In a moment of apparent unity, House speaker and SLC mayor say part of troubled Rio Grande Street will be closed to vehicles

It’s still unclear whether plans will erect a fence to create a ”safe space” for homeless people seeking services.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and House Speaker Greg Hughes hold a press conference at the City and County Building regarding Operation Rio Grande on Thursday, Aug. 31, 21017. Mayor Biskupski says Rio Grande St. will be closed to vehicle traffic on Friday.

Starting Friday, a street that inspired a state-level intervention will be closed to vehicular traffic.

Days after Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and House Speaker Greg Hughes publicly debated the immediate future of the road fronting the 210 S. Rio Grande St. shelter, they joined at City Hall to announce that it will be off-limits to vehicles for up to 30 days — and maybe for two years — from 200 South to the southern end of Catholic Community Services’ homeless facilities and The Road Home.

Hughes still calls for an “enhanced” closure to public access, but he celebrated progress after earlier this week saying Biskupski‘s unwillingness to exercise her mayoral authority meant she wasn’t being a team player in the $67 million, two-year effort to reduce lawlessness at the western edge of downtown Salt Lake City.

“I will take any step moving forward in getting this done because it is so critical that this happen,” said the Draper Republican.

Biskupski said Thursday that she had some “constitutional concerns” about closing a public street for two years, and that a broader public conversation will occur through a city survey and a community forum 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Gateway mall.

“It‘s been a journey, but one worth taking, and I’m very grateful for the work that we’ve been able to do together to make sure that this community’s voice is heard in this process,” she said.

After Wednesday’s forum, she will decide whether to lease the property to the state for the planned duration of Operation Rio Grande, on the condition of later approval from the City Council and a state legislative action that would allow the city to lease the property for so long without relinquishing ownership.

City Councilman Charlie Luke had hours earlier issued a Facebook statement urging Biskupski to temporarily close the street, and District 4’s Councilman Derek Kitchen used the social media platform to praise the action after criticizing the mayor earlier this week. A temporary closure beyond 30 days would require council action.

Nearly three weeks old, Operation Rio Grande is meant to reduce lawlessness near the downtown homeless shelter by arresting drug offenders and providing them with treatment and work opportunities.

The operation’s two-year timeline lines up with the planned opening of three smaller shelters and the closure of the 1,100-bed Rio Grande Street shelter in July 2019. The shelter system’s capacity will then shrink by 400 beds, and Hughes believes Operation Rio Grande is critical to reducing the demand for homeless services in the meantime.

The early days of the operation have been marked by a huge increase in law enforcement presence, clearing out corners where drugs were sold as brazenly as the tomatoes at the nearby weekend farmers market.

September is expected to bring 61 behavioral treatment beds to support the effort, and officials have said up to 240 new beds could be available by the end of 2017 if the federal government grants Utah’s request for a Medicaid expansion waiver.

The precise vision for an enclosed Rio Grande Street hasn’t been fully articulated, though Hughes has said he would like to erect a fence around the shelter and create a courtyard that would provide a “safe space” for those seeking services.

Officials have also spoken in vague terms about a state ID card that would be issued to homeless-service clients and would become a condition of receiving services.

Biskupski said she’s spoken to longtime homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson, who joined the leaders in City Hall on Thursday, about the need for volunteers, at least, to access the area without a card. A committee is working out such details, she said.

On Thursday, Hughes said the new physical barrier to homelessness services would be offset by the cards’ effect of dissuading criminals — who scare away people who otherwise would stay in the shelter and present another barrier, of sorts.

Although the “safe space” idea came about in part to add teeth to the city‘s camping ordinances, giving officers an alternative they could present to violators, Hughes doesn’t expect that people will camp in the enclosure, he said, because, “We think we’ll have service providers with capacity for people in need.”

Operation Rio Grande officials, including Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, have often characterized the level of collaborative spirit as unprecedented. Months’ worth of decision-making had been condensed into 2½ weeks, and “perfect,” as Hughes likes to say, had not been “the enemy of good.”

But they have acknowledged having their differences, and for the first time those differences entered the public sphere when Hughes and Biskupski called a KSL radio program — Hughes saying that Biskupski seemed to be “leveraging” her authority to temporarily close the street as a bargaining chip, and Biskupski arguing that she had no such intention and was advocating for a public process.

Hughes said he was “very excited” by Thursday‘s news, but “still impatient.” At the start of the day, he had hoped to persuade Biskupski to lease the street to the state — not just close it to vehicles.

“She still has to put up with me,” he said. “I‘m still wanting everything yesterday.”