Residents in Salt Lake City’s Ballpark community were celebrating Thursday after a row of three blighted houses that neighbors say had become magnets for criminal activity were finally razed.

It was a hard-won victory but a triumph nevertheless in an area that has a disproportionately high number of boarded and vacant buildings but has had a hard time addressing them thanks to a city ordinance that prioritizes preserving such structures.

Ballpark Community Council Chairwoman Amy Hawkins, who watched as the claw began tearing down the buildings, said it was “wonderful” to see an “actual, physical change happening” in the neighborhood.

“I am very enthusiastic about the idea of broken-down, derelict homes being turned into spaces where people can actually live,” she said. “We’re in a housing crisis and these structures are not helping the problem — they’re actively hurting it. Any time there’s a place in the neighborhood that’s zoned to be housing that’s taken up by a broken-down structure people are breaking into, that’s a negative.”

The Housing Authority of Salt Lake City, which has owned these houses on West Temple near 1300 South since 2017, has long wanted to send in the bulldozers.

But the agency, which owns dozens of properties around the city, struggled to obtain financing for the 55-unit apartment complex envisioned for the site. Without a viable development plan, city code prevented their demolition.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Dan Nackerman, executive director of the authority, said the organization had applied for state financing on four separate occasions but that the funding never came through. In the meantime, the houses fell into further disrepair — even though the authority had the approximately $82,000 it needed for demolition — and neighbors became more and more frustrated.

“The city has some very complicated ordinance-related tasks that you have to go through,” Nackerman said. But after securing a performance bond, he was finally able to “spring the demolition permit” late last month.

Thursday’s demolition was the first step for the four-story apartment complex, which is expected to be completed in April 2021 and will have a mix of affordable and market-rate units marketed primarily to seniors and members of the workforce. The Housing Authority is also planning a partnership with the Utah Pride Center in an effort to attract members of the LGBTQ population, who Nackerman said have faced challenges finding housing in the past.

“We’re going to work hand in hand with them to kind of affirmatively market to the LGBTQ+ community just because we know it’s a discriminatory issue that we can probably help solve,” he said.

Patrick Quinn, a Realtor president of the Rowhaus Homeowners’ Association, a complex of condos across from the vacant buildings, told The Salt Lake Tribune in an interview that he was happy to see the structures demolished.

(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.
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“Blighted homes are never a good thing and bring property values down and add crime,” he said.

But Quinn noted that he and other neighbors in the immediate vicinity of the future complex are opposed to the planned development that will replace them. Among their concerns are density, a lack of parking in an area flooded by baseball fans during the Bees’ season and a general feeling of mistrust toward the Housing Authority borne out of more than two years of false starts.

“It’s atrocious," Quinn said. “We just would ask that the city do a better job of having density evenly spread so it actually works and then doesn’t harm people that actually live in the community.”

Nackerman acknowledged some concerns among residents but said the Housing Authority has been in “constant communication” with community members to address those.

“By far many neighbors, many more neighbors than not, have supported this beautiful new complex,” he added.

Hawkins said she’s been asked point-blank by some neighbors in the area what benefit the apartment complex will have on the community. Her answer, she said, always goes back to affordable housing.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ballpark Community Council Chair Amy Hawkins cleaned out the back yard 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 occuring in the community.

“We need to be able to see the connection between people who don’t have a place to live and putting up additional housing,” she said. “It might not feel like those things are connected all the time but I’m afraid they are.”

By Salt Lake City’s own estimates, it lacks about 7,500 affordable units.

Even as neighbors and the Housing Authority celebrated the demolition of these three houses on Thursday, they said their work isn’t done.

Both Hawkins and Nackerman pledged to continue advocating for changes to the demolition ordinance that gave them so much trouble, in hopes that it could make it easier for both the Ballpark neighborhood and other Salt Lake City communities to address the problems that come along with blighted buildings in the future.

“Our district still has a disproportionate number of abandoned and boarded structures and those shouldn’t just stay put,” Hawkins said. “We should be doing what we can to either repair what’s there or take it down and put up places that people can occupy. They are an active blight upon our neighborhood; they’re not neutral.”

Lindsey Nikola, a spokeswoman with the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office, said the administration and council are actively working on changes to the demolition ordinance. The council is expected to consider those amendments in the next few months.