Chris Lee owns a house on Glen Arbor Drive, the "Christmas Street" cul-de-sac off 1500 East near 1700 South. The lot backs up to Emigration Creek. The banks are too steep to cross over to Blaine Avenue, but there, on the south side, flanking the creek bed, lies a narrow, wooded space about an acre in size. In 2012, when Lee began to take an interest in it, "littered" and "overgrown" would have described it accurately. But Lee saw beyond the litter of beer cans and construction debris. He saw an uncommon, natural landscape, surrounded by houses, worth reclaiming from decades of neglect.
Lee found that because it was city-owned land—technically speaking, a highly valued "riparian corridor"—there were grants available to improve it. He began knocking on the doors of his 46 neighbors. His ideas quickly took root. Eventually, the Blaine Hollow Restoration Group was chartered as a nonprofit corporation, and Lee submitted a grant application for $12,000. The short-term plan was to clean up the site and replace invasive species with native plants. Neighborhood residents committed to doing the work needed to make the Blaine Hollow Nature Preserve a reality. The stewardship project was welcomed by the city, and Lewis Kogan, Salt Lake City's Open Space Lands Program manager, enthusiastically supported the emergent, public-private partnership.
On several Saturdays in 2014, 42 neighborhood residents showed up to work on their newly designated nature preserve. When all was said and done, they had loaded 5 tons of debris into dump trucks provided by Kogan. City employees cut back weeds and overhanging trees, spot-sprayed herbicide and re-seeded with wheatgrass. "We made good progress," Lee says. "I felt wonderful." Volunteers then planted 298 pots of dogwood, chokecherry, willow and other native shrubs, but despite efforts by some in the neighborhood to hand-carry water to them, almost half died within a year. "Several residents who were monitoring the success of the 2014 plantings were extremely distressed when a number of plantings began to struggle in the heat of summer," Kogan's final report states. "They felt the city had installed plants without adequate support and was walking away." Dean Thomas, a longtime Blaine Avenue resident, was among the distressed. The dead plants were a predictable outcome of a flawed plan, he laments. "It ain't rocket science." Installation of an irrigation system should have preceded any planting.
Kogan "reworked the budget" in 2015 to pay for a basic sprinkler system along 600 feet of the Blaine Avenue curb. Because neither water nor electricity was available on the site, the installation cost about $10,000. A solar cell powered the timer that turned the sprinklers on and off. "Lewis Kogan worked his butt off to make the sprinklers happen," Lee says, but Thomas isn't so complimentary. He feels the city ignored his concerns about water early on and then rebuffed him when he volunteered to be responsible for the operation of the sprinklers.
City employees did a second planting of 135 shrubs in the fall of 2015. When I walked the site in August 2016, it looked to me like less than half of all the plants had survived. The ground was dry. Sunflowers were wilted. I asked a man walking his dog if the sprinklers worked. He said they did. He told me that on one occasion they were spraying water in the street and his call to the city brought an immediate response.
Kogan's final report concludes that the dying plants "caused much distress among members of the Blaine Hollow Restoration Group who had given substantial time and effort to plant the shrubs, and clearer and more frequent communication from the city through the summer of 2015 would have gone a long way in preventing this."
Thomas' distress has hardened into sharp-edged criticism. "I don't sugarcoat it," he says. "I speak my mind." He complains that Lee and Kogan ignore his emails. Lee says that the drumbeat of criticism has a negative effect: "It only takes one loud voice to take the wind out of the sails."
Nevertheless, it is apparent that the Blaine Hollow Nature Preserve has few detractors, if any. No one wants the project to fail. "I love this place," Thomas says. Kogan wrote about residents' change in attitude "from looking at the Emigration Creek greenway as a nuisance or a dumping ground, to taking a special pride in the stream and feeling a sense of ownership for stewarding the neighborhood's small section." Lee says: "It adds immensely to an urban neighborhood."
What appeals to me about the Blaine Hollow Nature Preserve is that it is traceable to one guy. Lee had an idea and was willing to spend his time and money to garner support for it. That the city government responded with resources is faith-promoting, but most impressive is the fact that neighborhood residents got their hands dirty. More than 700 hours of work have been invested so far. Walking away now would be senseless.
No one denies that there have been missteps along the way, but perseverating on them is a waste of time and energy. A better strategy is to focus on the future. Eroding stream banks, lack of sunshine in the understory, invasive elms—plenty of work remains.
Going forward, the Blaine Hollow Nature Preserve needs Lee's leadership, Kogan's resources and Thomas' support. As the landlord, Kogan's interests would be served by delegating maintenance tasks to willing neighbors like Thomas.
Lee remains optimistic. "We have done great stuff," he says. "The way I see it, in the long term, we're going to do just fine."