A new plan for Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Park, which has long been seen as a hub for illegal activity and drug use, hinges on a single belief: that smart design and programming changes would impact the way the community engages with the park.
Some 16 days of the year, the Pioneer Park Coalition says that vision of a vibrant, bustling community space is recognized when the Salt Lake City Downtown Farmer’s Market sets up shop. It’s the other 349 days that they want to fix.
“That a park would be a building block for democracy and it would bring people from all walks of life together, that’s the standard that we feel like Pioneer Park has failed on,” said Vikram Ravi, a community organizer with the coalition of area business leaders and others. “Because not all members of the public feel comfortable coming to the park — and that’s what we want to change.”
Salt Lake City began construction early this month on a ‘great lawn,’ with a new, lighted field slightly bigger than a soccer pitch that takes up about a third of the park at its southern end. The field is estimated to cost just short of $1 million, with about a third coming from the Pioneer Park Coalition. That’s all that’s been approved and funded currently.
But the Pioneer Park Coalition and the Downtown Community Council want to continue pushing changes. On Thursday, they held an open house to unveil their preliminary designs for the 10-acre park, which would include public art, a fountain plaza, a ranger’s station, a playground with a splash pad and a “puppy pub” with amenities for dogs and their owners.
The groups envision partnering with Salt Lake City and other private entities to push that vision forward more quickly than they say the city could alone. Though David Garbett, the coalition’s executive director, said city leaders have been at the table, as well as members of the Farmer’s Market and homelessness groups, he noted that city officials haven’t yet agreed to the idea.
“We haven’t come to them yet with a concept,” he said. “This [community engagement] is part of going to them to say, ‘Look, here’s what the park could look like. This is what the public has said. We’ve tried to talk to the public, we’ve got some exciting ideas and partnerships to make this happen. We think we can help fund this but we need a framework from the city.’”
The park, which is less than a half-mile from Salt Lake City’s emergency shelter, has been a focal point for homeless residents for years and the groups contend that drug use and crime have also kept the park from being used by all residents.
Some have worried that plans for redevelopment at the park would push out people experiencing homelessness. But Garbett said that’s not the case.
“The people we want to chase out are those who are coming into the park to deal spice, who are coming in because it’s a great location to hide,” he said. “Yeah, we want that out of the park, but if someone’s there and they’re homeless and they’re looking for a quiet space, they should be in the park. It’s a public space.”
Councilman Derek Kitchen, whose district encompasses Pioneer Park, told The Salt Lake Tribune that he’s broadly supportive of the coalition’s aims and of a public/private partnership, noting that the park “really needs as much help as it can get.”
Kitchen and his husband, Moudi Sbeity, own a Middle Eastern restaurant in Salt Lake’s Central Ninth neighborhood called Laziz, which evolved from a business selling hummus at the farmer’s market at Pioneer Park. He agreed that the area is a changed space on those weekends.
“The park is a much different park on Saturday mornings, right?” he said. “Like, Saturday morning with the farmer’s market compared to, say, Wednesday afternoon — it’s night and day. And so I think the Farmer’s Market has kind of shown that when you activate something it changes the whole mood, the whole environment.”
Coalition members say they’d like to model the park after Bryant Park in Manhattan, New York, which Garbett said was home to crime and drug dealers before a public/private partnership redeveloped it into one of the “most successful, most visited, most densely packed urban parks in the U.S.”
Attendees at the design unveiling on Thursday were largely representatives from local businesses who want to understand what the changes could mean for them. After seeing the renderings, many expressed a cautious optimism about the possibilities.
Bjan Djahanbani works at the Salt Lake Design Center, which is across the street from Pioneer Park, and said he’s hopeful that improvements could make the park more functional and comfortable for the surrounding community.
“It all looks like it’s intended to move the park to a more usable park instead of just having the criminal element invade,” he said.
Djahanbani said he’s seen a decrease in crime in the year following Operation Rio Grande, the coordinated effort to reduce drugs and violence around the downtown homeless shelter and Pioneer Park. But the company has had three of its windows broken through with rocks in the last two months and he hopes the park redesign could help deter continued problems.
“In big cities in parks that are heavily used by events and things like that, it makes it kind of uncomfortable for the [criminal] element to exist there and do their dealings,” he said.
Because designs for the park are still subject to change, Garbett said he doesn’t have an estimate for what final costs would be to implement the proposed vision or of a timeline for completion. But he said the groups plan to continue facilitating community engagement and working with the city to push for their vision — and they feel the time is right for it.
“I think we’re on better ground for the way that we’re responding to homelessness, better footing for some of the crime and problems that needed a law enforcement response, we want to do things that will draw people to the neighborhood who are not coming here to commit crime,” Garbett said. “And it’s not going to happen overnight, but we just want to get it started.”