Murals may change Salt Lake City’s plans for this run-down block

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The murals on the Fleet Block, along 300 West and 800 South in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020.

This was a drab clump of old industrial buildings along Salt Lake City’s 300 West last spring. Now, gigantic faces painted on exterior walls stare out in testament to a social justice movement. Residents say they form a powerful symbol of community healing, born out of grief, anger and protest.

Twenty-foot murals depicting people killed by police have breathed new meaning into what City Hall calls the Fleet Block, leading dozens of residents to oppose an otherwise routine rezoning for what is mostly city-owned asphalt, dirt piles and utility sheds.

Slow-moving city plans to develop the disused site between 300 West and 400 West from 800 South to 900 South have run headlong into raw emotion linked to the murals and what they represent. That’s led officials to delay formal action while they reassess.

As Mary Castellanos addressed city leaders last week, she summoned the anguish of her brother Joey Tucker’s 2009 death and began to cry.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Faces from a series of murals depicting people killed by police, near 800 South and 300 West in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Top row from left, Bobby Duckworth, Cindreia Europe, Cody Belgard, Allen Nelson, Darrien Hunt, and Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal. Middle row from left, James Barker, Siale Angilau, George Floyd, Joey Tucker, and Dillon Taylor. Bottom row from left, Bryan Pena Valencia, Zane James, Patrick Harmon, Danielle Willard, Chad Breinholt, and Michael Glad.

“Our loved ones are not forgotten,” Castellanos said of the murals. “We have a place, a peaceful place to visit them and share stories. We have formed new friendships through the darkest times in our life.

“So I’m asking you, to please help us save these and not take them away.”

The outpouring has gone beyond family members and supporters of the 26 men and women shown in hues of pink and red on the block’s outer walls. Artists, moderate-income residents and activists fearing for those getting squeezed out in the city’s recent higher-end residential boom see their cause in the public images as well.

“Our city is losing its heart and soul,” said Derek Dyer, executive director of the Utah Arts Alliance. “This is a wonderful opportunity for us to create something for the community.”

Area business owners also support the murals, according to a member of the Granary District Alliance, representing commercial property owners. They’ve even run an ongoing campaign that has spawned a dozen public murals across the district, hoping to foster a sense of community for the neighborhood dotted with warehouses and industrial lots.

Nothing in the city’s proposals calls for imminent demolition of the buildings that line the edges of the Fleet Block, but Council Chairman Chris Wharton said public concerns have nonetheless resonated loudly and the project is on hold pending more discussions with Mayor Erin Mendenhall and her staff.

“We have the time to do this right,” Wharton said, reassuring mural supporters and suggesting the site may be turned into a city park.

“We’ve heard that this area has become a community gathering place and that has helped many come together to help and to heal,” he said. “We’ve heard that the community wants this space to be saved and secured for the future.”

A makeshift shrine

The city’s plans to make something out of the disused transport and maintenance depot had been debated and tweaked for almost a decade before last May, when George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck, an act caught on video.

As Floyd’s May 25 death inspired marches nationwide and near-daily demonstrations on the streets of Utah’s capital, anonymous artists painted an image of Floyd on one of the Fleet Block’s blank beige walls near the corner of 800 South and 300 West.

Artists added the portrait of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, who was fatally shot May 23 by Salt Lake City police. They then kept adding faces of other Utahns killed by officers, eventually covering street-facing panels on that block along portions of 800 South, 300 West and 900 South.

Each portrait now has a communal space and flower planter at its foot between the wall and public sidewalk. Many of them are filled with makeshift shrines, crosses, handwritten notes and other memorials. Benches and chairs have sprouted in front of some of the portraits. The intersection was a common gathering point for demonstrators over the summer, and families regularly hold social events near the paintings.

“Those who created the murals,” said resident Beverly Hawkins, “did so with the intent to mourn the dead and fight for the living.”

Many residents have told the city the murals offer an uplifting place, but one historic preservationist said the spot also represents an attempt by residents to reclaim public spaces in the face of development citywide that seems repetitive and impersonal.

“On some level, this is also a protest against the formulaic copy and paste that city planners and developers have seemed to embrace,” said David Amott, executive director of the nonprofit group Preservation Utah. “Where else does the space for this kind of expression take place?”

West-sider Janet Alcala said people who have bonded with and through the murals were sending a profound signal to city officials.

“I really would urge you to pay attention to what’s happening here,” Alcala told the council, “because we’re showing you what we want our neighborhoods to look like and to feel like: healing, growth, community, taking care of one another.”

Mural supporters said last week the city’s plans should also offer services for those experiencing homelessness — and, days later, an encampment of 14 tents had formed on the Fleet Block along 900 South.

A shifting plan

The city’s downtown master plan, completed in 2016, defines the Fleet Block area as a showcase for the wider neighborhood, known as the Granary District.

Redevelopment on that block, the plan says, would demonstrate “the best of urban family living and industry, the mixing of land uses once thought to be incompatible, and improved connections that focus on putting people first.”

Planners have drafted a new zoning rulebook just for the area, untried elsewhere and aimed at encouraging a blend of housing options and jobs in clean industries for a neighborhood now seeing rapid growth.

And if it works there, the thinking goes, the city will apply that zoning approach to the rest of the Granary District.

The city owns 8.75 acres of the Fleet Block, which is currently zoned as “public lands” and limited to institutional and city uses. The block’s 1.25-acre southwest corner is privately owned and zoned for “general commercial” uses.

The new zoning would allow a wider variety of land uses, including light manufacturing and buildings above five stories, and give more weight to pedestrians by calling for midblock walkways. It also allows for row houses, apartments and condominiums as well as buildings that mix housing with stores and offices at ground level.

The Fleet Block’s frontage on 900 South also gets special attention in the city’s evolving plans. It is envisioned as part of the 9 Line Trail, an urban trail to extend from the city’s east side to the Jordan River.

But in testimony in two recent hearings, many supporters of the murals say the development plans sound like more of a familiar pattern: more high-price rentals that existing residents can’t afford.

“We have a lot of apartments coming up now,” said Dyer, also on the board of the Utah Cultural Alliance. “We can’t compete with these developers. And there’s not a whole lot of opportunities coming back to those of us that actually make the city an interesting and exciting place to live.”

He and others have called for the creation of a grassroots advisory panel to guide how the murals are saved while the block is eventually transformed.

Rae Duckworth, a volunteer for Black Lives Matter Utah, is one of many urging the site to be turned into a community center focused on helping disadvantaged residents, partly in honor of all those faces.

Salt Lake City “doesn’t need any more tall towers,” Duckworth said. “We need a community space filled with support, love and security.”

‘Sacred space’

The zoning proposals for the Fleet Block, first pushed forward by then-Mayor Jackie Biskupski in March 2019, were reworked extensively last fall because the City Council wants to add a park, which could be tied into the murals.

Other options, according to the city’s website, may include paying to protect the murals, requiring future property owners to include them in any development, or changing the scope of the rezone to exclude the murals.

Councilman Darin Mano said he will urge colleagues to split their debate on the new zoning system for the Granary District from decisions on what to do with this specific block.

Discussing the two together, he said, made sense “before that space became kind of a sacred space for part of our community.” Now, Mano said, “we need to start over.”

The building the portraits are painted on, he said, is in disrepair and tainted with health-threatening asbestos. “So it’s not as simple as it might sound to just turn the building into a community center or something like that,” the councilman said.

But Mano, who is also an architect, called the murals “incredibly special,” adding they had gained deep meaning for the community in an organic way, and should be honored.