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Public Nuisance 

If developers have to landscape their vacant land, shouldn’t the city have to?

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Decades-old small businesses in Sugar House are purchased and torn down to make way for new development. But development plans fall through and the bare-scraped property becomes a weed patch.

If that sounds like the story of Mecham Properties—would-be developers of the infamous Sugar House Hole—it’s not. It’s the story of another Sugar House developer: Salt Lake City.

While Mecham Properties waits for financing required to move ahead with a planned mixed-use development, it has, per city order, landscaped its bulldozed property at the intersection of Highland Drive and 2100 South. By contrast, the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency (RDA)—directed by the Salt Lake City Council—hasn’t landscaped its nearby property seven years after the city bulldozed several businesses.

The seeming double standard hasn’t escaped the notice of Sugar House business owners, particularly those like real estate agent Grace Sperry who gets to look from her window at the RDA’s property on Wilmington Avenue.

On May 21, Sperry watched as city trucks dumped piles of twigs on two acres along Wilmington, a street running from Highland Drive to 1300 East. The city began applying bark mulch to its vacant RDA properties last year as a way to keep down weeds. But Sperry says it isn’t working, and the mulch is no substitute for landscaping like the city required of Mecham.

“For nearly three years, we have been saying, ‘What’s happening? What’s happening?’” says Sperry, a member of the Sugar House Community Council. “You come and you tell us you’re working on Mecham’s property all the time. What are you doing about your property? Why don’t you have to have the same requirements?”

It’s a question the City Council has begun asking itself since the economic downturn has stalled planned RDA projects.

The redevelopment agency buys up property in “blighted” parts of town, then offers the land to developers with incentives. The city’s Wilmington Avenue property was slated to become the home of new dance studios for Ballet West until the ballet decided it would prefer to be downtown. Now, the RDA is stuck, not wanting to develop the property while two large planned private developments across Highland Drive wait for financing.

So what to do with vacant RDA property until the economy picks up? City Councilman Soren Simonsen—at whom the Sugar House Community Council has been directing its frustration—has been prodding the city to find creative temporary uses for such plots. The first experiment was unveiled May 16 on RDA land on 900 South and 200 West as the People’s Portable Garden.

The partnership between the city and Wasatch Community Gardens has erected above-ground planters that can be moved to another location when it’s time to develop the property. All available $25 plots were immediately snapped up. Simonsen’s only concern is what will happen when the city comes back in a few years to take the garden away. Other cities that have allowed community uses for vacant land have faced protests when it finally came time to develop, he says.

The RDA’s 900 South property, next to a TRAX stop, was ideal for a temporary use because it can’t be developed as long as a billboard company has rights to clear air in the area, through 2012. The parcel faces another obstacle shared with several other city parcels: the RDA acquired the land as a single piece of a hoped-for large plot of land, and the agency won’t be offering anything for sale until a large contiguous parcel can be assembled.

Simonsen argues the RDA should be doing more small projects that could be developed quickly with local firms.

“Temporary uses obviously help, but ideally, we want to see the properties being developed,” he says. “Sometimes, because we’re trying to create large properties, we sit on property for such a long time, it causes more of the blight we are directed as an agency to turn around.”

The RDA acquired the Wilmington Avenue land in Sugar House in 1999. Two years later, the city tore down the shops, including structures that once housed a welder, a fortune teller and several private clubs, one of which held a well-attended businessman’s lunch-and-lingerie show each Friday.

“You can see, maybe, why they wanted them out, but they all paid taxes,” says Sperry. “They were six really viable businesses, and they’ve left it vacant for years.”

The RDA was handcuffed because Ballet West held an option on the land through summer 2007. The city began the mulch-application program last year after members of the Sugar House Community Council wrote a letter of complaint. Barbara Green, owner of a Sugar House vacuum store and member of the neighborhood merchant’s association, says business owners have been happy to see the weeds gone and the parcel “covered up with something that looks good.”

But Simonsen thinks the city should have done something more with the property in the two years since the ballet’s option expired. He’s been asking without luck to see a copy of the demolition permit the city filed when it took down the buildings, assuming the permit would have a landscaping plan attached.

In fact, there may be no such plan. City ordinances regulating the business district on Wilmington Avenue don’t require a landscaping plan as a condition of a demolition permit.

Some cities have used vacant property for temporary, gravel-filled parking lots, says Simonsen. One town put down donated AstroTurf and created a temporary public plaza. The Salt Lake City RDA has discussed a streettree farm as a temporary use for the Sugar House property. But that would require taking the property off the market for several years. And temporary uses aren’t free. Salt Lake City put $48,000 into the People’s Portable Garden on 900 South.

In the meantime, while city officials think it through, “they get away with doing nothing,” says Sperry. “That doesn’t work if it’s private property.”

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