West Valley City • Luis Garcia grew up buying fruit, nuts and little toys at the weekend market held at the Redwood Drive-in Theatre and Swap Meet, getting his hair cut on the indoor side.
So when the 21-year-old student learned that a developer had petitioned West Valley City to change the property’s zoning from commercial to residential, he became one of thousands to speak out on Facebook against the plan.
Groups for West Valley City residents and online marketplaces filled with posts in both English and Spanish, explaining that opponents were not just feeling nostalgia about going to the market at 3688 S. Redwood Road. Closing it would disrupt a community’s livelihood and mean the end of a place where cultures blended as part of life at the swap meet.
“I think that the drive-in is so valuable to us and the community,” Garcia said. “So I thought I should step in.” His post, encouraging people to contact the developer and the West Valley City Council, was shared by more than 3,800 people and around 500 commented on it, objecting to the idea of building homes on the site.
One day after Garcia’s June post, amid calls, emails and an open discussion in the community, the California developer — Van Daele Homes — withdrew its application.
“It’s not worth the fight. It’s not worth the headache. And it’s certainly not worth having people that upset at us,” said Mike Van Daele, chief operating officer of Van Daele Homes.
“We could build houses somewhere different and do a great job and everyone can be happy,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be there.”
Still, with West Valley City growing along with the rest of Utah’s hot housing market, community members said they recognize that the market’s end may only be a matter of time.
What would be lost?
On a regular Saturday morning, the melodies of Mexican rancheras and a blend of conversations in Spanish fill the outdoor market while vendors set up tents waiting for customers to arrive.
The sun reflects on the concrete while groups search for uncommon goods, such as funky T-shirts, Hispanic snacks, jelly fruits and cellphone accessories.
For many, the swap meet represents a comfortable space. Many of the hundreds of vendors are Hispanic immigrants, bringing the character of flea markets in their countries to West Valley City.
When Marisol Gonzalez heard that the swap meet could shut down, she worried about what could happen to her small business. For six years, Gonzalez has set up plastic tables to display her jewelry collection.
”It is practically a tradition for us Latinos; it feels like a little part of our countries,” Gonzalez said in Spanish.
Being able to pay a daily rate of $20 to $23 for an outdoor spot also has helped members of the diverse community start their own businesses.
What started as a predominately white space where people hosted garage sales evolved over time to the more diverse market, recounted John Croshaw, who said he has barely missed any weekend in 41 years.
Croshaw, who drives an hour and a half from Mendon to West Valley City to set up his spot, now speaks enough Spanish to sell car seat covers and other accessories.
”The retirement that I had kind of went south and I had this to fall back on,” said the 78-year-old, “so anyway, I enjoy it. There’s a lot of really good people. There’s a whole different social world out here.”
Some vendors use their businesses as side jobs, to make ends meet. But, for some this is their only source of income.
What could be next?
Van Daele Homes proposed a mix of twin homes, town homes and bungalows, all solar ready, on the 25-acre site, at a “medium” density of seven to 12 units per acre. The developer said it also planned to build a pool, buildings for community gatherings, a fitness center, a sport court, a dog park and small pocket parks.
West Valley City needs new homes, the developer said, and the project was part of Van Daele Homes’ planned expansion into Utah. From the first quarter of 2020 to the same time this year, the prices of homes in two West Valley City zip codes went up 19.3% and 23.2%.
Market supporters who opposed the development wondered whether losses during the COVID-19 lockdown had forced the theater owner to try to sell the land, which is seven parcels appraised by Salt Lake County at $9.55 million.
But Frank Huttinger, CEO of DeAnza Land and Leisure, the longtime owner of the West Valley City theater and the property, recently described how the company is making a similar shift in Southern California, where it has sold the site of its Mission Tiki Drive-In Theater in Montclair.
Moviegoers flocked to the outdoor venue 35 miles east of Los Angeles during the pandemic, Los Angeles Magazine reported, as the coronavirus delayed work on the property after it was sold for development last year. DeAnza Land and Leisure was created to invest in land that would eventually be redeveloped, Huttinger told the magazine.
Explaining the sale of the California theater, he said, “Let’s just say land values have appreciated substantially and the money we will receive for the property will exceed ten years profit all at once. We can reinvest that money in more profitable businesses. … I’m not going to make a long bet on drive-in theaters.”
The company has not responded to a request for comment on the halted development on the West Valley City site.
The swap meet closed for a weekend during the pandemic restrictions, and business there has been slower since then. The drive-in theater unsuccessfully tried to re-open in late April 2020 after its winter break, but managed to open with social distance protocols on May 1.
Even though a lot of West Valley City residents celebrated the withdrawal by Van Daele Homes, Gonzalez said she has mixed feelings and is still worried about the sustainability of her business.
“It was relieving, it felt calming in the moment,” she said of the stopped development. “Obviously, we don’t know what could happen tomorrow, but as of now, we are calmer.”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.