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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Building on the Christus St. Joseph Villa campus is scheduled to be razed along with nearby homes owned by the senior-care facility. The Planning Commission has approved the expansion project.

A Salt Lake City senior care center's plans for expansion remind neighbor Jeff Bair of the story of the camel's nose.

An Arab was sleeping in a tent on a cold night, the story goes, when his camel pokes his nose inside. "Master, it's cold out here," the camel says. "May I put my nose in your tent?"

"By all means," the Arab says and then goes back to sleep. A few hours later, the Arab awakes to find the camel's nose, head and neck inside the tent. Hour after hour, more and more of the camel enters the tent.

"Before long, the camel is in the tent, and the owner is pushed out," Bair said.

Bair and roughly 75 to 100 of his neighbors are worried that Christus St. Joseph Villa is doing the same to their Liberty Wells neighborhood.

The Catholic, nonprofit senior care facility is proposing to expand its campus by nearly an acre, taking out seven homes on the northwest corner of 500 East and Hollywood Avenue. St. Joseph Villa owns the houses and has been renting them to some of its employees.

The first in a series of approvals needed for the expansion was granted by the Salt Lake City Planning Commission last week, a move that went against the recommendation of the city's planning division.

It also outraged neighbors of St. Joseph Villa who were led to believe an expansion in 1992 would be the care center's last.

"We don't want it to continue to consume the neighborhood," said Shawn Porter, a Liberty Wells resident.

A small-area master plan was adopted in 1992 specifically to address that expansion, according to city planning documents. A section of Ramona Avenue between 400 East and 500 East was closed to accommodate the changes.

That plan called for the "small-scale residential character" along Hollywood and Westminster avenues to be maintained. The Planning Commission that approved the plan included Mayor Ralph Becker.

The plan was amended Wednesday night with a 5-2 vote of the commission. The action still requires approval of the Salt Lake City Council, as will a proposed zoning change, so the issue is far from over.

Still, neighbors say the Planning Commission's decision to side with St. Joseph Villa paints a bleak picture for the future of the neighborhood.

"Christus St. Joseph is not worried about the neighborhood," said resident Holly Christmas. "And on Wednesday night, the (Planning Commission) disregarded the neighborhood as well."

That wasn't the case a few hours later, when the commission sided with neighbors and denied a zoning change for a proposed Wal-Mart in Sugar House.

"Who better to speak to the compatibility of the neighborhood than the neighbors?" commission chairman Matthew Wirthlin said.

Bair said he's still trying to reconcile that comment.

"They're basically saying our neighborhood isn't as important as other neighborhoods," he said. "If the neighbors on the east bench know what's best for their neighborhood, why we don't know what's best for our neighborhood?"

The difference, commissioners said, is that Christus St. Joseph Villa houses about 300 senior citizens, many of whom are longtime Salt Lake residents who also deserve a voice.

"I can't think of any better place I could live," said John Bucher, 93, a St. Joseph Villa resident.

The senior care center also provides a much-needed service in the community, said Galen Ewer, chief executive and administrator of Christus St. Joseph Villa.

The current campus consists of four buildings, the oldest of which was built in 1959 and needs to be replaced, Ewer said.

The first phase of the expansion calls for a building to be constructed for assisted-living residents and Alzheimer's patients. It also would allow for additional Alzheimer's service for people in early stages of the disease, Ewer said. Ultimately, the 1959 building would be demolished.

The expansion would increase patient/resident capacity on the campus from 328 to 350. If the approvals fall into place, Ewer said construction could begin early next year.

St. Joseph Villa has not released plans or renderings of the new building. Residents say they have been told it will be a three-story, 45,000-square-foot structure.

At the Planning Commission meeting Wednesday night, Ewer said it could end up being a two-story building.

"That's good if that truly is an option," Christmas said. "We're very cautious because they don't really have a reputation of being truthful with the neighbors."

Jill Remington Love, who represents Liberty Wells on the Salt Lake City Council, said she expects the issue to generate several "emotionally driven" discussions before it's resolved.

"This is the kind of issue where neighbors are going to have strong feelings," Love said. " For some, the loss of historic homes and the impact on a neighborhood that is fighting to remain a neighborhood is pretty traumatic. For others, St. Joseph Villa has been a great part of the community, and they want to be supportive of its needs."

The Liberty Wells Community Council unanimously voted in April to support Christus St. Joseph Villa's expansion. That, too, has neighbors baffled.

"Honestly, I don't think the community council is really listening to what the neighbors have to say," Porter said. "They've been kind of dismissive, and so has St. Joseph Villa."

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