Four homicides in one year have Ballpark neighbors calling for action

Someone was moaning outside Darren Gonzol’s front door. He and his wife froze inside their Fremont Avenue home in Salt Lake City’s Ballpark neighborhood.

Two minutes passed. Three.

After five or so, they finally worked up the courage to peek out the window into the dark April night and saw a man splayed out just feet from their front porch. They would learn later that he’d been shot during an attempted home invasion on nearby Paxton Avenue and had somehow made it as far as their yard before collapsing.

Police and paramedics soon arrived and loaded the man, in critical condition, into an ambulance as rain pattered onto the sidewalk and the Gonzols watched from their second-story window.

“You start to get numb to it,” Gonzol said of the shooting in a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “I don’t necessarily want to spend my time peering out the window, trying to figure out why whatever crazy thing is happening and whether somebody’s life is in danger.”

For some residents, being on edge has become a way of life in the Ballpark neighborhood, which has seen four homicides in the span of a year.

Each has raised the question, echoed by Ballpark Community Council Chairwoman Amy Hawkins at a community anti-violence forum earlier this month: “What is it about this geographic area that has produced an atmosphere that’s so tolerant to violence and crime?”

The answers, neighbors speculate, are many, and include easy access to the neighborhood through a nearby TRAX line, proximity to a number of run-down motels on State Street and a citywide dispersal of homelessness after Operation Rio Grande, an all-out effort to deal with homelessness in the downtown area.

But residents also see another culprit in the disproportionately high number of abandoned buildings in the area.

“A lot of boarded properties offer hidden areas that attract criminal elements or unsheltered people who’d be better served by seeking shelter in more official places,” Hawkins said in an interview. “We definitely see sex work and drug dealing happening in the backyards of some of these abandoned properties.”

Of the 124 boarded and vacant buildings dispersed across Salt Lake City, about 1 in 4 is in City Council District 5, according to data collected through August that was obtained through an open-records request. And the majority of those — 22 of the 34 — are in the Ballpark neighborhood, generally considered to be the area between 900 South and 2100 South, and from Interstate 15 to State Street.

City officials and police agree that abandoned buildings, when unsecured, can create problems in a community.

“If you have one that’s getting overgrown and whatnot, that changes it,” said Salt Lake City Police Detective Greg Wilking. “It tells people nobody’s paying attention to the property, and I can carry out criminal activity there.”

But city policy may actually be working against eliminating these crime magnets, thanks to a 7-year-old ordinance that prioritizes preserving abandoned buildings and makes it harder to demolish them.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A group of neighbors in the Ballpark neighborhood are concerned about the impact of boarded properties on crime in the community. City documents show there are more abandoned buildings in Salt Lake City's District 5 than in any other neighborhood, with 34 total. Some 22 of the 34 boarded buildings in District 5 are located in the Ballpark neighborhood with three recently being demolished. Pictured on Wed. Sept. 11, 2019, is 1159 South West Temple.

Ballpark blight

Three homes with peeling paint and high fences around them sit next to an empty field on West Temple near 1300 South. An old pizza box sits on the sidewalk outside the middle house, which is covered partially by bushes and trees. A “No Trespassing” sign marks the front door of the one to its right.

There was no indication of life inside the walls on a recent afternoon, but neighbors have photos showing the grounds riddled with garbage and needles on multiple occasions.

Ruth Haydon, who lives near Gonzol in one of the units at the Rowhaus complex of condos across from the abandoned buildings, said she’s seen squatters in them more than once. The first time was last July, when she looked out her front window and was shocked to make eye contact with someone inside the house across the street.

“I’m like, ‘What is going on here?’” she recalled. “‘There is not supposed to be anybody over there; those are abandoned.’”

Joshua Bell, principal of the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, said that from the windows of the nearby school’s multistory building, he’s witnessed people hopping over the fences and has even seen lights on in the deserted homes.

“I don’t know what they’re doing with the electrical meters and the utilities on the side of the building," he said, “but there’s something happening there, and I fear somebody’s going to get hurt one day.”

The Housing Authority of Salt Lake City has owned these houses since 2017, and “they were blighted when we purchased them,” said Dan Nackerman, the organization’s executive director.

The government agency, which owns dozens of properties around the city, already has the approximately $82,000 it needs for demolition and has long wanted to send in the bulldozers. But city ordinance prevents that by requiring a viable development plan before old structures can be razed.

The Housing Authority has had a plan to develop about 55 units of senior housing there, but the funding fell through and the houses have fallen into further disrepair.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A group of neighbors in the Ballpark neighborhood are concerned about the impact of boarded properties on crime in the community. City documents show there are more abandoned buildings in Salt Lake City's District 5 than in any other neighborhood, with 34 total. Some 22 of the 34 boarded buildings in District 5 are located in the Ballpark neighborhood with three recently being demolished. Pictured on Wed. Sept. 11, 2019, is 1159 South West Temple.

Fire hazards and ‘illicit drug activity’

Salt Lake City building officials get involved with abandoned properties as soon as they become unsecured, posing a nuisance risk and problems for fire and police, according to Orion Goff, building services director. About 75% of such properties in Salt Lake City today are residential homes, he said.

Owners are given the chance to board and secure the buildings themselves as the Housing Authority has opted to do. But the city has spent about $22,000 over the past year to board up properties where owners don’t step up.

City inspectors check in on every previously unsecured boarded building on their list every 30 days or so, Goff said.

“The biggest problem for us is especially in the winter, when people build fires to warm themselves inside those buildings, so they become a bad fire hazard,” he noted. “And then for the Police Department, it’s mostly illicit drug activity that takes place in those types of situations.”

Neighbors in the Rowhaus community are distressed in general about the number of boarded properties in their community but take issue particularly with the Housing Authority, which they feel should face more scrutiny over its management of the buildings because it receives federal taxpayer dollars.

As rental prices continue to rise in Salt Lake City, they’re especially frustrated that the authority, which promotes affordable housing, hasn’t been able to develop the land in a way that would help alleviate costs for cash-strapped residents.

“In this market,” said Patrick Quinn, a Realtor and president of the Rowhaus Homeowners’ Association, “there’s no need to try to figure out what to do with vacant land.”

In the face of what he sees as government inaction, Quinn said he has personally offered to put up a sign advertising the land for sale to private developers — and he believes it would sell “in a New York second.”

Nackerman said that won’t be necessary, though, since he’s “fairly confident” his agency will get funding for its senior housing project soon. The Housing Authority is applying again next month and hopes construction on the “high quality” development, including some affordable units, will be underway early next year.

Until then, he pushed back on the idea that the houses have created hot spots for illegal activity.

“To just assume that a squatter automatically causes crime is unfair,” he said. “Those are people trying to get out of the weather. They are not supposed to do that, and we do work with the police to remove them. But we think that’s a completely different issue than homicides and some of the serious crime that’s going on in Ballpark.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

‘Sugar Hole’ legacy

In the late 2000s, a developer bulldozed a series of eclectic but run-down shops lining the corner of 2100 South and Highland Drive with the goal of redeveloping the area. But he lost his funding in the economic downturn, and the land sat barren for years.

It was “disastrous” for the neighborhood, recalls Salt Lake City Council Chairman Charlie Luke.

Though now developed, the area once derided as the “Sugar Hole” continues to have an impact after the City Council, in direct response to that development, approved an ordinance in 2012 prohibiting the razing of a building until a property owner had a viable plan to replace it.

The new policy was meant to prevent a repeat of the Sugar Hole fiasco. But neighbors in the Ballpark community and the Housing Authority now argue the ordinance has gone too far in the other direction, making it difficult for property owners to raze buildings that pose a problem for neighborhoods, even when they want to.

The Housing Authority, for example, has been trying for two years to demolish the three Ballpark houses its owns. And Nackerman said that if not for the strict standards in the ordinance — which he characterized as “ridiculous” — those structures would have been razed “long ago.”

Calls for the City Council to reconsider the ordinance appear to have gotten through, Goff said, noting that the building department has written up some amendments with the council’s direction that are likely to be considered early next year.

The “crux of the debate," he added, will likely remain the same: Is it better to have an empty field in a neighborhood or a dilapidated building?

Hawkins, who lives around the corner from three abandoned properties, said “neither one is desirable.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ballpark Community Council Chairwoman Amy Hawkins cleaned out the backyard of a boarded up home located at Richards Street after she was alerted to criminal activity and squatters living on the property. Hawkins and her neighbors in the Ballpark area are concerned about the impact of boarded properties and crimes occurring in the community.

“But if you’re concerned about dark corners in your neighborhood where people can hide, in some cases I really would prefer a field to some of these derelict structures,” she said.

There is a little-known provision for razing a nuisance building or fire hazard without a feasible development plan, but it’s used rarely and hasn’t been triggered in this case.

Luke, who served on the council in 2012, acknowledged that the demolition ordinance “has had quite a few negative implications for the rest of the city” and said he welcomes a new conversation about the issue.

“Having that empty hole was definitely a problem for the [Sugar House] neighborhood, so I think we were definitely reacting to that situation,” he said. “But in no way would I ever say that what we did was perfect and if we see that we need to make adjustments, I’m more than willing to do that.”

Detriments to the ‘neighborhood psyche’

After a man was stabbed to death in the Maverik on 1300 South and Main Street in July, neighbors took action.

More than 60 people — including a handful of business owners, community council leaders and several state lawmakers — wrote a letter to the mayor asking for an interdepartmental meeting to explore nuisance ordinances and other ways to address crime.

In early September, the Ballpark and Central Ninth community councils hosted a community meeting, where residents talked about the fear they felt in their neighborhoods and came up with a list of policy changes they believe would boost safety. They included relaxing the demolition ordinance, additional lighting in the neighborhood and implementation of loitering- and camping-resistant landscapes on park strips.

Those and other ideas, they feel, have fallen on mostly deaf ears in City Hall.

“If four people were murdered in less than a year in an east-side neighborhood, would we get this level of nonresponse?” Hawkins asked. “I know that’s like a really easy question to raise, but it’s really shocking to reach out and say, ‘We would like help with this violent crime’ and to be told, ‘We’ll send a representative to your meeting who will listen.’ That’s not what we’re asking for.”

City officials are quick to point out that crime is down across the city, police patrols have increased, as have homeless resource outreach and partnerships with outside organizations to conduct needle and other public health cleanups in the Ballpark neighborhood.

They also point to their community outreach efforts.

“We’re going to every community council meeting,” said Matthew Rojas, a spokesman in the mayor’s office. “It may not be the mayor personally, but she can’t go to every council meeting every week.”

Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, who represents District 5 and is also running for city mayor, agrees that crime is down. But she said it’s important that residents’ concerns about violent crime not be dismissed.

“We cannot underestimate, and we should not underestimate, the impact of violent crimes in a neighborhood,” she said. “So while we could look at data and say, ‘Yeah, crime is on the decrease,’ when you have an increase in homicides, as we have in the Ballpark area over the last couple of years … that is so detrimental on the neighborhood psyche.”

Tim Cosgrove, a community liaison in the mayor’s office, said officials are working on a lighting master plan, and the city has secured a state grant for three new positions within the nearby Gail Miller Homeless Resource Center for outreach to the Ballpark neighborhood.

But residents say they’ll continue to push for more — until they feel safe enough in their neighborhood to open their doors for someone who might need help outside.

“What we have now is not working,” Hawkins said. “And we need new options.”