May 10, 2018

A river unites us

By Nigel Swaby

Rose Park, Glendale, Poplar Grove. When one thinks of the west side of Salt Lake City, these neighborhoods immediately come to mind. Residents of the neighborhoods loyally identify with these names. We are proud of these names.

About 25 years ago, a group of community and business leaders formed a nonprofit organization to help promote positive change in west-side neighborhoods. The first focal point was the Rancho Lanes bowling alley. Once a shining attraction, it had fallen into disrepair and was a hangout for drug dealers and other criminals. Dan Stanger of Prowswood Management made arrangements to bring the property out of bankruptcy and renovate it.

A May 29, 1992, Deseret News article described the scenario:

“Prowswood took over the bowling alley and spent a quarter-million dollars to keep the 32-year-old business in operation. It cleaned up the business, painted it, installed awnings, patched the roof, repaved the parking lot and pulled out the outdated swimming pool, then in conjunction with the Salt Lake Police Department opened a neighborhood police station in the alley's store front.”

Soon after that project was completed, the Northwest Merchants Association was formed with the goal of promoting commerce along the North Temple corridor. Two years later, it was announced Salt Lake City would host the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. This announcement would bring a lot of change to the city, including major freeway expansion and a light-rail system.

The Northwest Merchants Association became the Westside Business Alliance, a group determined to fight for the survival of North Temple businesses and for a seat at the table for the installation of the “Green Line,” the light-rail TRAX train that travels down North Temple and on to the airport.

It was about this time a study was done by the alliance to choose a name to describe the “west side.” Study respondents would repeatedly mention the Jordan River, which winds through our western neighborhoods on its way to the Great Salt Lake.

So, about 15 years ago, the Westside Business Alliance became the River District Business Alliance.

The river helped shape our neighborhoods. Salt Lake City’s Westside Master Plan, adopted in 2014, notes the Jordan River slowed the development of these communities:

“Low-lying lands along the river were prone to flooding, making agricultural activity difficult. The Jordan River was also a sewer and refuse dump for the growing city in the mid-1800s, a common usage for rivers at the time. This treatment resulted in conditions — odors, diseases and pollution — that made it an unlikely place for residential development.”

A major conclusion from the city’s Master Plan was support for connectivity from the west to the east. The Master Plan notes:

“One of the most common issues brought up in community meetings was the lack of connectivity between the Westside and the rest of the city. This isolation results from the historical development of the city and railroads dating back to the late 1800s.”

When the railroad came to Salt Lake City, west side neighborhoods were divided from the rest of Salt Lake City by tracks, which spurred more industrial and commercial construction than residential. The erection of a freeway system in the ‘50s, and later in the ‘80s, would cement the borders separating the rest of the city. Ironically, I-215 would make these neighborhoods more accessible via auto than almost any other neighborhoods in town.

Vehicle corridors 900 West, Redwood Road, I-15 and I-215 provide remarkable north-south connectivity, but west-east travel is restricted because inconsistent rail traffic makes taking any route other than North Temple or 1300 South a gamble when you’re short on time.

However, a lot has changed over the last 15 years, and west Salt Lake City is primed for real, permanent development and growth. It will take a lot of business investment and community input to steer this growth in ways that truly benefit the neighborhoods.

The development of the Folsom Corridor Trail is a key catalytic project to provide a direct route west from downtown Salt Lake by foot and bicycle. It will create housing, entertainment and shopping options like we’ve never seen before. Daylighting of City Creek, which currently flows to the Jordan River in an underground concrete culvert, will provide an additional river through our neighborhoods.

The business vehicle most cities have to serve such a purpose is a chamber of commerce. Chambers are structured in a way to benefit their members while still serving their overall mission of expanding the prosperity of their communities. In January 2018, the River District Business Alliance voted to become the River District Chamber.

Last summer new leadership was recruited to better reflect the makeup of the business community the River District serves. People like Lucy Cardenas of Red Iguana and Justin Belliveau, who’s opening a brewery on 800 West this year, joined the board. Relationships with community media like The West View and KRCL radio have been developed. And we’re happy to be bringing the Westside Music Arts and Food Festival back for its second year this June as part of the Restore North Temple initiative.

You might be wondering why we kept the name River District when many people remain loyal to their community names? If you recall, the study participants from years ago saw the Jordan River as the common tie binding these west side neighborhoods. Another river runs through these neighborhoods right now, it’s just not visible. It will be revealed as the Folsom Corridor project continues to develop.

As you read through the history of Salt Lake’s west side, you can see it has been dumped in and isolated from the rest of the city. With the city expanding westward, these neighborhoods are becoming crucial to Salt Lake’s future. Like City Creek flowing underground, the hidden gem of the west side is ready to be exposed and that’s why we’re the River District Chamber.

Find us on Facebook at River District Chamber and online at www.riverdistrictchamber.com.

Key Chamber accomplishments

  1. Recruited a new board and elected new leadership.
  2. Fought for a place at the table for Operation Rio Grande.
  3. Advocated for a balance of affordable housing projects in our neighborhoods.
  4. Advocated for city wide equity in accessory dwelling unit ordinance.
  5. Launched first Capitol Day during 2018 Legislative session.
  6. Formed key media relationships with The West View and KRCL.
  7. Developed new membership structure and benefit program.