Sometimes the stars align. Sometimes a bunch of disparate elements serendipitously come together in time and space to create something momentous.
Such is Salt Lake's Gateway Project.Five years in the works, the various strands of the massive effort to give new life to the area west of downtown are coming together quickly - too quickly for some decision-makers.
Planners and consultants speak of a "window of opportunity" in which great things can be done if city officials adopt an attitude of carpe diem (seize the day). The current I-15 reconstruction, the 2002 Winter Games, light rail, commuter rail - the Gateway planning process has built up a good head of steam and now is barreling down the track full tilt.
That makes a few members of the Salt Lake City Council - Deeda Seed and Tom Rogan, particularly - nervous. In recent meetings they have advocated slowing things down, tak-ing a breather.
But planners say it's "now or never," or at least "now or a long time from now."
"We have a window of opportunity with federal funding for the Olympics,"
said consultant Steve Meyer of the Sear-Brown Group. "It's a real opportunity."
In 1993, Salt Lake City Planner William Wright did a rather quick-and-dirty study on the area west of downtown, approximately from 300 West to I-15 and from 900 South to North Temple. He postulated that the area full of dirty, heavy industries cheek-to-jowl with homes, shops and charitable organizations had interesting possibilities.
Others seized on the concept. Deputy Mayor Brian Hatch realized that if the I-15 viaducts and numerous railroad tracks slashing through and dividing the area could be at least partially removed, the Gateway might regain some of its 19th-century splendor.
Pictures of the Gateway area before about 1910 show homes, trees, yards - a peaceful Salt Lake suburb. But in that year the railroad arrived and changed things forever.
Though it blessed the Gateway with two significant landmarks - the Rio Grande and Union Pacific depots - the railroad brought with it heavy industry, steel, smoke, grease - and suddenly, the idyllic suburb was gone. I-15 arrived in the 1960s, hastening the area's descent into the industrial doldrums.
Ironically, the railroad and highway also made the Gateway the entrance to Salt Lake City (thus the name) and its most-seen section.
Frankly, right now it isn't much to see. Thursday Wright stood in the middle of the 700 acres of heavy industry, run-down buildings and boarded-up windows and said this:
"You've got to have a lot of vision."
Officials talk of going "back to the future," reclaiming the area for human beings instead of machines. They envision a mixed-use area of urban housing, business, culture, retail shops and manufacturing with a vibrant night life, similar to Denver's LoDo or New York's SoHo neighborhoods.
To use Mayor Deedee Corradini's word: "funky."
Corradini has made the Gateway the crown jewel of her administration, tying much of her credibility to whether she can successfully transform the area. She brings it up at every opportunity - never before, she says, has Salt Lake City had the chance to transform such a large urban area.
And, most likely, never again.
Various complex factors have had to converge to create the Gateway vision:
- In 1995, the International Olympic Committee awarded Salt Lake City the 2002 Winter Games. Saying the games will reflect on the nation, local and state officials have petitioned the federal government for $4 billion for highways, light rail and commuter rail, most of which directly impact the Gateway.
- After months of negotiations with city officials, last fall the Utah Department of Transportation agreed to shorten the viaducts at 400, 500 and 600 South as part of the I-15 reconstruction. Union Pacific agreed to remove 4.3 miles of track, eliminating 66 grade crossings and vastly opening up the area. Amtrak signed on to the agreement, providing it was given a hub at 600 South and 200 West.
- With the city's blessing, the Boyer Co. recently agreed to buy 40 acres of rail yard, the rails themselves soon to be removed. The property is west of the Union Pacific depot and has been pinpointed for a huge mixed-use development.
- North-south light rail, now under construction, will culminate at the Union Pacific depot, and a major investment study has been undertaken for east-west light rail from the airport to the University of Utah, intersecting north-south light rail in the Gateway and downtown areas. A study of commuter rail from Brigham City to Payson includes a Gateway hub.
- The city's Redevelopment Agency has done a blight survey in preparation for designating RDA areas in the Gateway, and Corradini has sought federal "brownfield" assistance for blighted areas.
- Planners have indicated 100 South as the preferred location for an I-15 high-occupancy-vehicle on-off ramp.
Much of the heavy lifting as far as planning the Gateway has been done, and most of the problems with ongoing issues appear to be solvable, with some tinkering. The big sticking point is the location of the intermodal hub.
While it might include Amtrak, Greyhound and taxi service, the primary purpose of the hub would be as a station for commuter rail. Consultants say the 600 W. 200 South location is the best of four possible alternatives, pointing out that it's right on the consolidated rail line, meaning it requires no additional tracks and can be joined with the Amtrak hub.
Problems: The location doesn't take advantage of the two grand, historic railroad stations already in the area, and it is two blocks from the proposed east-west light-rail line. Planners envision a light-rail spur or loop to solve that problem.
The Utah Heritage Foundation, Future Moves Coalition and Transportation Management Association of Utah have pushed for the Union Pacific depot, and they have the ear of council members Seed and Rogan. If it isn't convenient, they say, commuter rail is dead on arrival.
"The favored site (600 West and 200 South) is sort of in outer Mongolia," Seed said.
Planners counter that while the Union Pacific depot would be undeniably nice, the location of the tracks and commuter rail requirements make it logistically unworkable.
Wright says a decision on the hub location must be made within 60 days to keep things moving and to take advantage of federal funds, but Seed and Rogan contest that timetable. A decision with such far-reaching implications can't be made so quickly, they say. Consultant Meyer and others argue, however, that studies and background on the hub location have been in the works for a long time and that now is not the time to reinvent the wheel.
Now is the time, they say, to simply grit your teeth and make the hard choices one way or the other.
"We're very close to being out of time," said city transportation director Tim Harpst.