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The future of Utah’s rare multibillion-dollar shot at reinventing choice land under the soon-to-be emptied Utah State Prison is approaching faster than ever. That has some worried about preserving the site’s sometimes-painful past.
The state put out its definitive call in mid-December, seeking partners in developing The Point, enticing them with detailed plans for adding what will be akin to a small technology-centered city threaded with trails and green spaces in southwestern Draper, where the 70-year-old penitentiary near the Point of the Mountain now stands.
The specially created Point of the Mountain State Land Authority board wants to hire a master contractor by July to guide its first phase for those roughly 605 acres. With a newly constructed prison near the new Salt Lake City International Airport taking final shape, state Department of Corrections expects to complete its transfer of thousands of inmates north in 2022, with demolition of the old facility now less than a year away.
State leaders, including Gov. Spencer Cox, envision view The Point as a regional model for sustainable residential and commercial growth across Utah as well as a major economic engine. It’ll be heavy on housing, served by a cutting-edge transit system, and bring a major ecological refresh to surrounding lands and a nearby segment of the Jordan River, according to plans crafted from two years of public input — and nearly a decade of debate.
But after months of entertaining ideas for wide-scale preservation of some of the prison’s oldest buildings, those plans have been scrapped in favor to salvaging a lone watchtower and a few other relics, possibly for a small museum.
The seemingly abrupt turn has left some historic preservationists upset at the notion of tearing down the prison without sparing some of the dozen or so structures in the sprawling complex that some consider historic.
“Part of the idea seems to be to make the prison disappear,” said David Amott, executive director of Preservation Utah.
“The new prison, from what I understand, won’t even be visible from the freeway,” Amott said. “So it will just be a whole chapter of Utah history going forward with part of our society that will essentially vanish from public view.”
Clashing views of history
Most members of the prison land authority board officially disagree, with several saying the existing structures lack any architectural value and the move to demolish them reflects widespread sentiment in favor for pressing on from the prison’s troubled renown.
“I don’t think we’re in the business of preserving these buildings,” Draper Mayor Troy Walker told panel colleagues in September, as part of the final review of the framework now being dangled to potential partners.
“I don’t see this as a venture where we should be trying to force a future user to fit around some old prison building because, frankly, none of them are impressive,” Walker said. “... It’s a prison. It houses the worst of our society.”
For April Cooper, a fellow land authority member and real estate executive based in Alpine, the prison resonates to this day with “bad vibes” that most residents would rather forget, from some of Utah’s most notorious criminals. “Let’s say, murderers,” Cooper told colleagues. “I hate to use these words, but this is real.”
While a few activists are pleading for saving the prison’s more notable buildings, she acknowledged, “emotions are stronger, very much so, that most people really don’t want to keep anything.”
Located along Draper’s Bitterbrush Lane just west of Interstate 15, the existing penitentiary replaced the state’s old territorial prison at what is now Sugar House Park, in 1955. The Sugar House site, where labor activist Joe Hill was executed in 1915, was then razed with no major trace of its presence left behind.
Most of Draper was open farmland back when Wasatch block, one of the oldest and most recognizable sections of the existing prison, first started holding inmates. The 605-acre penal campus has since been surrounded by homes and offices for hundreds of technology firms in what is dubbed Utah’s Silicon Slopes.
The Draper prison has also housed some of Utah’s ugliest memories, made by the likes of high-profile criminals such as serial killer Ted Bundy, forger and convicted murderer Mark Hofmann and death row inmates, including Ron Lafferty and Ronnie Lee Gardner, among others.
Two-time killer Gary Gilmore brought worldwide attention to Utah in 1977, when the Texas native became the first person in nearly a decade to be executed in the United States when he was shot by a firing squad.
The site’s squat contours and menacing razor wire fences have also been a feature on Salt Lake County’s landscape for seven decades. In that way, the prison remains part of Draper’s community fabric and history, according to Todd Shoemaker, a former member of the city’s own panel of preservation experts who says he resigned in frustration over the prison earlier this year.
“Once again, I am just appalled,” Shoemaker fumed, “at why they didn’t follow through with what they said they were going to do.”
How the debate shifted
He and other preservationists, longtime Draper residents, former prison employees and advocates for inmates spoke up in late 2020, urging that important stories, structures and artifacts at the old lockup be retained for the understanding of future generations.
A preliminary survey of the prison property’s 27 older buildings by Horrocks Engineers identified 18 as 50 years or older, with potential to qualify as historic places, and four that hold deeper historic significance. Those included what are known as Cellblocks D and East, the prison’s old administration building and what is said to be its first structure, a wooden shelter used to house inmates who helped build the original prison, starting in the late 1940s.
Alan Matheson, the prison land authority’s executive director, acknowledged early maps created by its chief consultant, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, based in Chicago, showed some of those existing buildings as part of The Point’s new commercial core — though, he said, those were only “for illustrative purposes.”
And a few prospective partners in the massive, multiphased development expressed initial interest in incorporating some of the cellblocks into The Point’s central innovation district, he said — but none has followed through with firm proposals, at least not yet.
Land authority members had also toured adaptive reuse projects in Salt Lake City and converted jails in Boise and Boston, where former lockups are now hotels and other tourist attractions. According to Amott, with Preservation Utah, that all created the impression that preservation and reuse at the Draper site remained on the table, only for supporters to be told later “the idea wasn’t even possible because the buildings couldn’t even be secured.”
Matheson said thousands of Utahns have weighed in since 2016 in public hearings, surveys, workshops and other planning on how the government-backed development at The Point should unfold. Polling data, he said, indicates little enthusiasm to keep major portions of the old site.
“Many people found that, frankly, kind of distasteful,” Matheson said in an interview. Saving the structures was also seen as an unwanted drag on attracting interest from development partners, he said, when the state is asking for other big concessions in the project on transit and sustainability.
“We’ve also had a commitment to see how we can make part of the residential development more affordable,” Matheson said. “So all of those things are increases in costs to a developer.”
‘Maybe’ a museum
Walker, the Draper mayor, has said saving entire prison buildings could threaten the land authority’s legal mandate to maximize what Utah might get out of developing its prime real estate, in what will be one of the largest projects of its kind in state history.
One key study suggests The Point could draw up to $200 million in initial investment and eventually add about $6.9 billion to the state’s gross domestic product, along with creating some 47,000 jobs and adding residential population roughly equivalent to that of nearby Bluffdale.
“I don’t think the wholesale preservation of buildings best serves this site or where the citizens of Utah are, from the perspective of the type of tenants that we’re trying to bring,” Walker said in September.
Matheson added that the land authority, nonetheless, “recognizes that there is a sincere group of people that can find value in preserving some of the prison.” The panel will likely heed calls, he said, for some kind of a historic marker or commemorative presence in the new development, including a potential museum.
It also plans to preserve portions of the main watchtower and a rare manual locking system on Wasatch block known as “the Johnson bar,” brought there from the Sugar House prison. The mechanical system is reportedly one of only two left in existence, with the other located at Alcatraz Island, the famed and now vacant prison in the San Francisco Bay.
Under state law, Matheson said, the land authority isn’t obliged to save any of the historic buildings at the Draper site — although, working with the state Historic Preservation Office, it is required to make up for their demolition with other steps.
“Maybe it’s putting a little museum on site. Maybe it’s carefully documenting all of the buildings and their use and keeping a pretty detailed record of it,” Matheson said. “The more that we preserve, the less of that offset we have to do.”
Some of those outcomes appear a little more likely now with the state poised to launch early talks with prospective partners — especially after Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson also toured the prison and voiced interest in saving some of its key elements, including the main tower.
Mike Mower, a senior advisor to Cox, told the land authority “it doesn’t have to be a huge thing,” but that the Draper prison deserves “at least a nod to the history, rather than just a clean slate and clearing the landscape and pretending like it never happened.”