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Groups gear up to propose drastic changes to Pioneer Park

By Katie McKellar, KSL | Posted - Aug 20th, 2018 @ 7:33pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine if Pioneer Park, known as a gathering place for homeless and drug dealers, transformed into a bustling community haven, complete with eateries, art installations, a playground with a splash pad, and even a "dog cafe" — a dog park with a place for dog owners to eat.

Also imagine a new sports court, more Utah-native vegetation, galleries to celebrate the park's history, and a stage for large-scale outdoor concerts.

That's what downtown leaders are envisioning for the park in the heart of the Rio Grande neighborhood — a place that's rich with state and city history, but also marred by a troubled reputation as a hot spot for crime.

Pioneer Park has seen its fair share of attempts for revitalization. The latest attempt is already underway, after city and community partners pumped in nearly $1 million to build a new multipurpose field, complete with outdoor lighting and a surrounding walkway, to begin its transformation.

For now, that's all that's been funded and approved. But leaders from the Pioneer Park Coalition — a group that has long advocated for change in the park — the Downtown Community Council, Downtown Alliance and others have been huddling to create a proposal to go several steps further.

The aim, said David Garbett, Pioneer Park Coalition's executive director, is to bring visitors to the park night and day, from spring to winter, to help bring more activity to the park so people like drug dealers or other criminals stop seeing the park as a place to do business.

"We're not trying to get rid of people experiencing homelessness," Garbett said. Rather, he envisions the park to be a place for people from all walks of life to come and feel safe.

One model they hope to follow, Garbett said, is of Bryant Park in Manhattan, New York — a park that was also once infested with drugs before a private partnership helped transform it into one of the city's most popular parks.

It's too early to say how much it would cost — Garbett estimates it could be somewhere around $20 million, maybe more, maybe less. So to make the proposal a reality, the neighborhood would need to drum up a lot of cash from fundraising and public-private partnerships, as well as perhaps create a new entity to manage and program the park.

"For me, the key thing is, 'Don't give up on Pioneer Park,'" Garbett said Monday. "Expect more. Expect a really cool, effective space. There's no reason this shouldn't be a jewel for our city.

"And I feel like the burden is on the community and on us to step up and make this happen," Garbett added.

For Christian Harrison, chairman of the Downtown Community Council, the redevelopment of the park would be a "final push" of about a decade of conversations to create a new narrative for Pioneer Park.

"We don't want it to be another 10-year process," he said. "What we need to have happen is someone needs to come in, partner with the city and take up the cause to rally the troops and polish this gem."

Pioneer Park Coalition & Downtown Community Council (Photo: Aaron Thorup, Pioneer Park Coalition & Downtown Community Council)

Their plans are only in draft form, but have been based off of input from outreach the city conducted in 2015, when residents were asked what they'd like to see Pioneer Park become, Garbett said.

Next week, Pioneer Park Coalition and the Downtown Community Council expect to roll out renderings detailing their proposal at a public open house, scheduled for Aug. 30 at the Homewood Suites, 423 W. 300 South, between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

They hope Pioneer Park neighbors will come to give more feedback on the proposal, which Garbett said he hopes to take to the Salt Lake City Council and mayor this fall.

"We don't want to in any way pretend there isn't a lot of work to be done," Harrison acknowledged, "but we're very excited about where we are."

Garbett and Harrison said after getting input from neighbors and refining the proposal, they plan to reach out the community or local businesses who might be willing to infuse some revenue into the cause.

Garbett said it would also likely require ongoing revenue, so the proposal might require the city to increase its annual operating budget or even a new revenue stream from a neighborhood assessment if property owners in the area would be willing to pay a little more in property taxes.

The park would also likely need to be managed and programmed by a new entity made up of public and private stakeholders, Garbett said, floating the name "Friends of Pioneer Park."

Those are all details that will need to be sorted out down the road, Garbett said. Either way, Harrison said there's enough desire to bring the park to its full potential. He's confident a Pioneer Park will actually get a chance at a new life.

Jesse Dean, who was Downtown Alliance's director of urban development until he left last week to work for the Central Wasatch Commission, has also helped work on the park's proposal. He said Downtown Alliance is also committed to improving the park, so he sees the proposal as doable.

"This isn't a new concept, which is nice," Dean said, also pointing to Bryant Park. "I really think this is a process that can happen."

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