In the end, the vote was for outer Mongolia.
That was the term Salt Lake City Councilwoman Deeda Seed once used to describe the spot at 600 West and 200 South, a desolate railroad and warehouse tract, where the city's new intermodal transportation hub will be, thanks to a 6-1 vote at the council's meeting last week.It isn't an exciting spot. It doesn't cause the spines of commuters to tingle. Nor, likely, has it caused many people who now inch their way into and out of the city each day to vow they will take the train as soon as it's available. No one will organize a parade down Main Street to celebrate this choice. Still, it was the right choice.
If the transit hub were a house, this would be the one chosen for its potential, for the things that could be gained by knocking out a wall here or changing a color there. It is not the dream house that looks perfect in every way. It must be made to work.
But is it outer Mongolia?
Some commuters may think so when they step off a train and search for downtown office buildings on the horizon. But they would have thought the same if the city had somehow found a way to choose the Union Pacific depot as the hub. Here's a fact overlooked in all the debating: If the center of downtown is the Gallivan Center on 200 South between State and Main, outer Mongolia is a shorter walk than the Union Pacific depot.
But the discussion over the relative merits of the sites is moot, and it has been for months. The city could not have chosen the Union Pacific depot, nor a site one block to the west, as some had wanted. Trying to make either site work was like trying to build a card house on a newly waxed floor in front of a heater vent. No matter how the pieces were arranged, they couldn't be made to stand.
Union Pacific's depot had two things going for it. The first was that it is a grand old building, a place that would have made what planners call an "entry statement" to commuters coming into the city. The second was that it is directly across the street from the Delta Center.
Both of these were trumped by Mayor Deedee Corradini's west gateway plan. Corradini has a grand vision for rehabilitating the warehouse and railroad district on the west end of downtown. She brokered a deal with Union Pacific, Amtrak and the Utah Department of Transportation to move railroad tracks out of the area and shorten freeway ramps. Already, a developer has unveiled a grand project that includes a hotel, condominiums and offices to begin the rehabilitation.
But a transit hub at the Union Pacific depot would have been like pressing the ejector button. Mission aborted. The tracks would have stayed and the ramps would have remained as they are, bypassing the west end of downtown like it was a place to be overlooked and left alone. The city would have missed an opportunity that may never come again.
One more question looms. If the new transit hub is in outer Mongolia, where exactly are the neighborhoods to the west of it? It is a question posed recently by members of community councils in those neighborhoods, and it is one the city can't afford to take lightly.
Salt Lake City's west side always has felt somewhat distant from City Hall. Many of its neighborhoods are at the low end of the real estate market. While the city has done much in recent years to attract new development to the area and invest in improvements, the perception persists that the west side is the city's stepchild.
If the gateway project succeeds, it would finally connect these neighborhoods physically with the rest of the city. No longer would they be the homes on the other side of the tracks - at least not the multitude of tracks that make up the freight yards. Over time, new development would create a seamless transition from east to west. And the transit hub would be as much a statement of the worth of these neighborhoods as anything the city has done. A little symbolism can go a long way to countering long-held perceptions.
A lot of factors go into making a successful mass transit system. The most important of these, even more important than location, is convenience. If trains run frequently, and if light rail trains connect the hub to downtown every few minutes, even outer Mongolia can work as a transfer point.
These factors remain to be conquered. In the meantime, the city has made the right choice in locating its transit hub. With the gateway project, the city is on the verge of a downtown renaissance. The day will come when people will wonder how anyone could have thought 600 West was remote.