Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall pledges action on climate change during first state of the city address

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayor Erin Mendenhall gives her first State of the City Address on Monday, March 3, 2020.

The future of Salt Lake City “is green,” Mayor Erin Mendenhall said Monday during the first State of the City address of her new administration.

It has to be, she said, with scientists estimating the world has only 10 years to make “massive changes to our carbon emissions” in order to see only moderate impacts from global climate change.

“We have to do everything we can while we still have the ability to make an impact,” Mendenhall said.

During a 30-minute speech at Meadowlark Elementary School on Monday, the new mayor said she was ready to “kick things into high gear” and announced her administration’s progress on several promises around sustainability she’d made on the campaign trail.

Her initiative to plant 1,000 new trees on the west side during each year of her tenure will kick off on Earth Day this April, she said. And her vision that every ticket for an event in Salt Lake City serves also as a transit pass will start to take shape that same month in partnership with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 190th annual General Conference.

Mendenhall, a former city councilwoman with a background in air quality work, said her administration is also working on a draft ordinance for the City Council’s consideration that would require any new building funded with city money be all-electric and emission-free by 2023, and another that would require all new construction to be solar and electric-vehicle ready.

“Our city’s continued growth and economic development hinges on our willingness to make the environment our priority, to show that our residents’ ability to breathe clean air is something that we will defend with our actions and our investments,” she said, to a round of applause from the audience. “To protect the people who live in our city and to ensure our city’s ability to progress and thrive, I’m prepared to take some bold action.”

But the development of the inland port, a massive and controversial import and export hub planned for a large chunk of the city’s northwest side, has the potential to “negate our good work,” Mendenhall recognized.

While she said she sees the port as an inevitability, the mayor said she is working to mitigate its impacts on Salt Lake City residents, pointing to her work to negotiate what she characterized as “vast improvements” to the inland port statute.

Environmental activists remain skeptical of those amendments, which are currently making their way through the legislative process. But Mendenhall called the return of a measure of the city’s land use authority and of 25% of the city’s future property tax dollars a “big win” that would ensure current taxpayers don’t shoulder the cost of city services to the inland port area.

Despite those changes, Mendenhall said there are “still environmental assurances we must have in order for the development of this port to be acceptable” and said she would continue seeking those assurances through a contract that would guarantee sustainable development.

Deeda Seed, an anti-port campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, criticized Mendenhall’s comments about sustainability and the inland port on Twitter Monday night, arguing that the bill the mayor helped negotiate will make many of those promises “impossible.”

“Just another example of words without substance,” Seed wrote.

While much of Mendenhall’s speech focused on sustainability, the new mayor also provided an update on another major initiative she ran on as a candidate: efforts to establish a “tech ecosystem” Salt Lake City.

She said the city’s economic development department will, pending council approval, expand to include a new employee who will be asked to coordinate and drive development and redevelopment strategies with tech companies. The city is also working to define a biotech corridor running along 300 West from Warm Springs to The Gateway.

“By designating an intentional space within our city, we can achieve our vision of supporting a local industry that helps grow our economy, creates excellent opportunities for our workforce, and cultivates the creative energy and advancements necessary to produce modern medical solutions for an evolving landscape of needs,” she said.

During her speech, the mayor also addressed issues around affordable housing and homelessness, which many advocates see as inherently linked, with rising rents contributing to the number of people at risk of becoming unsheltered.

Mendenhall said the city plans to add more than 2,100 housing units in the next year that are affordable to people at less than 100% of the area’s median income. The city also plans to consider changes to its zoning ordinances — including single-room occupancy regulations and density requirements — to support the construction of affordable housing, she said.

“The demand for housing that is affordable for individuals and families at all income levels is greater than our current pace and it’s time to approach this problem with even more focus and creativity,” Mendenhall argued.

On the homeless front, she said the Salt Lake City area is in a “period of significant transition,” with the demolition of The Road Home’s old downtown shelter in the Rio Grande area and the opening of three new resource centers, two in Salt Lake City, to replace it.

To deal with concerns about a lack of capacity in those smaller shelters, which opened as the nights began growing longer and colder, the city administration led out on the opening earlier this year of a temporary emergency shelter in Sugar House. That facility will be open only until April 15 and is seen as a stopgap measure, not a permanent solution.

Now, Mendenhall said, it’s time to focus on the long term “by getting strategic about prevention, increasing our capabilities to help divert people quickly out of shelter into safe housing and supporting those who find themselves chronically homeless with the solutions they need.”

In the next year, she said the city would work on creating ongoing feedback and engagement with people experiencing homelessness and would explore creative solutions, like using managed tiny home communities, to support the chronically unsheltered.

While some of Mendenhall’s proposals will require council approval, Salt Lake City Council Chairman Chris Wharton said he doesn’t anticipate they will run into much resistance from the legislative body, noting an increased collaboration between that body and the administration.

“There’s a lot of new proposals that we’re really excited to receive as the council, and I think the speech really echoes the collaboration we’ve been wanting to see between the council and the mayor so we’re very pleased,” he said, though he noted that the council will want to see more details. “Overall, these [ideas] represent shared values."