lara Fritts, director of the Salt Lake City Department of Economic Development, oversees or is involved with a lot of those plans. The Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City is engaged in a number of projects in the various districts that make up the west half of the city, she says.

Special attention is also being paid to the far west area, where acres of open land make for a blank slate for incoming projects. The state prison is set to be relocated there, and UPS is building a new regional center, with up to 700 more jobs and a $270 million investment, to add to the district’s growing industrial sector, says Fritts. “It’s very different land use,” she says, noting that the plentiful land allows for big projects with a lot of stability and skilled labor and blue-collar jobs. “We’ve been very sensitive to the jobs for all people, knowing that everyone isn’t going to be an executive but knowing that everyone should have a higher wage potential than they do today.”

Closer to downtown, existing infrastructure and a jumble of business and housing areas make the goal of the city and investors more about renovation and rebranding than construction. In the nearer west areas ,the RDA is heavily involved in those fixes and polishes, including improving and establishing North Temple’s branding with a beautification project, a forthcoming streetscape project on 900 South, continuing discussions for the vision of the State Fair Park, and adaptive uses of old and historic buildings in the Granary District. In the depot district, a forthcoming community garden, created in partnership with Wasatch Community Gardens, will serve as a training ground for homeless and refugee women, Fritts says.

Two local entrepreneurial restaurateurs, Ana Valdemoros and Tham Soekotjo, have been working closely with the city to launch Square Kitchen, an incubator for restaurant startups to be located near 800 South and 800 West. Fritts says the city, which chose Valdemoros and Soekotjo’s idea out of all the respondents of a request for proposals, has put a high priority in building local businesses, and especially restaurants, because it sees the economic value in those sectors.

“A big section of that plan is working with local businesses because local businesses are valuable to a cosmopolitan area, because when you go to a place, you want to go where the locals go,” she says. “The more I learn about Salt Lake City is how many amazing food entrepreneurs we have. We have an amazing sector of chocolatiers, and apparently we’re getting national recognition for our chocolate businesses. Having something like a kitchen incubator helps us to continue to support the amazing businesses that are here.”

HomelessRedefining a district

A large part of the puzzle of redeveloping the west side, at least as far as the “near west” is concerned, is linked with the city’s homeless population. The city currently has the bulk of its homeless services, including a shelter, medical center and a resource center, clustered near 200 South and 400 West—smack dab between The Gateway shopping center and Rio Grande Depot. The centralization was planned as a means of making those services more convenient to access, but that convenience—along with the adjacent Pioneer Park—has resulted in a large number of homeless and transients setting up camp in the area. The city has stated plans to de-centralize services and will begin the site selection process for smaller regional hubs this winter.

That news has already been a boon for business in the area. Last year, then-Mayor Ralph Becker and a slew of developers launched the beginning stages of an ambitious plan to transform the space between the Rio Grande and the Utah Transit Authority Central Station into a new live-work-play community. And earlier this year, Arizona-based Vestar purchased The Gateway, pledging a $30 million investment into the mall.

GatewayJenny Cushing, vice president of leasing for Vestar, says the company made its move based on the promise Salt Lake City shows in sustained and increased growth into the future. Improvements are already underway—visitors today might notice a different color scheme in the parking garages or new paint on the exterior of the mall—but by next spring the shopping center will become a family-friendly “urban playground” featuring large murals from both local and national artists, an ice skating rink and a world-class $60 million, 167-room boutique hotel.

“The Gateway presents a very unique opportunity to take an underperforming asset and completely redefine it,” says Cushing. “We spent a considerable amount of due diligence to determine how and  even if we could transform this property and came to an overwhelming conclusion that there is an underserved market we could attract that wouldn’t compete with what is currently present in the Valley.”

And while The Gateway is, in a sense, considered to be on the fringes of the downtown area, growth immediately west of the shopping center, including a high-end apartment building, the Rio Grande project, and reinvestments in the Clark Planetarium, Discovery Gateway and the Vivint SmartHome Arena, are strengthening the area and giving more weight to that district, she says.

The potential of the city and The Gateway aside, the plan to decentralize homeless services was the linchpin in Vestar’s interest in The Gateway.

“There’s no secret that there is an issue with the homeless population. Unfortunately, homeless are not unique to any major metropolitan area, and once the proper facilities are established it will likely be like any other city: present, but not the problem that is there today,” Cushing says. “In the interim, we are running our centers safely and effectively as we do across our portfolio throughout the United States; the standard operating procedures are the same. We have ensured that The Gateway is a safe place for all to enjoy and will continue to do so despite the homeless issue that may be prevalent within the area.”

Planning a renaissance

The optimism of Cushing and other investors for growth potential after the decentralization of homeless services doesn’t extend into the smaller business districts west of I-15. Dennis Faris, vice chair of the Poplar Grove Community Council, says he is glad for efforts to improve his corner of the West Side, but he believes the challenges in redeveloping at least that area will take more than a little paint. The area may be the subject of redevelopment efforts, he says, but it has also had a history of getting what at least feels like the short end of the stick.

“Property values are the lowest in the county. We have nowhere to go but up, frankly,” he says. “I don’t think it’s at all wrong for residents to be asking for a fair shake of services.”

TracksThe same train tracks that are lauded as a way of helping Utah avoid some of the shipping problems of various other land-locked cities course through the West Side—running parallel alongside South Temple and 1700 South, and sometimes cutting the area off from its downtown and eastern neighbors where it crosses at 200 South, and 800 and 900 South.

“There are times from my house that I can’t escape the neighborhood short of Redwood or 400 South, and those aren’t the best options,” Faris says, noting that he believes the lack of guaranteed access deters businesses from investing in the area. “I think [the area] is going to maintain the status quo, to be honest, and I think a lot of that has to do with the train tracks.”

Railroad tracksFaris thinks the city should work closely with the railroad to realign some of the tracks and build overpasses over others, like on 400 South, so both may coexist and thrive.

In addition to the lack of access, Faris says another problem is the number of indigent people using the area’s ample greenspace—parks or undeveloped lots—for camping. Between the sheer acreage of the available greenspace and a police presence that is primarily complaint-based, Faris doesn’t believe the decentralization plan will make a dent. The reactive police presence is itself another issue, he says, because, due to the lower socioeconomic standing of many people who live in the area—the neighborhoods on the West Side tend to have heavy concentrations of low-income housing—a greater number of people are working during the day and are thus unable to be on the lookout for all manner of crimes in the area, let alone call to report them.

“It’s so discouraging to have to report every little thing. … We don’t squeak hard enough, loud enough or to the right people,” he says. “We put up with way more than we should.”

The lack of attention is frustrating, too, he says, considering the benefits of the area: the West Side has the most diverse population throughout the city—and perhaps the state—and is one of the most affordable places for people looking to buy a house in the city, particularly if they want a spacious yard.

But the city is in the midst of crafting a very specific master plan for redevelopment, says Melissa Jensen, deputy director of the Salt Lake City Housing and Neighborhood Development, and has solicited local input for what residents need and what they want to see happen in the future—which does have the drawback of lengthening the process somewhat.

“We want to have a coordinated and aligned effort—how many times do we want to tear up a street? We want to do it once, and do the utilities and road and sidewalk,” she says. “We’re looking at how to really do what the master plan says and what resources we have internally to do that.”

Rather than trying to simply improve the economic development in the area, she says, they have tried to seek specifics—is a new full-service restaurant what the area wants and needs, or would a hair salon be better suited for business? The businesses, as well as public affairs such as festivals, that the city is hoping to bring in needs to complement existing businesses and residences in the area. The goal, Jensen says, is to facilitate the beginnings of growth and redevelopment, and then organize a structure that will help to sustain those early efforts.

“Part of that is saying [to businesses], ‘here’s what we can do,’ and then say where are the gaps or what they need to make this happen,” she says. “The West Side master plan talks about how you have to create an environment where there’s a destination.”

“It always seems to be a chicken and the egg scenario: When do you invest, and when do businesses come?” she adds.

The city is looking chiefly at the neighborhood around 900 South and 900 West and devising a way to make it the crossover district between east and west, she says. In addition to growing economic development, Jensen says, the city has plans to make the corridor more open and pedestrian- and bike-friendly.

River SignJensen and Faris both nod at the Jordan River, which flows through the West Side along a parkway for non-motorized use only, as a crowning jewel for a potential renaissance, as well as the Oxbow Lake bird refuge adjacent to it near 900 South.

“The Jordan River should be revered as a pearl,” Faris says, noting other major metropolitan areas have embraced their respective river corridors with great results. “It’s a fantastic neighborhood and a fantastic jewel that should be revered and appreciated, and it’s not.”

Jensen acknowledges the challenges that have frustrated Faris and others in the neighborhood, but says she feels the area has more than enough promise to make up for them.

“I think it’s important to engage the community at large in this so when we do the investment in streets and parks and access, that we have businesses who will come in and help with this,” she says. “I think there are real challenges, but I think those can be overcome. I think it’s just an art and a science of revitalizing and maintaining it so folks who live there now can continue to live there in the future.”