When the Gateway outdoor mall project was announced in the 1990s, nearly everyone was taken by surprise. Salt Lakers thus quickly took up a new sport: public outrage and criticism, especially since a goodly portion of the announced construction was to be paid for with public money. Everyone had a guess for how it came to be, such as: then-Salt Lake City Mayor Deedee Corradini being in the pocket of developers, that said developers were in the pocket of the LDS Church, that the LDS Church wanted to kill Main Street and keep it for itself (including the re-invention of its own downtown ZCMI Center mall), and so on.
Everyone had a theory, because the suddenness of the decision was, well, sudden. Few saw it coming. While it was obvious that the city's near west side was ripe for development, when the plans for Gateway were splashed about, the resounding feedback was, "You want to build an outdoor mall in Salt Lake City and you want it where?" The answer to the first question returned as "Yes, we can build a successful outdoor mall" (ahh, recall the cheerleading?). The denizens of downtown's two existing malls (Crossroads Plaza Shopping Center and the ZCMI Center) plus what remained of the skeletal retail base on Main Street remained skeptical. All those retailers and business owners formed the basis of public concern.
Those fears were somewhat allayed when it was revealed that The Gateway wouldn't steal merchants from those malls or Main Street, an argument reversed a decade later when the builders of the City Creek Center promised not to poach Gateway merchants into their new space. Such promises were easily and quickly broken and cut both ways. The new City Creek got the Apple store. Years earlier, The Salt Lake Tribune sold its historic building on Main Street and left for a stucco rental office at Gateway. If that doesn't say "we're connected to our community," nothing does.
I remember former Tribune publisher Dean Singleton promising Salt Lakers that, not to fear, the paper that meant so much to our community would hoist up a sign so large that everyone for miles around could see it, especially those drivers on Interstate 15. He actually said that. Well, try to find the sign. Dick's Sporting Goods has a larger sign. Now, with the recently announced sale of The Gateway once again, we all get to start over and have the same debate as we've had the past couple of decades: What should our city core become—wherever it is—and what can we really do about our west side?
Besides attracting the ever-elusive retail mix that lures savvy shoppers, the new owners plan to recast the Gateway as an entertainment and dining district. That seems pretty wise since The Depot is already there and has been since Day 1. The building formerly known as the Delta Center is right across the street. The ever-popular Wiseguys Comedy Club recently returned to downtown Salt Lake City, taking up residence at The Gateway and is already bringing life back to the neighborhood. There are the cinemas. New housing and other development may come.
And therein lies the rub.
If you look out one side of a Trax train riding along 200 South you see modern stores and shops of The Gateway. If you look out the other, you see the homeless shelters. Guess which side of the street has more foot traffic?
Since the dawn of this city, the homeless, the less fortunate, those some would coldly deem "less desirable," have been skirted to the west side. As in many cities, part of that was due to the proximity of a railway station and we have two: the Rio Grande and Union Depot. The area, a bona fide railroad district, was already a natural hub for persons seeking food, shelter, warmth and companionship (either at an illegal gambling table or in the arms of a paid paramour). Add in that Pioneer Park is nearby, and you have a full-blown neighborhood, but one built on homeless amenities, not hair salons.
Through years of new construction, from the gentrification of old warehouses into businesses and residences, the homeless have been the solitary constant. Merchants and residents have come and gone, especially along the once busy 200 South, but the homeless remain. Even a casual observer would quickly note that there are more disenfranchised people in that area than ever. I hope that's not true, but it probably is. Or maybe they're being squeezed into a smaller, more visible corner. But, I do remember that corridor 20 years ago and longer, and there's no doubt in my mind we have all failed more than once.
We've icily deluded ourselves into thinking none of us could ever end up among the displaced. Yet, we can, and we do. We hold onto the notion that segregating "them" from "us" somehow makes "the problem" go away. It doesn't—if the shelters are moved farther west (someone has suggested relocation way out there, past the airport and new prison—Jeezus, Gawd!), the city's white-collar druggies will simply put more mileage on their BMWs.
But this is not simply a west side issue—ask anyone on Main Street if they are not also affected. It's a political hotbox that bounces from mayor to council and back again. Former Mayor Becker is rumored to be off casting in the Broadway remake of Breaking Away, and he never paid attention to the west side, anyway. Now it's up to Mayor Biskupski to do—or at least attempt to do—what the city has failed miserably at thus far: Deciding which side of the street to party on and making a real go of it.
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