Road to Ruin 

Leavitt’s Legacy obsession bulldozes taxpayers and wetlands

A melting pot of mixed uses, from family residences to heavy industrial. A winding trail along a newly hatched City Creek, greening its way south to the Jordan River Parkway. Oh, and don’t forget those mom-and-pop storefronts with upstairs apartments or offices.

These days, the “Gateway Vision” is a little like hallucination.

You’ve got Deedee Corradini gushing over Gateway, the Godzilla mall, which in no way will conflict with or harm the downtown malls that are much like it except that they’re old and losing steam. A former mayor can certainly ignore a former plan to create this quaint shopping area with a “broad mixture of small and medium commercial tenants representing a variety of uses.”

So why not Union Pacific? It doesn’t matter that there are letters of commitment from the vice president of the western region. He really wanted to help the city get rid of those railroad tracks along 900 South. That was then.

But now is different, entirely.

“What happened is the big question,” says Edie Trimmer, chairwoman of the Poplar Grove Community Council. “They said, ‘Yeah, we made promises, but our circumstances changed, so we changed our minds.’”

Poplar Grove happens to be at the south end of the Great Gateway plan—the big one that reinvents 650 acres on the West Side of the city. There was supposed to be this Ninth South Linear Park that connected the neighborhood to the Jordan River. And then the rail lines were supposed to be incorporated into the neighborhood as a trail or maybe housing.

“With a little-used rail line, UP had been trying to sell it,” Trimmer says. “Up to six months ago, they were on board with abandoning it.”

UP’s change of attitude has created a counter-attitude in Poplar Grove, where activism has been gurgling for years. People have kind of jumped in and out of various issues since the closing of South High School—a big defeat for West-Siders.

And in the past, it hasn’t been hard to defeat them. Passion was scattered and power zilch. People were used to living in industrial neighborhoods. Over the last 10 years, however, people happened. Literally thousands of people moved into the southwest area of the city, calling it home. That was when Trimmer moved in, and when she began working on community activities like the Jordan River project and the native plant garden. She and her neighbors took ownership of their community.

“This is a success that’s not being realized,” says Jacob Brace, coordinator of the Salt Lake City Weed and Seed program. The federal program is an attempt to replace crime with economic and social stability. “The organization, the education, collaboration and coordination is something the community is doing on its own. It’s amazing to see the community just literally break down all the stereotypes that others have placed upon them.”

Brace was so impressed, in fact, that he put a bug in the ear of Deborah Daniels, the director of the Office of Justice programs who was visiting Utah with Attorney General John Ashcroft. The 900 South area happens to be one of the weed-and-seed sites, and Brace wanted her to know about the railroad issue and the community attempts to resolve it, including a complaint filed with the Office of Civil Rights. Daniels has asked to hear more about the issue.

The complaint was filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and claims environmental racism—that UP chose a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood to push around.

But the LULAC complaint is only one peg of a multifaceted community strategy. Trimmer says not everyone agrees with the others’ tactics, but there’s a common goal here that cools off potential hostilities.

“We do not want that rail line reactivated,” Trimmer says. “We fundamentally feel that this is the right of cities and neighborhoods to plan good cities. That’s not to say you can’t have interstate rail. I personally live within a block of Union Pacific’s main line, and I accept that. ... But what UP wants is the right to have a proliferation of rail and to take this light-use line and convert it to heavy freight with no environmental studies or public input.”

The city, meanwhile, has filed a federal lawsuit claiming UP violated a franchise agreement which effectively designated the line as abandoned with non-use. But UP has since begun running trains through the area, and the city decided against seeking a court injunction.

“After giving it some pretty serious thought, we decided ... it would be placing the taxpayers of Salt Lake City at substantial risk,” says D.J. Baxter, chief adviser to the mayor. Losing a request for injunction could result in monetary damages.

Bottom line is that the city sues and it dives into a lengthy administrative proceeding with the Federal Surface Transportation Board, but it lets the trains run.

“We wish there were some way we could lessen the impact on residents of that neighborhood,” Baxter says.

So does the neighborhood. Trimmer says the community council is looking at some other legal options hinging on safety and environmental concerns.

“Union Pacific does this in other communities,” says Trimmer. “They’re more organized, more powerful; railroad law is kind of their bailiwick, and it leaves the average homeowner or neighborhood group behind.”

But that’s the average neighborhood group. “This group has political savvy; they’re great organizers and they’ve done their homework,” says Brace. “I’m sitting in awe, and say anything we can do for you, we will.”

And one thing the neighborhood can do for itself: Hold on to the vision.

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Scott Lewis

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