Differing views on Salt Lake City’s latest proposals for encouraging more construction of affordable housing have boiled over into a conflict over the rights of University of Utah professors to speak out on community issues.
The head of the Yalecrest Neighborhood Council on the city’s east bench lodged complaints this week with the mayor, U. President Taylor Randall and the director of the school’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute in the wake of remarks made on Twitter by three instructors.
Council Chair Janet Hemming alleged neighborhood organizers of a panel discussion — which took place Thursday night — on what has been dubbed the city’s affordable housing overlay were threatened, mocked and denigrated by some of the social media posts, one of which she labeled “hate speech.”
Hemming has also said the exchanges raise questions about the impartiality of their authors, all of whom serve as advisers to the city on its housing policies.
One of the posters has apologized, while the other two — one of whom is also a member of the city’s planning commission — stood firmly behind the appropriateness of their posts and their right to speak out, with one saying Hemming’s accusations smacked of “cancel culture.”
The controversy offers a sobering glimpse into tensions surrounding the city’s proposals, which come amid a worsening housing crisis of soaring rents and home prices.
It started with a flyer circulated online in advance of Thursday night’s talk, which took a negative view of the overlay and its potential impacts on neighborhoods long reserved for single-family homes. Among other goals, the draft zoning changes making their way to a City Council vote in the fall would create incentives for new, denser housing construction such as fourplexes and backyard cottages in many of those areas.
The flyer asserted, among other things, the incentives to developers could “permanently change” those neighborhoods.
Reacting over the weekend on social media, Dejan Eskic, senior fellow at the Gardner Institute and an adjunct U. professor of real estate market analysis, called the panel discussion’s backers “the QAnon of land-use group” and said he “might picket outside with a megaphone and sign.”
Hemming complained Monday in her letter to Mayor Erin Mendenhall that Eskic had “breached the code of civil discourse with an offensive, outrageous and insulting claim” and said organizers had no affiliation with the fringe right-wing conspiracy theory.
In an interview, Hemming worried the remark risked giving others “encouragement to do copycat kinds of things. That’s really where the danger is.”
‘Importance of civil discourse’
Eskic, whose research has helped shape the city’s housing policies, declined to comment about the controversy but he has since apologized, according to his boss, Gardner Institute Director Natalie Gochnour.
“We discussed his right as a private citizen and a resident of the Yalecrest neighborhood to express his views,” Gochnour wrote in response to Hemming’s complaint. “We also talked about the importance of civil discourse.” She added that the comments on his private social media account “do not represent the institutional position of the Gardner Institute.”
Meanwhile, Salt Lake City Council Chair Dan Dugan, whose district spans Yalecrest, called Eskic’s comment “inappropriate.”
“It’s sad,” Dugan said, “that we have lost the art of civil discourse.”
After Eskic’s post, Alessandro Rigolon, an assistant U. professor of city and metropolitan planning, noted that the roster of Yalecrest panelists did not include any planners — which Hemming said in her complaints was mocking and disdainful.
“His take: You can’t be an expert unless you’re a planner, despite the extensive community planning experiences of several of our presenters,” Hemming wrote to Randall.
Rigolon said in an interview his comment noted that nobody from the city had been invited to Thursday’s discussion and that it was “seemingly a one-sided kind of conversation.”
Hemming countered that the Yalecrest Neighborhood Council previously had hosted one of the city’s senior planners, Sara Javoronok, to discuss the overlay.
The Yalecrest leader also referred a May 6 post by Rigolon on the role of community councils in urban planning and development. The U. professor had noted that Seattle cut ties with community councils five years ago “because the city recognized these groups were overrun by NIMBYs and were just there to say ‘no.’”
That, Hemming wrote to Randall and Mendenhall, was “a chilling message” — tantamount, she said, to calling for abolishing Salt Lake City’s network of 27 community councils and neighborhood groups and implying Rigolon “has the power to push them out of the way or silence their voices.”
‘I don’t see why my speech should be impaired’
Rigolon, who also is a paid city consultant on its ongoing study of gentrification, said there was nothing in his remarks calling for abolishing community councils, whose members are not elected.
“The spirit of all of that,” he said, “is that we can’t take what the community councils say and assume that they are 100% representative of the community.”
He added that his posts on the topic reflected “pretty widespread knowledge in planning scholarship. It’s known there is a problem, and it’s my role as a public scholar to call those things out when I see those issues.”
“It honestly stems from my love for the city and wanting to see a more just public process,” he said, adding that he had avoided any public statements directly about his city work on gentrification, called “Thriving in Place.”
“I’m a taxpayer like them. I live here. I don’t see why my speech should be impaired and theirs should be free,” Rigolon added. “We talk about cancel culture in this country. This feels like an attempt to cancel us.”
Hemming later acknowledged Rigolon’s right to state his views, “just not childish views and not hate speech.”
In her letters to Mendenhall and Randall, Hemming also criticized a post supporting aspects of the overlay from Andra Ghent, city planning commission member and a U. professor of finance and real estate, saying it violated rules on what commission members can say publicly.
Ghent had replied at one point to a post by Rigolon, encouraging the public to attend a May hearing on the overlay, saying she “was excited” to discuss it and that she didn’t “think it goes far enough in changing our zoning to allow for more housing.”
Ghent said in an interview she intended to encourage participation in public meetings on housing and noted the commission serves in an advisory role to the City Council, which has ultimate authority on the overlay. She also disputed the assertion her post broke rules on ex-parte communication. A post on a citywide zoning change, she said, “is very different from communicating in private with a developer on a matter before the planning commission before it has been heard.”
As to her U. colleagues also criticized by Hemming, Ghent said she fully supported freedom of expression for all U. faculty.
“It’s important,” she said, “that universities, particularly public ones, share research and expertise with the broader community.”
The mayor’s chief of staff, Rachel Otto, confirmed in an email to Hemming that her complaint was referred to the city attorney’s office for review, “so that we can address it appropriately with the planning commission and our partners in the community.”