Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
Salt Lake City officials want the public to help them reimagine Pioneer Park, one of the largest green spaces in a downtown area that’s seeing more high-rises and denser development.
Until July 21, the city’s Parks and Public Lands Division is asking the community to share ideas for the park’s future redesign, events and amenities. You can share your input a number of ways, including taking a 10-minute online survey. City staffers will also be at a series of park events this summer to listen to visitors’ visions for the space. Those events include a Food Truck Night from 5 to 8 on Wednesday, July 14, and the Downtown Farmers Market, with staffers located at the northeast corner, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, July 10.
The City Council set aside $3.4 million for park improvements in 2019, which will help the reimagined park take shape.
“The downtown area in Salt Lake City is growing faster than any other area of the city. All you have to do is look around and you see cranes in every direction,” said senior landscape architect Nancy Monteith with the city’s Department of Community and Neighborhoods.
These days, Pioneer Park is mostly known as the locale for the wildly popular Saturday farmers market, which debuted in 1992. City officials have dubbed it the park’s most “successful event” — it sees about 10,000 people each Saturday — and want to encourage enhancements that continue to support the market.
Another event the park became known for, the Twilight Concert Series was almost too successful, drawing crowds of up to 40,000 people. The live summertime music attraction moved back to the Gallivan Center in 2018, but Salt Lake City is collecting feedback on other potential programs at the park.
Those future events could include smaller concerts featuring local musicians, yoga classes and cultural activities. Other ideas the city is exploring include new restrooms and “comfort stations,” concessions and space for food trucks. The city is also considering active recreation facilities, like pickleball courts and running paths. It has mocked up three possible designs at Pioneer Park, titled “Playable City,” “Urban Oasis” and “Downtown Destination.” All three include similar upgrades, however, including splash pads, sports courts, an events plaza and lots of trees.
With all the capital’s growth, “the need for a vibrant public urban oasis continues,” Monteith said. “It just becomes more important.”
As the city collects feedback, The Salt Lake Tribune also asked readers to weigh in on Pioneer Park and throw out some ideas for the space. Here are some of your thoughts, along with Monteith’s responses:
Didn’t the city just go through a Pioneer Park planning phase a few years ago?
For several Salt Lakers, learning that the city wants feedback on a Pioneer Park overhaul felt like déjà vu.
“Wasn’t there already money spent to do a feasibility study as well as a 3 phase plan implemented for the park about 5-7 years ago?” wondered @SkipWhitman. “Why is this being revisited?”
Others said that despite discussions about improving the park in recent years, little had changed.
“They do this every 5-10 years and decide to pour millions into Pioneer Park without actually doing anything helpful,” tweeted @bijouxgaga, “and it gets so old.”
Monteith said it’s understandable residents feel like the park is stuck in an endless planning loop.
It mostly started in 2003, when the city began developing a three-phase master plan, which was adopted in 2006. The first phase involved creating a better promenade for the farmers market and adding a dog park. That phase was completed in 2007. Then the Great Recession hit, putting the brakes on the second phase, which involved clearing big trees from the center of the park and adding sports fields.
When the city geared up to put that phase in motion around 2015, it also decided to solicit feedback again.
“As you can imagine,” Monteith said, “with something completed in 2003, people felt it was not relevant anymore.”
The city consulted with the Pioneer Park Coalition, architects and other residents living in the area to update the plan. Now, with the second phase finished in 2019, it’s time to explore other “big ideas” for the park, Monteith said. The third phase will now explore “new neighborhood uses” around the park’s perimeter.
Monteith added that public spaces, even historic ones like Pioneer Park, are constantly evolving and changing to meet the needs of the community. And the $3 million the City Council pegged for the latest project is the largest chunk of change Pioneer Park has seen, Monteith said.
“Initially, that funding was for a new park downtown, but we found it was really challenging to find a space,” she said. “So we also feel this park is the one downtown park [in the city], and it deserves to be invested in.”
Pioneer Park should be an inclusive space for everyone, including the unsheltered
Many Twitter users used the Pioneer Park discussion to vent about the city’s growing population of people experiencing homelessness.
“Those living in the park need safe housing options that take them out of the park before it’s revamped,” said @MuffySinclair. “Waste of money otherwise.”
The park has long served as a gathering place for the unsheltered, particularly in the days before Operation Rio Grande, when The Road Home’s shelter was still located nearby.
“I would hate to see any changes to Pioneer Park that will be used as an excuse to move [our] Unhoused neighbors,” said @petrifiedbrush. “Whatever changes are made a space for them must be priority number 1.”
Monteith said one of the city’s primary goals is to create a safe place that’s comfortable to everyone, including the unsheltered.
“The city is trying to think of ways to be adaptive, to look at the unsheltered challenges,” she said. “Parks offer green space and refuge. Everyone should feel welcome.”
The park should have less grass, more trees and more drought-tolerant landscaping
Utah is in the grip of extreme drought, with several cities banning personal fireworks this July due to wildfire danger. Intensely dry summers are becoming the new normal for the state, and several people noted that the city needs to change its landscaping habits to adapt.
“Natural landscaping seems prudent,” tweeted @ma1gus. “Drought combined with the population exploding will leave us with hardly any water as it is. Adding stuff that will eat up even more of that precious resource seems counterproductive.”
Community gardens and edible plants were also mentioned a lot, with @heyjuder suggesting “edible landscape that could help feed those in need and some example gardens of water wise native plants.”
Some Twitter users, however, said it would be more useful for residents to tear out their own lawns, and for the city to maintain communal green spaces.
The city is in the process of developing a comprehensive plan for all its parks, Monteith said, and water consumption is a big part of those discussions.
“The top two improvements that people wanted was to put environment first and [improve] biodiversity, grow our urban forest,” Monteith said. “I think we’re also seeing that in Pioneer Park.”
One of city’s three concept designs for the redesigned park includes an edible garden, another includes a garden “ribbon” strip with a grove, and the other has a garden grove. All the designs include an ample amount of trees. Monteith added that the community needs at least some turf to play on, but agreed that landscaping in other areas of the park should be reimagined.
“Incorporating a waterwise approach,” Monteith said, “is top of mind in everything we’re thinking about now.”
Why is there nowhere to sit?
The lack of places to sit and rest was a big complaint among park visitors.
“I want to see benches and tables in shaded areas,” tweeted @me_mickel. “Lots of benches and places to sit — but not all smashed together in one or two pavilions.”
The park is notorious for having few benches, rumored to be a design choice to deter the unsheltered from sleeping there.
“Come up with a real solution for the homeless,” wrote @PookaDollisme, “one that meets them where they are. And also water fountains that work in public spaces and places to sit and rest on shady spots not just under pavilions.”
The park does have some benches near the tennis courts and playground, Monteith noted. “We stretched our budget as far as we could [in the past] and always planned to get those in the park.”
The city’s current public input survey for the park includes numerous questions about seating, with suggestions for everything from artsy suspended chairs to a massive public picnic table.
“People are asking for benches,” Monteith said, “so, yes, we want to put benches in.”
The park needs more variety
Many of the comments suggest the public views parks as more than big, green, passive outdoor spaces.
“Add permanent vendor stalls & performance areas,” tweeted @hauntedwingtips. “Try to give the park a community vibe.”
Several commenters asked for designs and improvements that allow for a variety of activities, especially active recreation.
The park needs “a dog friendly nature trail with native plants that has a self guided tour,” tweeted @myanaloglife1. “A splash pad would be great.”
Lots of Twitter users liked the idea of a splash pad (although some called it a waste of water). At least two people asked for pickleball courts. And several want to see nicer basketball facilities.
“A skate park is something that is missing in the city,” wrote @PeteJ0. “Would give kids growing up downtown a way to legally skate without doing so on private property.”
Others said the park could become an educational space as well.
“Put in a leave a book library cabinet,” tweeted @Lariavasiel. “Hold classes on preserving the food grown on site.”
This squares with other feedback city officials are receiving on Pioneer Park, and Monteith said they appreciate the creative suggestions.
“Some of the popular items that are polling strongly are a water feature, playground, amenities for dogs and a variety of sports interests,” she said. “People are also attracted to public spaces like a pavilion for events, and food and beverage options.”
Park managers are already experimenting with new activities and events, Monteith said, to attract more people and make Pioneer Park feel like a community anchor. She noted a movie night in late June that attracted “quite a few visitors,” including a group of teenagers, who all had positive feedback.
“We had about 60 people, and even with that number, the park felt welcoming and comfortable,” Monteith said. “If we can introduce some new uses that activate the park and have community partners that want to program it, it doesn’t take a lot to make it feel like a neighborhood park.”
The park needs to better represent the community
Still others want a park that tells the history of all the city’s residents, including the Indigenous people who lived in the area long before its namesake Mormon pioneers reached the Salt Lake Valley.
“Rename it to something more inclusive,” tweeted @danielhaas.
Acknowledging the “historical and cultural significance” of Pioneer Park is one of the city’s guiding principles for its management plan.
The park is the site of an old fort, where the mostly white Latter-day Saints, led by Utah’s first territorial governor, Brigham Young, assembled before they began colonizing the region. The 10-acre site was officially dedicated a park July 25, 1898, 51 years after the pioneers’ arrival.
But that framing of the park’s history ignores the fact that pioneers displaced native tribes like the Utes, Goshute and Shoshone. City information further underscores the site’s diverse and sometimes complicated heritage. By the late 1800s, the neighborhood had become populated with mostly non-Mormon immigrants from places like Mexico, Japan, Italy and Greece, according to the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts. By 1909, the city had installed its first playground to serve low-income families in the area.
The bulk of the city’s Black-owned businesses set up shop in the Pioneer Park neighborhood in the decades that followed, according to city information, but segregation laws prohibited those families from using many of the park’s amenities.
In the modern era, the park’s central location and farmers market have made it a significant gathering space for residents, who continue to come from diverse backgrounds and experiences.
Monteith said the city has hired a consultant to research the full history of Pioneer Park and will likely include an interpretive center or some way of sharing those stories with the public.
“One of the things we hear quite a bit,” Monteith said, “is people really want to see the history of the park, the full history of the park, revealed.”