As a stereotypical teenage ne’er-do-well, I remember more than one night venturing into “Hobbitville.”
It was the stuff of legend. If you strayed too far, the little people who lived in the tiny homes would chase you with rocks and sticks. Some kids, I had it on good authority, never returned.
And so we would muster the courage to journey in after dark, sticking close together, ready to bolt at the first glimpse of a tiny head. They never showed, but it didn’t matter, because we were too chicken to hazard very far.
Hobbitville was part of the circuit for shiftless young people, along with Gilgal Gardens, The Sidewalks and Gravity Hill. And if you grew up in Salt Lake City, you know what I’m talking about.
All of the intrigue, I’m sure, came at the annoyance of the actual owners of what is actually known as Allen Park, the unique little nook across the street from Westminster College that has a true story that isn’t quite as fantastic as mystical Hobbits, but is still part of the fiber of our city.
The park was established in the 1930s as a bird sanctuary by George Allen, a surgeon who helped launch Hogle Zoo and Tracy Aviary.
There are little stone “homes” around the park that were built for birds, not Hobbits, pillars with tiled mosaic artwork and — I did not know this — multiple fountains and a swimming pool.
George Allen died in 1961 and his wife, Ruth, took over management of the site. She passed in 1985 and in the years since the park started to show the wear and tear of time.
In January 2019, the last tenants were told they had to leave because of the state of disrepair and the expense of keeping it up. Plus, the prime 7-acre parcel had to have real estate moguls drooling.
Salt Lake City was interested in the land and explored buying it. City Councilwoman Amy Fowler, who chairs the city’s Redevelopment Agency, said when the council and city staff toured the site, every one of them had a memory of the park.
But the city’s offer was half-hearted, nowhere near what the land was worth, and it ended up being put under contract with a local developer who drafted plans to build up to 60 single- and multi-family units.
And that would have been that. Another Salt Lake landmark gobbled up by tacky condos and cookie-cutter homes. But something great happened next. The community mobilized to fight the proposed project, which ran into other problems with a riparian area that sliced through it and eventually the plans crumbled, once again leaving the property up for grabs.
The city upped its offer, from $4 million to $7.5 million — still certainly less than it’s worth to someone who wants to scatter condos all over it, but enough to close the deal. On Tuesday, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall made the surprise announcement that the city would be turning the space into an art park with the old Allen House serving as a visitors center.
“There’s almost nothing like it in the city that has the potential to turn from private ownership to public lands,” Mendenhall told my colleague Taylor Stevens. “We heard loud and clear from Salt Lake residents that they would like the city to invest in this property.”
Getting Allen Park back in shape is going to take some time and effort, possibly several years.
But I think we all needed some good news after the last few weeks.
And as we have watched too much of the city’s rough edges — the quirky bits that make it unique and give it character — either polished away or paved over, it’s refreshing to see neighbors and local leaders come together to keep Salt Lake City at least a little weird. And it’s nice to know that our kids and grandkids will get to know, and hopefully add to, the stories and the lore of Hobbitville.