Millcreek set to abandon ‘blight’ study, but Utah’s newest city will press ahead with major redevelopment on Highland Drive

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Businesses along Highland Drive in Millcreek on Monday Dec. 3, 2018. The newly incorporated city of Millcreek is pushing on all fronts to create a new downtown center, including designating large swathes of land along its stretch of Highland Drive as "blighted" so it can use eminent domain to condemn and improve private properties if it wants.

Millcreek • Leaders of Salt Lake County’s newest city say they are all but sure to abandon the most controversial element of a plan to redevelop their community and create a new and appealing downtown.

After months of study and at least six public hearings, Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said Friday the Millcreek City Council was on track to reject a study declaring key sections of the city spanning Highland Drive and 3300 South as blighted.

Millcreek’s leaders had pursued the blight study as a part of a larger strategy that also includes creating new community reinvestment areas in the city, a tool that allows them to potentially plow millions of dollars of new tax revenues into urban renewal over the next 20 years. City officials hope that reinvestment plan will help spur development of a new city center and fuel economic growth.

Under state law, the additional blight designation on some of the homes and businesses in those reinvestment areas would have given Millcreek expanded powers to condemn and force a sale, known as eminent domain — beyond the typical authority Utah cities have when pursuing public projects.

Silvestrini, along with Mike Winder, Millcreek’s economic development director, and other officials, had argued the added authority offered new ways to aid private development and let the city buy out residents whose homes blocked key projects.

Yet after hearing vigorous opposition from residents and business owners worried about eminent domain over their properties, Silvestrini said the reinvestment areas would go ahead, but informal polling of council members indicated they would vote unanimously to reject the blight study, as soon as Monday night.

“We get the sense that the people of Millcreek don’t want us to do this,” Silvestrini said Friday. “The bottom line is, if people think this is a tool they don’t want us to have, and they feel strongly enough about it, our council feels the need to respect that. We represent them.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini, as seen during a Millcreek City Council meeting on Monday, July 10, 2017.

That news was greeted happily by several groups in Millcreek that had organized to oppose the expanded eminent domain powers. Tina Grant, a resident on Elgin Avenue who banded with neighbors to fight the blight designation, said Friday she received a personal email from Silvestrini, saying the council appeared poised to kill the study.

“We achieved our ultimate goal,” said Grant, who, with other Millcreek residents, hired an attorney to legally challenge aspects of the blight designation, which had been set for a final city review Monday.

Aaron Walker, who also fought the study along with six others in his Millcreek homeowners association, attended city meetings through the summer and fall, pressing for his neighborhood to be removed from the blight area. Walker called the prospect of eliminating the study “great news. That’s what we really wanted.”

Several prominent Millcreek business owners whose properties fell within the boundaries of the city’s blight designation also expressed relief, but declined to comment until the council voted.

‘Our ultimate goal’

Since Millcreek voted to incorporate in late 2016, the city has pushed on several fronts to spruce up its image, encourage economic vitality and lure more residents. The amorphous area south of Salt Lake City and north of Holladay also has drawn avid interest from developers hoping to build new townhomes and apartment projects in the east bench community.

That led Millcreek’s fledgling City Council to adopt initial guidelines in April on housing construction and permitted land uses for the city’s center, an area spanned roughly by Highland Drive and 1300 East between 3000 South and 3300 South. Those rules will govern while Millcreek fleshes out a more detailed master plan and secures grants to pay for a top-to-bottom study of the city’s transportation options.

And as it pursued the community reinvestment areas, the city also launched a study in May of a 164-acre area straddling 3300 South between Highland Drive and 900 East, detailing elements of blight such as crumbling sidewalks, missing curbs and gutters, deteriorating exteriors, unsanitary conditions, tall weeds or other signs of disuse.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The Millcreek City Council in Millcreek, incorporated in Dec. 28, 2016 and the newest city in Salt Lake County.

To meet the state’s definition as a blighted area, more than half of all properties and over 60 percent of the total acreage would have to show elements of blight, Silvestrini said.

Utah cities already have eminent domain powers for public-sector projects, such as roads or a new police station, but a blight designation would give Millcreek similar powers in situations involving private developments for up to five years. Those added powers, according to the mayor and other city officials, would have helped Millcreek in its broader redevelopment efforts.

In meetings with residents, city leaders vowed to limit use of eminent domain, focusing on absentee property owners and offering financial aid to willing residents and businesses wanting to relocate as Millcreek develops.

“We would, in every instance, try to buy that property for a very fair price and give them more than what it’s worth,” Silvestrini explained at a town hall meeting. “If we don’t have eminent domain power, the city is really not in a position to help that person.”

Councilman Dwight Marchant, whose district includes portions of the blight study area, insisted in public meetings that Millcreek would only deploy eminent domain to assist residents, not displace them. “It just isn’t going to happen — not on my watch — that they get pushed out of their house,” Marchant said.

But in spite of such assurances, some opponents in Millcreek called the blight move “a land grab” and enlisted assistance from a nonprofit legal advocacy firm from the Washington, D.C., area, Institute for Justice, which specializes in fighting eminent domain. The institute sent an organizer to Utah in October to help Millcreek residents.

Eminent domain, Walker said, “seemed a shady way to get property at below market prices. The arguments in favor of it were really weak.”

City officials shrank the boundaries of the blight area several times, in reaction to public concerns. Just two weeks ago, Silvestrini and the council agreed in a straw poll to reduce the area’s boundaries further. But the mayor, who under Millcreek law is also a member of its five-person council, said concerns over eminent domain grew as more comments came in.

Marchant said Saturday that he and fellow council members were responding to prevailing community sentiment. “There could be benefits [to eminent domain]," he said, "but it seemed like we were creating a lot of grief for something we will never use. Why fight that battle?”

“I feel pretty good about it,” Marchant said of halting the study.

Big plans ahead

Meanwhile, other efforts in Millcreek for redeveloping parts of what is Utah’s 10th largest city are rolling ahead.

The city has approved initial plans and budgets for creating three community reinvestment areas, one in Olympus Hills, another in Canyon Rim and a third focused on Millcreek’s commercial center, east and south of Brickyard Plaza and running along Highland Drive. When solidified, those areas will let Millcreek divert millions of dollars in new property tax revenues for upgrades and improved city services — without raising taxes for the city’s existing 60,192 residents.

The new reinvestment areas, along with stepped up city planning efforts and other measures, will help Millcreek grow and provide services and amenities that its residents deserve, Silvestrini said. The city will use reinvestment area funds to upgrade city infrastructure — such as roads, sidewalks, storm drains and burying power lines — as a way to entice private developers, he said.

“We want to do the things that need to be done: better streets, better sidewalks, crossings on key streets, possibly redesigning traffic flows on 13th East and Highland Drive,” the mayor said. “The idea is to use tax money to do things like that rather than to subsidize development projects.”

The reinvestment area centered on Millcreek’s commercial core is expected to free up an estimated $24 million or more for improvements over the next two decades, as Millcreek and other layers of government forgo much of their share of new property tax money and devote that increment instead to urban redevelopment.

According to Winder, that increment money can also be used to help existing businesses, build more affordable housing, reduce crime, boost transit options, bring in more jobs — and even help build a real downtown that could serve as Millcreek’s community center.

(Photo courtesy of the city of Millcreek) A rendering of a proposed park and city center envisioned as part of efforts to redevelop the commercial center of Millcreek, Utah's newest city.

This walkable city center to be tucked into redeveloped areas between Highland Drive and Richmond Street, Winder said, is envisioned as mixed-use civic and public gathering space for Millcreek, with tree-lined plazas, splash pads and a linear park.

“It would be not only an attribute for the neighborhood but really, an amenity for the entire city of Millcreek,” Winder said.

Part of Millcreek’s quandary with regard to a city center stems from the 1978 annexation by Salt Lake City of Brickyard Plaza shopping center, located near 3200 S. 1300 East. Though it happened 40 years ago, Silvestrini calls the Brickyard move “an annexation crime,” noting that it pointedly carved the Brickyard retail center now at the core of Millcreek out of then-unincorporated Salt Lake County.

The mayor said Millcreek is now in talks with Salt Lake City on the possibility of sharing some of Brickyard’s sales tax revenues.

But Salt Lake City Councilman Charlie Luke countered on Saturday that Millcreek incorporated just short of two years ago, in full knowledge of the boundary issues it faced. Calling the Brickyard annexation a “crime,” Luke said, is “pretty silly” given that it was fully legal — and he said it was unlikely Utah’s capital city would share sales-tax revenues.

“I just don’t see what kind of offer they’re going to be able to come up with that is of benefit to the residents of Salt Lake City," Luke said of Millcreek’s leaders. He also tweeted on Saturday that “Millcreek should focus on developing its city center somewhere within its two-year-old boundaries.”

In the meantime, Silvistrini said city leaders are optimistic the newly created reinvestment areas will indeed spur private investors to help Millcreek fill the new city’s commercial and community void. Millcreek officials hope to create the right conditions, the mayor said, and then let the private sector drive redevelopment at its own pace.