Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Pedestrians walk through Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — When the state of Utah moved its main prison from Salt Lake City to Draper in 1951, it built Sugarhouse Park in its place.

Well, it actually sold the land to the city and county, and they set up a park authority to plan and fund the park, but you get the idea. All that green space, the hills and the trees were a gift, of sorts, to the city. Try to imagine Sugar House today without it.

Likewise, try to imagine Salt Lake City without Liberty Park, cut in the middle of residential and commercial land so close to downtown it would fetch impressive sums for developers today. The city bought that land in the 1880s, no doubt influenced by the success of Central Park in New York and Lincoln Park in Chicago.

Now, try to imagine a regional park taking up a chunk of the land left behind when the prison in Draper is removed. Give it a bland name if you’d like, something like South Valley Park. Fill it with lots of trees and things like a swimming pool, or even an extension of the aviary that sits in Liberty Park. Put statues in it from local artists. Add something like a large water feature — a colorful fountain, for instance. Maybe throw in an amphitheater for outdoor concerts. Then watch what the park does to everything around it.

A new board, the Point of the Mountain State Land Authority, is about to take over the planning process for the prison site, which of course is still a prison until construction is complete on the new one near the airport. The 11-member board, eight of whom will be appointed by the Legislature and governor, has strict membership rules that are commendable.

Anyone who owns property within 5 miles of the site, other than a residence, or who has a relative with property within a half-mile of it, will be banned from holding a board position.

A consistent complaint since the beginning of the prison relocation process has been that it would be an opportunity for developers in the Legislature to enrich themselves. At least, that’s the worry many readers have expressed to me.

It’s a matter of perception more than anything else. Keeping people with nearby property interests away is a small requirement with a huge payoff in public relations.

So why not keep the good vibes going? The authority has 700 acres to work with. Make a 100-acre park a centerpiece.

Another group, the Point of the Mountain Development Commission, has studied what to do with the land for the last 18 months. And, to be fair, its preferred plan does include parks and open space.

The open space consists of a network of trails, which is nice. The website talks about “parks to meet both regional and local needs, with amenities for a wide variety of users.”

That’s a good start, but I’m not seeing anything on the grand scale of a central gathering point that might attract people from far away for events or an afternoon of gentle recreation.

Twenty-first century planners seem to have lost the vision of people such as Frederick Law Olmsted, who created Central Park. He saw large parks as social arguments — testing grounds for American democracy in action. They were places where rich and poor could mingle. In his words, they could “supply the hundreds of thousands of tired workers” with “a specimen of God’s handiwork.”

Today, he might add that they could take us away from the sedentary confines of computers, lift our heads from the hypnotic void of smartphones and fill our lungs with air.

Besides, the nation could use a dose of democracy in action these days, especially if it lures us into face-to-face contact with people who might look or think differently than we do but who smile and say hello, anyway.

26 comments on this story

Not only would such a park leave plenty of room for the type of development the governor’s office is touting, with a research/educational facility as its anchor, it would add to the value of those things.

The National Recreation and Parks Association estimates local parks and recreation agencies added $81 billion to nearby properties in 2015.

That doesn’t include the health benefits or the emotional boost a well-planned, large park could provide locals on a daily basis.

State leaders understood this the last time they moved a prison. Sixty-seven years shouldn’t have dulled that vision.