In 1973 the Environmental Protection Agency dropped a bomb on Salt Lake City’s downtown–or so it seemed to the participants at the time. They included the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, which was deeply involved in the Main Street Beautification program that, in Fred Ball’s terms, “would forever change downtown Salt Lake City.”
In that year, Mayor E.J. (Jake) Garn was notified by the EPA that air quality in downtown was not meeting federal standards, and unless the emission count could be lowered, “an embargo on any future downtown parking lots or facilities would be mandated,” recalled Ball. “Also, any car entering the city from federal or state highways and roads would have to have at least two people in each vehicle, and no cars would be allowed on Main Street between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.
“Mayor Garn was furious and knew that this was totally unreasonable,” said Ball. As executive vice president of the Chamber, he began communicating with Garn and the EPA on behalf of businessmen. The upshot: “We would have to remove between six thousand and eight thousand cars a day from Main Street.”
That would be a big problem. “Everyone loved the wide streets. It was quickly communicated to the Chamber and to the Mayor’s office that we absolutely could not narrow the streets,” he said. The Mayor decided that we must narrow the streets, but in his wisdom he told the citizens that “we will not narrow the streets. We will widen the sidewalks.” The result would be the same.
Still, the announcement met with great opposition. “Merchants on the street didn’t like the financial implications but, more seriously, they knew the project would take a long time to complete and their businesses would definitely be adversely affected.” The merchants were assessed $505 a front foot–well more than they had planned. But the government had a gun to the head of the city, and there was no other option, Ball recalls.
On top of that, when the bids were opened in March of 1974, the Salt Lake City Commissioners rejected two that were more than $1 million over the $2.8 million expected cost. Fred Ball told the Chamber’s board of governors that unless some alternatives were found, he was afraid the project was doomed. “We have stayed out of this, but I am convinced the proposed project will die unless we do something,” he said. He suggested reviewing the plans to see how costs could be cut, but “the longer we wait, the more the cost will be.”
The Mayor and commissioners found a way around that and the project got underway in the summer of 1974. (To be fair, the city had been working on plans to revitalize the downtown area for years. It created a Second Century Plan in the 1960s, and in 1970 the Downtown Development Committee was negotiating with a Chicago designer on plans to redevelop three blocks of Main Street. That project was moving along: in 1971 the city earmarked $150,000 to pay for the study, and by January of 1973 they were ready to form a special improvement district.)
The EPA’s edict focused that effort and underlined its urgency.
The heart of the project was a new street system that discouraged through-traffic, but allowed vehicles to get to shops downtown. The sidewalks widened from an average of twenty feet to thirty feet, bus shelters were installed at mid blocks, UTA buses were given turnout lanes, and angle parking disappeared in favor of parallel parking.
The streets were closed down completely, and new underground utilities installed. Office workers and pedestrians negotiated through a maze of barriers, dodged construction vehicles, and walked on Main Street dirt for the first time since the turn of the century. City officials discovered vaults and storage areas under the sidewalks that had been used for years by businesses, and now these were gone. It was a big loss to them and an additional cost to the project. Even Brigham Young’s monument was affected: it gained water fountains on the east and west and a large base designed to hinder through-traffic.
On the brighter side, the wider sidewalks provided room for forty-four pre-cast drinking fountains, twenty-seven new trash receptacles, and dozens of benches, trees, and flower boxes. Water fountains bubbled in large granite boxes, and the new sidewalks sported thirty-four thousand tile-like pavers of various colors and designs. A bewildering clutter of protruding company signs were gone.
The project was a stiff challenge for the Chamber, which had long been involved in keeping the downtown area healthy and strong. As the project
got underway, Ball came to the City Commission often with special requests. He asked them to eliminate out-of-state parking meters around Temple Square, for instance, so that shoppers would have a place to park, and requested a large banner across Main Street to let shoppers know that the stores were open and planning a “commotion promotion.” “You will get your shoes dirty, but you’ll sure save some money,” he explained. And he asked for a moratorium on construction during the key Christmas shopping season.
In general, Ball tried to adopt a positive attitude, winning support for his efforts from the newspapers. “Downtown beautification, in the planning stages for a dozen years, is necessary both from an economic and environmental standpoint,” said The Salt Lake Tribune. By making the heart of the city a restful, convenient and healthful place to shop and do business, the flight of people and wealth to the suburbs can be stemmed and even reversed.
By October of 1974 the city was able to open its first block from South Temple to First South streets, with Ball joining Garn and city officials in the first car. And a year later, November 7, 1975, Garn (now a Senator) was back for a ribbon cutting watched over by the Chamber’s greeters, the Salt Shakers. Mayor Conrad Harrison wielded the scissors.
Salt Lake City, said the Deseret News, was one of the largest cities in the U.S. to have actually carried out a downtown street beautification project.
But that didn’t change the fact that it had been “one of the most controversial projects that I encountered during my time at the Chamber,” said Ball. “Members quit. Lawsuits were instigated. Poison pen letters and threats were received and it was a nasty time in the city.”
But the goal was met. The traffic count was much lower, the emission count met Federal guidelines, and even its severest critics were saying it looked pretty good, Ball said.
Still, the resentment felt in the city against the EPA was also a lasting legacy. Many businesses left downtown or folded, and to this day opponents of new projects cite the project as an example of good intentions gone very wrong. “It was a federally mandated rape of downtown,” said Ball.
Sources: Fred Ball manuscript in Salt Lake Chamber offices. J. Michael Hunter, “The Monument to Brigham Young and the Pioneers: 100 years of controversy, Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 4 (Fall, 200). Deseret News, 19 August 1970, 7 November 1975. Salt Lake Tribune, 1 June 1971; 27 March 1974; 4, 7,10, 14 July 1974; 23 August 1974; 17 October, 1974.