West Side Story -- Part II | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

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West Side Story -- Part II

Population growth has shifted from East to West, meaning big changes for a once ignored community.

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Unga Kioa knows about the many issues affecting Salt Lake City’s West Side residents.

As a member of that community, he shares the concerns of those who worry how a growing population changes quality of life. He worries about the impact the increasing population has on parking, crime rates and neighborhood amenities and services. He worries about the schools and other institutions being able to cope with all the diverse new people living on the West Side. But as a leader in Salt Lake City’s Polynesian community, he also sees other issues.

Kioa sees the age-old problem faced by most immigrant groups who have come to this country. He sees people who are working hard to succeed in their new home, while trying to understand the laws, customs and politics of a new and different culture. To help address some of the issues affecting West Side neighborhoods, and to help the Polynesian community with the difficult process of assimilation, Kioa got involved with the Multi-Ethnic Advisory Committee.

After 30 years of economic decline and stagnant population numbers, the West Side of Salt Lake City is experiencing a sudden population boom. The new residents are largely Hispanic and Polynesian, but there are also several other distinct ethnic groups, including immigrants from Africa and Asia and economic and political refugees from war-torn Bosnia and the former Soviet Union. Along with the increase in population, there is a corresponding increase in new housing construction and a growing ethnic business community providing services and products to the new residents.

Though no one can be sure until 2000 census data is released, it is widely believed that the ethnic population on the West Side has surpassed that of the former white majority. If that is true, it will mean a large and diverse ethnic community on the city’s West Side for the first time in Salt Lake City history.

Not only does the population growth have broad economic, social and political implications for those living in the neighborhoods, but it also has direct implications for elected officials and the distribution of political power throughout the city, county and state. When the Census Bureau releases its data near the end of the year, the real impact of West Side population growth will start to be noticed by everyone.

Generally speaking, the “West Side” is the area from North Temple to 2100 South, and from I-15 to the western city limits. There are two loosely defined neighborhoods represented by two separate community councils. Poplar Grove is defined as the area from North Temple to the railroad tracks at 950 South, and from 900 West to Redwood Road. Glendale runs from 950 South to 2100 South, and from 900 West to Redwood Road. But there are also several isolated population pockets scattered along both sides of the freeway and railroad tracks.

Most longtime residents believe the decline on the West Side started when the interstate highway system cut through the Salt Lake Valley. In the 1960s, the I-15 leg of the interstate separated the West Side from the downtown business district, and the I-80 leg cut once homogenous neighborhoods into several isolated pieces.

With the West Side hidden from the rest of the city, the area went into a slow 30-year decline. Local businesses that had been serving the residents for years started to close, and housing started to deteriorate. But in the early 1990s, there was a change in the national economy that led to concomitant changes in the city’s West Side neighborhoods.

Jobs became plentiful, and more people than ever were working. After years of being ignored and neglected, the housing in the area became some of the most affordable housing in the city, and the population on the West Side started to grow. Many of the new residents were members of ethnic groups who were also first-time homebuyers.

The growing ethnic population had also sparked a market for goods and services familiar to the new residents. Ethnic businesses began to open in the small commercial areas scattered around the community. Long-neglected storefronts along the main thoroughfares, and in a small commercial area known as the Glendale Plaza, began to offer a wide range of services to the residents. Often the owners of the new businesses would advertise in the language spoken by the people they wanted to attract.

The increasing population has helped make the problems that have existed in West Side neighborhoods for years more apparent. Issues such as a lack of curb-and-gutter, adequate storm drainage, street lighting, parks and recreation, and an increasing crime rate became worse, just as the demand for safe neighborhoods and better community facilities increased. Additionally, some longtime residents uncomfortable with the changes in the neighborhood became more vocal, and the tension between groups increased. The issues became a source of intense internal debate among neighborhood residents.

Then in the mid-1990s, the event that separated the West Side from the rest of the city came back to haunt the community. Freeway construction returned to the neighborhood with a vengeance.

The reconstruction of I-15 and I-80 in the heart of the city is again causing problems for West Side residents. As commuter and heavy truck traffic have been forced to find alternative routes into the city, the long-neglected and aging neighborhood streets, sewer lines and water lines are crumbling under the pressure. In the past few months, there have been major breaks in water lines along heavily traveled California Avenue. But the problems have also helped focus attention on longstanding socio-political concerns.

State Rep. Fred Fife, who represents most of the southwest side of the city, says the new round of construction is further isolating the West Side’s growing population from the rest of the city. “Freeway construction is having a dramatic affect on the community,” Fife says, “especially along the major thoroughfares like 400 South, 800 South and California Avenue.”

Fife believes the construction has made it harder for residents to get into the downtown area, because construction on the overpasses has restricted many of the roads residents were using. That, in turn, has helped point out the need for more retail and commercial services closer to West Side residents.

Population growth has also created confusion for elected officials who are no longer sure which groups and individuals speak for the new ethnic residents. As ethnic communities have become larger, the traditional neighborhood leadership patterns have changed. The old centers of power, such as the mostly white Mormon wards and neighborhood councils, have begun to lose support from residents and influence with elected officials. At the same time, new members of the community are struggling to be included in debates over the important neighborhood issues.

Kioa believes educating newcomers about the political process is the most important issue on the West Side. He supported the goals of the Multi-Ethnic Advisory Committee to create community unity and promote participation in the political process.

“To me, that’s the No. 1 issue,” Kioa says. “Polynesians want to get involved in the political process, but they’re not sure how groups like the community councils relate to them.”

The Multi-Ethnic Advisory Committee was started to help members of the West Side’s growing ethnic community learn about the political process and bring an ethnic voice to debates over community issues. Most members of the committee represent the diverse ethnic groups. Kioa says the issues affecting the Polynesian community are similar to the issues affecting other ethnic groups.

“The issues that we’re dealing with are no different than the issues affecting the Hispanic community,” he says, “We’re concerned about economic development, crime and keeping the neighborhood clean just like everyone else.”

Economic development issues have recently focused attention on the changes in West Side neighborhoods. They would probably have continued as a subject for neighborhood debate if not for the recent controversy over a development called the Grand Mall.

The Grand Mall was a regional shopping center proposed for construction southwest of the Salt Lake City International Airport. It mostly would have included discount shopping and factory outlet stores. The developers made the initial proposal during former Mayor Deedee Corradini’s administration. As part of their lobbying efforts, developers showed the proposal to members of the West Side community councils. Council members supported the project as an opportunity for greatly needed retail and potential jobs for residents.

The state Legislature also got involved in the development plan when lawmakers passed a tax-supported incentive package that included subsidies to the mall developers and improvements to the highway interchange at 5600 West to increase mall access.

But when Rocky Anderson was elected mayor, he made it clear that he had a different vision for West Side economic development. He was opposed to the type of large mall the developers were proposing. Anderson believes in a development model that emphasizes locally owned neighborhood businesses.

“We want to see an economic development plan for the West Side that helps bring in more mixed housing, including affordable housing, along with neighborhood retail that will bring more diversity and convenience to neighborhoods,” Anderson said.

Anderson also believes the Grand Mall development would take business away from the downtown and Gateway areas. Revitalization of the downtown is a major priority of his administration, but he also supports the neighborhood interest in a large discount retail outlet. “There’s a huge desire on the West Side for a discount shopping outlet,” he said. “We’ve identified some potential locations, and have been talking to some representatives of larger retail outlets about locating on the West Side.”

Anderson’s change in the development philosophy for the West Side surprised elected officials and members of the community councils who had supported the project. But most residents were willing to listen to the mayor’s ideas.

Kioa says he supports the mayor’s proposal for economic development on the West Side. “If that’s what it takes to rejuvenate our neighborhood,” he says, “then I agree with the mayor.”

Rep. Fife has also been convinced of the merits of Anderson’s plan for West Side development. He supported the incentive package the state offered to the developers of the mall, but has since embraced the new ideas for West Side development.

“I tend to agree that there was less value to the local neighborhood from the mall,” Fife says. “Locally developed neighborhood business would be of much more benefit to the residents. I’d like to see shops and services that are more convenient. A neighborhood is more than just houses. It has to have services and businesses that are all part of a system in a community.”

Part of the problem with economic planning for the West Side is that there is no master plan in effect for the area. Master plans are documents for each neighborhood in the city that loosely establish neighborhood goals and the areas where different types of development can happen. The guidelines in the master plan help residents and developers understand which types of development are acceptable for an area, and use zoning to establish where those developments can be located.

The last master plan for the West Side was drawn up almost 20 years ago, but has been ignored because few developers had an interest in projects targeted for the West Side. Now the neighborhoods have changed so much that the original plan is no longer relevant to the community’s needs. In most of the Poplar Grove and Glendale neighborhoods there has never been a comprehensive zoning plan establishing an area for commercial and retail development. Consequently, even if a developer or neighborhood business wanted to offer new retail or commercial services, there is no development plan that sets up the proper zoning patterns.

Mayor Anderson agrees that the lack of a current master plan hinders comprehensive economic development on the West Side. “I’m a big believer in master plans,” he said. “We need to put in some real work to get a plan in place for the West Side.”

Of all the services and institutions feeling the pressure of West Side population growth, the schools have had to cope with the most change. In the past 10 years, the population of ethnic students in the five West Side elementary schools has increased 32.3 percent—from an average of 40.1 percent in 1989, to an average of 72.4 percent in 1999.

Ila Rose Fife, a member of the Salt Lake City School Board and wife of Rep. Fred Fife, says that while the student population on the East Side has remained the same or decreased slightly since the last census, the West Side is growing fast. The rapid population increase has affected the quality of education in West Side schools. She also says that while the Salt Lake City School District has struggled to cope with the rapid changes, only three of the seven School Board members represent precincts where schools have seen the most growth, and where most of the ethnic students live.

“School Board members have their own constituents, and I’m not sure all the members realize the extent of the impact on the at-risk schools on the West Side,” Ila Fife says. “All of the schools in the area need to be either rebuilt of retrofit to handle the new students moving to the area.”

Ila Fife also says the schools are dealing with problems unique to the West Side student population—for instance, a student population that speaks 27 different languages, and a student mobility rate that reaches as high as 50 percent in some schools. The mobility rate poses a special problem for the teachers in West Side schools. It means that half the students in a class at the beginning of the school year will leave, and new students will take their place by the end of the year. Often the new students need to have lessons repeated, and the learning process is slowed for all the students in the class.

Aside from the economic and social problems the population shift is creating for West Side residents, planners and elected officials say there is a deeper question about how the population change affects political representation throughout the city and state. The answer to that question will affect all levels of government—from representation on the city and county councils, to the way the Legislature and Salt Lake School Board are elected.

Most of the population growth on the West Side has occurred since the last census—in 1990. But estimates of the city’s population indicate that while the East Side is stable, the West Side is growing rapidly. The political implications of the east-to-west population shift will be felt by all the city’s residents after the Census Bureau releases its 2000 data.

Nick Floros, an election division official in the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office, says the boundaries for all elected officials in the county were drawn based on the 1990 census. Since that time, however, Salt Lake County has changed its form of government from a three-member commission to a seven-member council plus mayor. When the boundary lines for the new council seats were drawn, the county election department used the outdated 1990 census information.

“There has been a dramatic increase in the population on the entire West Side of the county,” Floros said,” and that includes the West Side of Salt Lake City.”

Salt Lake County currently has more than 500,000 registered voters, Floros says. The population shift means that after the census data is released, the Legislature will be responsible for changing election boundaries across the state. The boundary changes will affect every election district, for every office, in the state—including the Legislature, school boards, city councils and the new county council. It could also mean the addition of a fourth congressional district for Utah.

“The districts were set up based on the 1990 census,” Floros says. “We know the lines will be redrawn, but we won’t know where the boundaries will change until we look at the census data.”

Ila Fife believes the Salt Lake City School Board will have to look at the way its precincts represent the West Side’s student population. “There is a real need to have more representation from the central city and West Side,” she says, “and we need to encourage more minorities to run for the School Board.”

Although most residents on the West Side are willing to give the mayor a chance to implement his development strategy for the area, they are anxious to see some tangible evidence that proves something is happening. Anderson says West Side economic development has as high a priority in his administration as the redevelopment of the downtown area.

“We’re working with an architect and others to expand the Sorenson Center and add programs for both youth and adults,” he says. “We’re also bringing in more mixed housing and neighborhood retail that will create community gathering places and convenience for the residents.”

There are also plans to build a skateboard facility at Jordan Park, which would replace the swimming pool that closed when the pool at the Sorenson Center opened. However, the skateboard addition has met resistance from members of the West Side Community Council, who wanted more parking.

Kioa believes the challenge to getting more people in the Polynesian community to participate in the decision-making process is to help them understand how important it is to make time for getting involved. “Most Polynesian people have more than one job, so they’re always working,” he says. “There’s not much time for involvement in the PTA or community meetings.”

Elected officials and planning experts tracking the changes on the West Side agree that the new ethnic population will become a powerful influence on the city’s politics. Rep. Fife says he is excited about the changes in the neighborhoods, and is looking forward to the challenges they create. “We will have to struggle to deal with the changes, but there are also opportunities,” he says. “The diversity is creating exciting relationships between people, and [bringing] new value to the neighborhoods.”

He also believes the changes will bring a diversity of culture and opinion that has never existed before in Utah. Once the new ethnic population becomes stable, it will have impact on the city for years to come.

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