SALT LAKE CITY — Brian Tonetti was working on an assignment about creeks with some of his University of Utah classmates seven years ago when they stumbled upon something rather fascinating about three of the creeks in Salt Lake County.
The Emigration, Parley's and Red Butte creeks merged together as one as they flowed into the Jordan River. When they visited the site, they found that the unique geographic feature was covered by a parking lot sandwiched between an auto shop and a partially burnt home. It had been removed from the public eye for at least a century.
"The area had been paved over with a dead-end segment of 1300 South — trash, weeds and encroachments abound," he said, reflecting on that initial visit.
Still, they imagined, what if that parking lot was a natural open space or even a park instead? It's something that would improve the region's ecosystem and be something the community could be proud of. So they returned to the classroom and began sketching up plans to remove the lot and bring the confluence to its former glory.
The idea they envisioned back then officially became reality Wednesday. Tonetti joined Salt Lake City officials in a celebration of the completion of the Three Creeks Confluence, a new park in the city's Glendale neighborhood across from the Jordan River Parkway. It's an area where people can fish, play or simply just sit and look at the natural surroundings. It's also a new piece in an ongoing effort to turn the Jordan River Parkway into Salt Lake City's own riverwalk.
City officials celebrated the completion by planting native vegetation along the creekside under one of the two bridges added as a part of the project. The plants were the final touch in an effort to restore what originally existed above and around it prior to the construction.
"We buried these creeks 100 years ago ... but this is one of the most critical confluences," said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, during a ceremony by the bed of the creeks Wednesday. "They were encased in cement coffins under the ground and now we're opening them up."
Turning a parking lot into a creek
The story of how Three Creeks Confluence Park came together begins all the way back with that assignment in 2014.
University of Utah professor Stephen Goldsmith had his students, including Tonetti, work on an assignment about "daylighting," which is the process of reopening natural waterways that are covered by all sorts of human development. Goldsmith actually helped daylight a portion of City Creek as a part of the City Creek Park development in the 1990s.
As a part of the class assignment, the students came up with a 100-year plan to make some 21 miles of buried creeks in Salt Lake County visible again. They picked the confluence in Glendale as their centerpiece idea.
The project didn't remain in the classroom. Tonetti co-founded the Seven Canyons Trust, which is a conservation nonprofit organization he still oversees as executive director to this day. In 2015, they also brought their key idea and "primitive sketches" to Kyle LaMalfa, Mendenhall's husband, who was a Salt Lake City councilman at the time.
Looking back at now, Tonetti jokes they were naive in thinking the city would just go ahead and work on the project.
"We had this crazy, crazy ambitious idea of quite literally turning this parking lot into a creek," he said. "It sounds crazy, right? I think as students we had the freedom to kind of present those ambitious projects — there's nothing that can happen to us. ... So I think that naiveté as students really benefited us in presenting those ideas."
It helped that LaMalfa fell in love with the idea. He helped the project go from a classwork assignment to an item in the city's future plans, starting from initial funding to review the feasibility of daylighting the confluence and ending with the completed park even after he left office. It wasn't until earlier this year that crews removed the overhead concrete that kept the unique confluence hidden from view for at least a century.
The idea blossomed beyond making the creek water visible again.
The final park, which visitors can now enjoy, features plenty of human-nature interaction. There are places to sit and view nature or fish. There is a play place with logs children can jump on made from some of the old Salt Lake City Cemetary trees lost during last year's windstorm. One bridge connects 900 West with the Jordan River Parkway, while another leads to an area where people can get close to river and creekwater.
This is the keystone in the gem of all of (the parks in the area) but we're building something that's more than a river walk. It's a place to enjoy nature and it's environmental justice, too.
–Kyle LaMalfa, former Salt Lake City councilmember
There are also a pair of steel-cut panel art installations that tie in the community with the creeks and river that run through it. Felicia Baca, the director of the Salt Lake City Arts Council, said they received design ideas from 160 artists.
"Many of the artists we asked to demonstrate a connection to the Glendale neighborhood and we received a strong response from that," she said. "We also asked that the designs they submitted be one of a kind and specific to this area."
In the end, 20 artists were featured in the artwork now on display.
LaMalfa also views the new park as another stop on an emerging riverwalk, sort of like what you can find in Chicago, San Antonio or Portland, Oregon. But what makes Salt Lake City's riverwalk different is that it's turning into one filled with several parks in a row all along the river, especially from the Rose Park Golf Course to the Glendale Golf Course.
"We've got something they can't even touch, which is a string of nature along our river corridor. It's places where you can stop for a moment and forget that you're in a city," he said. "This is the keystone in the gem of all of (the parks in the area) but we're building something that's more than a riverwalk. It's a place to enjoy nature and it's environmental justice, too."
Seven Canyons Trust members, as well as city and community organizers, plan to further celebrate the new park with an official opening festivity Friday evening. The event will feature food trucks and live music in addition to outdoor activities by the confluence. The event is free to attend.
Standing next to the exposed creek, Tonetti said it was "overwhelming" to see something he envisioned seven years ago finally become reality; however, he doesn't believe he'll really feel the weight of its reality until Friday's event.
"We're excited to really celebrate the project with the community," he said. "That, I think, will be the culmination of those seven years."
While he plans to celebrate this week, he also views the confluence as just the beginning of daylighting in Salt Lake County.
What's next for daylighting and parks in Salt Lake County
Seven Canyons Trust is currently working with Salt Lake City officials to look into the feasibility of daylighting a section of City Creek near the city's upcoming Folsom Trail and Jordan River Parkway. The trail itself is expected to open by the end of the year.
The ultimate goal, however, is to open back up all 21 miles of creek buried by human development. It's a task that they envision would take about a century to accomplish. Their hope is now that communities can see the finished product of one project, they'll support similar projects in the future.
"I think that was the thought all along in highlighting the Three Creeks Confluence as the demonstration project for stream daylighting," he said. "(We believed) that it would cultivate support, raise awareness and ultimately lead to further projects upstream and the uncovering of those 21 miles of covered creek over the next 100 years."
The Three Creek Confluence Park isn't expected to be the final project along the Jordan River in the future. For example, Mendenhall announced earlier this year a plan to turn the city's abandoned waterpark into a new regional park just a few blocks south of the confluence.
Kristin Riker, the director of Salt Lake City Public Lands, said new parks won't just have recreational benefits but also benefits for the community nearby.
"The Jordan River and its parks along the waterway (have) great potential to better serve our neighbors all along this Jordan River corridor," she said. "I am so excited for future projects similar to this along the Jordan River, improving the trail and parks along this so that we can improve access to the river and beautify the river so people feel safe and invited and welcomed here along the Jordan River."