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If Draper prison goes, put a park in its place

Published: Sunday, Sept. 1 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Utah State Prison.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

OSLO, Norway — Would Americans devote a large park in the center of a busy city to the work of just one sculptor?

Perhaps that's too difficult of a question, so I'll back up a bit.

Would we devote 111 acres of a busy city to any sort of park at all, sculptor or not, the way Norwegians have with Frognerparken?

The answer probably depends upon whether you ask the question today or 60 years ago or more. But since we don't have time machines, we must ask now: what happened to idea of building large regional parks?

Americans once seemed concerned about how their cities stacked up aesthetically against the great European capitals. Now the relationship between parks and economic development seems as foreign as a celebrity with decorum.

You might think a relaxing family vacation to Northern Europe would be an odd time to think about such things, or of the momentum at home to move the Utah State Prison out of Draper, but a wise man learns to take profound thoughts wherever they happen to arise.

While walking through Oslo's Frognerparken and pondering the statues Gustav Vigeland placed there in the 1920s, one of my children — an economics major with an eye for opportunity costs — asked why a city would devote so much land for such a thing.

One quick glance around answered the question. Parents leisurely pushing strollers mingled nicely with tourists streaming from buses, their guides turning the park into a Babel of languages. A Norwegian website about the park says it is the nation's No. 1 tourist attraction, with between 1.5 and 2 million visitors a year.

Ka-ching, anyone? What would it cost Oslo to not have such a park?

And why, in all the discussion of moving Utah's prison, is no one seriously talking about replacing it with a regional park — even one in which the statues have clothes?

Parks are a community's mental health refueling stations. They provide a respite from the steady drumbeat of urban living. More than this, they can make a statement about what a community values.

People used to understand this. Before Draper, the state prison was in Sugar House. When relocation seemed inevitable in the late 1940s, the Legislature passed a law that would make the site a state park. By the time the prison moved in 1951, Gov. J. Bracken Lee said the state couldn't afford to maintain a park, so he sold most of the site (30 acres went toward construction of Highland High School) to Salt Lake City and the county.

They, in turn, set up the Sugar House Park Authority to oversee creation of a park. What is its value today? How has it enhanced life along the Wasatch Front?

And why do we seem to hear only about the opportunities to develop the land in Draper and collect taxes from it once the inmates are gone?

I really shouldn't be so hard on modern Americans. Our ancestors often struggled with this concept, as well.

Way back on March 31, 1918, the New York Times published a detailed graphic outlining all the "improvement" plans people had proposed for Central Park during the previous 60 years. The list sounds as if it could have come from the agenda of any modern city council meeting. It includes such things as a giant sports stadium, an outdoor theater capable of seating up to 100,000, a raceway and a "playground for 'noisy sports.'"

Some plans were more to the point. One was to pave over much of the park. Another was to simply subdivide it for development.

And yet, somehow, the idea of keeping the park mostly just a park won out.

I'm not sure the Norwegians have had to fight off many crazy ideas through the years. There haven't been any significant changes to Frognerparken since a bathhouse was added in 1954.

Whether to move the prison at all remains a question for a different column. But if it goes, Draper would have 690 acres to work with. It easily could build both a signature park and attract high-priced development. The one might even enhance the other.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.

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