To fight drugs, prostitution and homelessness scattered by Operation Rio Grande, Salt Lake City police open pop-up station at North Temple’s ‘ground zero’

He calls police usually two or three times a day. He chases off at least four people passed out on his lawn each morning. He finds about six needles left behind in the cracks of the sidewalk as he closes his front gate at night.

These grim numbers are how Dru Steadman measures crime in his neighborhood on the west side of Salt Lake City. And, by his count, it’s getting a lot worse.

“I want my grandkids to come here and not be afraid. Right now they are,” Steadman said. “What I’d like to see is it cleared up.”

The resident and business owner attended the Wednesday unveiling of what he hopes might be the solution: a defunct fast food restaurant being converted into a pop-up patrol station.

Salt Lake City police announced the new North Temple hub — a temporary post at 837 West inside a former Arctic Circle — as its latest effort to control the spread of drugs and homelessness that has troubled Utah’s capital for years. It is opening, in part, because efforts last year that focused on the Rio Grande District a few blocks east have pushed some of those problems here.

“A lot of the crime over there moved,” said Police Chief Mike Brown.

But this area, too, has in the past decade become its own hot spot of drug deals, prostitution and shootings. And now a fleet of six bike officers will be stationed in the epicenter to address it.

The building’s drive-up window is closed, and the milkshake machine is gone. Police decals decorate the doors, which still have white papers taped to them, saying the restaurant has shut down. Inside, though, the colorful plastic booths and tables remain for officers to conduct interviews or hold briefings.

In its first 16 days — the west side operation started quietly July 9 — police made 47 felony arrests and put another 107 individuals in jail, Brown said. “This really puts us on ground zero.”

Steadman opened his school lunch business, Legacy Sales and Marketing, in the neighborhood in 1998; he lives in the upstairs loft. The initial results from the police substation give him hope that things will change.

He and other business owners want to see the area revitalize.

“This place has a lot of potential,” said Lucy Cardenas, who owns Red Iguana.

Cardenas’ parents opened the restaurant at 736 W. North Temple in 1985 after spending every weekend coming to the west side of town with their kids to eat, bowl and see movies. It was vibrant then, Cardenas said, and safe.

Now when she comes to work, she sees people passed out in front of her shop, some in distress, some under the influence.

The hotel across the street has become a den for drug dealers and prostitution. Trash litters the road. Fights often start in parking lots like the one she was standing in.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this,” Cardenas said, throwing up her hands.

While Cardenas has felt pretty hopeless, Steadman has made it a point to call police whenever something comes up, so there’s a record of the problem. Geoffrey Clapp and his husband started a neighborhood watch to deal with the disruptions. Nigel Swaby has lobbied for this new station.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sitting down in what used to be a fast food restaurant on the West side, Police Chief Mike Brown discusses the reason for a new police substation on Wed. July 25, 2018, in the space of a former Arctic Circle restaurant at 837 West, South Temple. Newly-assigned bike officers and a sergeant will work out of the new substation to better serve the community.

Swaby, chairman of the River District Chamber, which supports businesses in the area, believes this North Temple neighborhood is losing residents and companies because of the crime. This renewed effort by police, he hopes, will change the trend.

“We feel this is a turning point for this neighborhood,” he said.

The Salt Lake City Police Department is spending $10 a month to lease the Arctic Circle building from the “generous” property owner who wants to stay anonymous, said Brown. Crime in the district is down, he added, but calls from this neighborhood are up.

Brown stood next to Mayor Jackie Biskupski at the event Wednesday with both talking to residents and listening to concerns for more than an hour. Three siblings, ages 16, 18 and 19, told the leaders they don’t feel safe being outside in their neighborhood.

“There are gangs and shootings,” said John Latapu, the youngest.

Anna Giron, 70, told them about the transient woman who broke into her home two months ago. “We had to chase her out,” she said.

“I see people sleeping everywhere in the neighborhood. It makes you scared.”

Giron has lived here most of her life. She wants to see this area of Salt Lake City recover and return to what it was when she moved in. “I love the west side very much. ... Maybe this will help.”