A prison is nobody’s idea of a good time, whether you’re on the inside trying to get out or on the outside trying to get people to build something nearby.
But when it comes to the land Salt Lake City annexed years ago on the west side of the airport, good times always have been easier to imagine than to carry out.
Not that mayors haven’t tried to convince us
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otherwise through the years.
On Oct. 19, 1988, Mayor Palmer DePaulis waxed eloquent as he spoke about expansion plans at the airport. “This,” he said, pointing to the land to its west, “is where we believe the future of Salt Lake City will be.”
DePaulis called the area an “untapped resource.” City officials said it would be home to 65,000 people by the next century, which, if you’re keeping score, is now this century.
Pay attention to that population projection, because it has fluctuated more through the years than the level of the Great Salt Lake.
By 1994, Mayor Deedee Corradini was talking in terms of 50,000 homes. Even if each home contained only two people, the phantom neighborhood clearly had undergone an imaginary six-year building boom.
A year later, I wrote a column quoting city planners who said 40,000 people might eventually live west of the airport, an area known as the city’s Northwest Quadrant, “provided environmental studies show the land is buildable.” Worries about a high water table and nearby landfills apparently caused a few of those phantom residents to cancel their plans.
But many of them were back again by 2010 when the city was considering a master plan for the area that would accommodate about 70,000 people.
Now, if the Legislature approves and if the city’s protests and legal challenges fail, the population would increase by about 4,500 — a captive crowd that dresses alike and seems to get in the way of everybody’s plans for prosperity, no matter where they go.
The Legislature’s Prison Relocation Commission surprised virtually no one Tuesday when, at long last, it designated the land DePaulis, Corradini and others envisioned quite differently as the place to rebuild the prison that has stood in Draper since 1951.
It was the path of least resistance. Other potential sites generated spontaneous protests and attracted raucous crowds to hearings. But phantom residents don’t make a lot of noise. And an outraged Mayor Ralph Becker and other city leaders apparently don’t get to lawmakers the same way as angry regular folk.
If the recommendation becomes reality, the state will have to deal with all the environmental concerns that kept developers at bay through the years. That includes wetlands and a water table that might turn the ground to mush in an earthquake. A consultant’s study of prison sites deemed this one the most expensive because of those issues, even though its long-term operating costs were deemed to be the least expensive.
But then, we won’t really know until the thing is built. Even the ground out there can’t be a squishy as government estimates and promises.
Members of the Prison Relocation Commission made a practice of referring to the name of their commission when asked why they didn’t pay more attention to the possibility of rebuilding the aging prison on its current site in Draper. “Relocation” was the name of the game. A consultant said the Draper site could attract $1.8 billion worth of economic impact if the prison left.
That number has shifting sands, too. Much of it was projected as business that might move there from other parts of the state. Much, also, is likely to come at the expense of the already booming Lehi area. Legislative staffers later said those projections could end up being either much higher or much lower than that initial figure, which seems to about cover it.
Salt Lake City once had its own projections, too. Critics say it might have avoided this if it hadn’t tabled that Northwest Quadrant master plan a few years ago.
But master plans can’t force a reluctant market or settle shifting soil. Decades of wishes and dreams attest to that.