Exiting TRAX at Harvey Milk Boulevard and 200 W, you might notice the newly opened Spy Hop Youth Media Arts Center, the burned out shell of Henrie’s Dry Cleaners, Blue Copper Coffee Room and a heck of a lot of construction. What’s less apparent is the work and organizing by residents and businesses that have – and will continue to – define the area.
The neighborhood surrounding the stop is squeezed east of the Granary, south of Downtown, west of Liberty Wells, and north of Ballpark; 10 years ago your phone might have tagged you in “The People’s Freeway.” Since 2013, the area’s actual residents have called it Central Ninth.
“It’s a geographical Bermuda triangle,” said Jesse Hulse, co-founder with Jason Foster of Atlas Architects. “It surprised me how off-the-radar this area was for years, even today,” Foster added. Since the early 2000s, what the two architects have recognized here is creative opportunity, access to transit and proximity to downtown: “stuff was rough, but the bones were good.”
By 2013, Hulse and Foster had moved their architecture firm from downtown Salt Lake to the heart of Central Ninth, convincing Blue Copper to join them. It was both good business and a community-minded gesture. “If we brought a good quality coffee shop,” said Hulse, “it would draw people.”
The patio in front of the coffee shop, Foster continued, “was symbolically important to the publicness of [our mission]. We had to set a tone with the first building.” They chose the area for its potential to become the kind of place they wanted to work – a place that wasn’t generic and had shops, walkways and gathering spaces that appealed to neighborhood residents as well as people from a wider area.
Part of their vision involved transforming dangerous alleyways and derelict property and addressing drug peddling and nefarious activity, winning the architects allies in the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City (RDA) and among the neighborhood’s existing residents.
Kort Utley, RDA Senior Project Manager, wrote, “Central Ninth was created and cultivated by residents and area business owners. These people continue to be the neighborhood champions.” However, he and the RDA deserve credit for significant changes to the area, including the 2005 900 S TRAX Station opening, to which the RDA contributed $1.2 million.
Making Central Ninth more pedestrian-friendly and walkable has been a longtime RDA goal, because when “it’s safe, convenient, and more comfortable to get around as a pedestrian, people walk more,” Utley explained, “and that fosters a greater sense of community.”
Elke Phillips, who moved to the area in 2004, also notices the positive difference more passersby make on her block. Indeed, it was part of what initially drew her to the area. Philips previously lived in West Valley and Salt Lake proper before moving to Central Ninth.
She loved the home she found – a Victorian that hadn’t been updated – but what really moved her to buy was the neighbor who noticed her looking and came to greet her. “I realized someone cared,” Phillips said. From the start, Phillips’ experience with the neighborhood was positive. “People were friendly. Everybody would sit outside and get together as a front porch community.”
Continuing her commitment to her neighborhood, Phillips got involved in the Ballpark Community Council, which was then the closest Community Council for the area. She remembers the impact of the RDA – especially Ashley Easterling, an RDA community organizer at the time – and specific projects responding to the needs of her immediate area. “Ballpark has some issues that are different than ours, so it was nice to have these businesses involved. They care about resident issues here,” Phillips said.
With business and resident engagement, Central Ninth formed its own Community Council in 2018, gaining autonomy as a result of its independent identity. The Ballpark and Central Ninth Community Councils still work together at times, but becoming a neighborhood with its own name and its own Community Council gave Central Ninth residents more power to effect change, formalizing what might have otherwise been sidewalk or front porch conversations.
The Central Ninth Community Council gives residents input on everything from new development to city planning. Paul Johnson, Central Ninth resident since 2005 and current Community Council Chairperson, shared, “My biggest concerns for our neighborhood are the large numbers of rentals coming in. Rentals do play a big role in the community and bring great energy and life to the neighborhood, but the ability to put down roots is very important to our long term prosperity.”
Johnson reports that the Central Ninth Community Council’s current main priority is a streetscape redesign of 900 South between 300 West and West Temple. The $7 million project will add trees and green space, extend sidewalks and bike lanes and improve parking.
Representing the RDA’s rationale for the project at the March 1 Central Ninth Community Council meeting, Utley recalled years of outreach asking residents: “What do you want in your neighborhood?” The answer (and basis for the 900 South redesign) has been consistent: slower traffic, tighter streets, and beautified landscaping.
Emily Sherman, a Blue Copper barista since 2017, sees a downside to the continuing development and construction. “There’s a loss of character with the apartments where the community garden was. We don’t see the same regulars and sense of community.”
Newer residents like Amanda Ouellette, who’s rented in Central Ninth for two years, appreciate the people and businesses in the area, but do recognize one downside – specifically, “lots of people who don’t live here parking.” Still, she plans to stay put, even as new developments promise a growing stream of visitors.
One of those visitors is Cory Bernardo, who highlights the people he meets there as the core of what makes Central Ninth a distinct neighborhood. “People talk to you, they’re nice,” said Bernardo. "That’s what makes a neighborhood to me: the people.”