- Rachel Piper
Tourist boards in big cities have been known to draw attention to their famous footpaths with live camera feeds showcasing big-draw locales like Times Square in New York City or New Orleans’ raucous Bourbon Street. Now, Salt Lake City’s nonprofit Downtown Alliance is experimenting with its own street cam, viewable 24 hours a day on the DA website, to highlight what’s happening on a block of Main Street that, in years past, has generally been home to for-lease signs and loitering panhandlers.
Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, says that the camera’s placement at 250 S. Main is about tourism, citing dynamic growth in downtown businesses and the importance of the shady tree-lined 200 South block as a pedestrian thoroughfare. Mathis says this camera is a pilot for a program they may like to expand elsewhere downtown as a way to show visitors the hustle and bustle of Salt Lake City’s downtown.
“The primary reason [for the camera] is to let people know about the great things happening on Main Street,” Mathis says. “In addition to that, if it helps prevent any illegal activity, that’s not a bad thing—but that would be the icing on the cake.”
The Downtown Alliance represents 2,500 businesses and property owners in the Central Business District and has long been shining a light on downtown, helping it rise above challenges such as construction, a stumbling economy and the street kids and sometimes-aggressive panhandlers who have been a major concern for current and prospective downtown business owners.
Now, since the City Creek shopping center opened in March on the north end of Main Street, a number of businesses have begun popping up in the orbit of the mega-mall. The alliance expects more than a dozen new shops and restaurants to open in the downtown area in the coming weeks, including a Thai restaurant in Gallivan Plaza and Co2 Café along 300 South.
In the meantime, the alliance has decided to experiment with the new street camera, which the group received as a donation from a security company. The camera provides a 180-degree view along the tree-shaded west side of Main Street between 300 South and 200 South. The alliance is still working out technical issues, but expects the camera to soon be operational and providing a 24-hour live feed that people can view on DowntownSLC.org.
Mathis says the alliance plans to keep recordings for 30 days and would provide them to law enforcement if a crime were committed. He says there will be signs on the street indicating to pedestrians that the section of the street is being filmed. As the feed is available for everyone—not just law enforcement—to view, Mathis doesn’t believe the camera should cause any civil-liberty concerns.
In 2010, the Downtown Alliance backed an ordinance that would have toughened the restrictions on panhandlers, prohibiting them from panhandling near outdoor cafes, ATMs and public-transit stops or at night. The ordinance was eventually dropped.
Salt Lake City civil-rights attorney Brian Barnard, who has represented panhandlers in the past, muses that a good sign for the area might be “Be careful where you urinate; you may be on camera.”
While he says there is nothing illegal about the camera placement, he does question whether its primary purpose is really to highlight an attractive slice of downtown.
“Are they in fact doing it for that purpose, or are they becoming vigilantes?” Barnard asks. “And do we want the Downtown Alliance to become vigilantes?”
Salt Lake City Police Department spokeswoman Lara Jones says that the department is interested to see what might come of the camera’s placement, but adds that since the department restructured patrols in April 2011 to allow two bike patrols to focus just on calls for service in the downtown central business district, there have been fewer incidences along Main Street than in previous years.
“Through their proactive efforts, they have driven down calls for service in the CBD,” Jones writes via e-mail. “[This] doesn’t necessarily mean less crime. But the totality of efforts seems to be having a positive net effect.”
Christian Harrison, chairman of the Downtown Community Council, says he is aware of the problems the block has faced and recognizes that for many of the elderly residents of the American Towers condos on that block, feeling safe and comfortable while walking outside their homes is an ongoing concern.
Harrison sees the camera as something that could help increase comfort and safety while avoiding the stigma of a surveillance culture, since the camera is maintained by the Downtown Alliance. He likens it to the manner in which cameras helped drive the criminal element out of Pioneer Park but did so in a way that was respectful of privacy, since the cameras are reviewed only in incidences of reported crimes.
“We now have a couple cameras in town that have a completely different approach to policing than what we would see with the English-style closed-circuit camera invasion that gives me the creeps,” Harrison says of the prevalence of cameras in England. “But the way the Salt Lake City Police Department and the way the Downtown Alliance have engaged this very tricky issue is both enlightened and effectual.”
Salt Lake City Councilman Luke Garrott, whose District 4 includes downtown, says the alliance is totally within its legal rights to put the camera up. He just hopes that there is a feedback mechanism associated with it so that those who live, work and hang out downtown can voice their opinion of the eye on the street.
“If it helps people feel safer, that’s great,” Garrott says. “But I certainly hope our city doesn’t turn into one where it feels like it needs to be constantly surveilled to feel safer.”