If you want to know the landscape, listen to the people who live there.
That was part of the message recently during a public hearing at City Hall concerning blight in the proposed Gateway Project area. If enough substandard conditions, better-known as blight, are found in the area, Salt Lake City’s Redevelopment Agency (RDA) could move to kick people off of their property under the power of imminent domain. Or RDA board members, who also serve more familiar roles on City Council, could listen to current property and business owners for tips on how to make the transition to Gateway a lot smoother.
So far, it appears that the RDA has opted for the latter choice. That doesn’t mean property owners won’t be watching out for their interests, however. Things could turn messy and impolite. Especially since the developer that stands poised to take over the area, Boyer Co., is expected to reap a windfall of RDA-sanctioned tax breaks and incentives. The RDA uses such rewards, somewhat euphemistically called tools, to generate improvements in rundown portions of the city.
That’s what we’re all assuming, says Bill Murray, a financial services owner representing a business in the Gateway area. What form and how those incentives come about are the intriguing political questions.
The hearing was a mix of staid, respectful enthusiasm for the project peppered with notes of caution and a little anger.
Joe Beesley, a general contractor with a warehouse in the area, wondered if the city hadn’t already decided to serve the land to Boyer Co. on a silver platter. Sounds to me like this is a done deal. I don’t know why we’re even here, he said. His words came after Boyer Co.’s own presentation, which reminded council members of the developer’s Christmas wish list: the vibrant patchwork of cultural, retail, office and residential spaces that may one day replace the area’s drab industrial surroundings.
Boyer Co. isn’t the only one anxious to see the day Gateway takes root. In heady anticipation of the project’s potential, the Gastronomy chain of local restaurants purchased the Ford Motor Company Building at 414 W. 300 South. A condo developer politely asked that the RDA improve curbs, sidewalks and street lighting in the area. And Stephen Goldsmith reminded everyone of his Bridges Project, a multi-ethnic, low-income housing development complete with Buddhist Temple and non-profit radio station.
Most of this is far into the future, though. More important is avoiding mistakes along the way.
Having lived in Portland, Ore., architect Bruce Markosian has seen good city planning. So he fears poor decisions that could mar the future of Gateway. Not coincidentally, those poor decisions could involve his land.
In particular, he would like the city to revisit plans for a proposed Gateway Commons park that would fall on his parcel located at 750 West and 300 South. This parcel is directly west of EIMCO, a processing equipment plant employing 500 people. EIMCO has no plans to leave the area anytime soon, Markosian says, so he questions the wisdom behind a proposed park near an industrial complex that also includes Geneva Rock. With EIMCO still operating well into the future, it would simply make no sense for the city to buy out his parcel for park space. After all, who’s going to relax in a park next door to heavy industry?
The costs to the city of buying out all the businesses currently there, then relocating them, will be in the millions of dollars, Markosian predicted after the hearing. Why would the city want to buy a parcel of land they wouldn’t be able to use for 30 or 40 years when we can continue using it for several more years to come?
Having already lost part of the same lot to the Utah Department of Transportation for highway construction earlier in the year, Markosian speaks from some experience. UDOT as a very demoralizing process, he says. The worry now is that the city might stick him with an order not to develop his property any further. That, of course, would be a violation of his property rights, and end in a court case.
Richard Thomas wasn’t about to sleep through the hearing, either. His business, Thomas Electric, has paid taxes at the same location for 65 years. I’d like to think that means something, he told he RDA.
And Bill Murray spoke of property taxes that have skyrocketed ever since the Gateway project was announced. This speculative value of property has increased operating costs for businesses in the area, proving that, even without tangible development, Gateway has already made its presence known.
Like Markosian, he also has concerns about how industrial uses will coexist with proposed plans. But while Markosian focuses on plans for a park, Murray worries about plans for residential housing. And, as everyone knows, housing means cars. Cars mean traffic. And in Salt Lake City’s era of imminent light-rail, that means more thorny transportation issues.
Putting residential units near manufacturers, along with trafficthat’s a tough mix of properties, Murray says. The property over there has been ignored by the city for a long time, now they’ve got to be careful as they turn their attention to it.
But even if business owners had no direct voice in the project’s proposed master plan as Boyer Co. drew up the blue-prints, most feel comforted that the RDA board was polite enough to listen. It also helped that several RDA members reminded them that nothing is set in stoneso far. Council member Keith S. Christensen tried to defuse the word blight during the hearing.
I wish we could come up with a word like problems, Christensen said. Change is going to come, and the question is what kind of involvement we’re going to have.
Consultants who prepared the city’s blight survey of the Gateway area will finally reveal their report at a public hearing Aug. 13. If substandard property conditions are found in abundence, and everyone admits the area is less than perfect, then the city’s power to uproot the likes of Beesley, Thomas and Markosian is greatly enhanced.
Thomas, who’s had face-to-face meetings with RDA director Alice Larkin Steiner, doesn’t see that happening, though. I’ve been less concerned over time, he says. At first I thought they were going to bulldoze us and forget it, but she’s told me that the use of immiment domain was extremely unlikely.
Nor is Markosian overly-concerned at this point. He just wants to let the RDA know he’s there. They’ve been great so far, I’ve no complaints, he says. But, who knows, when push comes to shove, what will happen.