Friday, May 15, 2009

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker Getting Unfairly Slammed Over Proposed New Cop Shop On Library Square, But Opposition Is Genuine And Widespread

Update June 3rd: Ralph Becker withdraws the Library Square cop shop proposal. Updated post HERE.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker is being criticized over his proposed plan to build a new police headquarters on open land currently adjacent to the Salt Lake City Library at what is called "Library Square" near 300 South. Unfortunately, that criticism is now acquiring the characteristics of a witch-hunt, as some critics are implying that if Becker goes through with the plan, even if the proposed $125 million bond is rejected at the ballot box, they will deliberately target him for defeat should he run for re-election.

Even the local media is allowing themselves to be caught up in the nascent witch-hunt. A Salt Lake Tribune story is entitled, "Could Library Square plan doom Becker's re-election". Salt Lake Crawlmeister Glen Warchol also takes his shot HERE. KTVX is not so biased, but published a story about a local activist, Deeda Seed, who has formed a Facebook group called "Save the Salt Lake Library green-open space", which has already mushroomed to 250 members. One of Seed's concerns is that placing a police headquarters building on Library Square would displace the popular Utah Arts Festival from one of its main performing areas. But it should be noted that Seed not only is a former city council member, but was also former Mayor Rocky Anderson's chief of staff, which implies that Seed is an extremist. One city councilman, Luke Garrott, is also known to be openly opposed, claiming that the move would "militarize" the library, which he considers an "award-winning symbol for intellectual freedom" in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City. But another councilman, J.T. Martin, favors the Library Square proposal and has characterized those who don't like it as "knee-jerk opposition".

In response, Mayor Becker acknowledges that the Library Square proposal is controversial, but reminds the public that there is one other proposal, namely, to build the new cop shop across the street from the Square. But if a new Salt Lake Tribune poll is to be believed, a plurality of the 219 respondents to date, 35 percent, favor neither proposal, while 27 percent do not believe a new cop shop is needed, despite powerful evidence that the current facility has become antiquated and decrepit. Only 13 percent support Becker's proposal.

A May 8th article in the Salt Lake Tribune, which includes a detailed graphic, outlines the proposals in greater detail. The primary plan calls for a $125 million plan for a "civic campus" on the east patch of Library Square which would include a five-story five-story police-fire headquarters and a three-story emergency-operations center. Concerns about the "loss of open space" would be addressed by creating a large public "piazza" with grassy open space and a 15,000-seat amphitheater midblock on the east side of 300 East. The plan, enthusiastically endorsed by Police Chief Chris Burbank and new Fire Chief Tom Shannon, also calls for moving evidence rooms and the police lab to a yet-to-be-determined facility outside of downtown that could be shared by other jurisdictions, and it has yet to be determine whether the police precinct that exists in the current headquarters would go to the new "campus" or another spot in the Liberty Wells neighborhood. But to sweeten the pot further, Community and Economic Development Director Frank Gray also proposes to erect a large movie screen on the side of the emergency-operations center that could draw families for community flicks in the summer.

The alternative plan is to erect the buildings east of 300 East, replacing existing parking, retail, and office space, but it would cost taxpayers an extra $20 million, boosting the total price tag to $145 million. The extra cost would be required to remove existing buildings, a problem which does not exist in the primary plan. The city is currently negotiating with three property owners on the east side of 300 East in case this alternative proves more viable. Both plans call for 300 East to be narrowed to one lane in each direction and given a bend so it is easier to close to traffic for special events. The final decision is expected by the end of June so that the bond could go before voters in November.

In 2007, voters rejected by 263 votes a $192 million public-safety bond that would have provided five new public safety facilities, including a headquarters replacement, at a cost per resident of $175 a year on an average $297,000 home. The bond was narrowly leading up into the final week of the campaign until former Mayor Rocky Anderson sabotaged it by urging rejection.

What's disturbing is the witch-hunt mentality taking root among opponents of the Library Square plan. Opponents are now mobbing Ralph Becker the same way they mobbed Chris Buttars over other issues. To target Ralph Becker for defeat over a single issue is not only unfair, but a sign of gross political immaturity. It represents the politics of personal destruction. Ralph Becker is best judged by his overall track record.

But Becker really needs to revisit the proposal. During his campaign, he promised to re-direct more development towards the economically undernourished west side of town. He has yet to meaningfully fulfill that promise. What better way to spark an economic renaissance in West Salt Lake than to take the lead by building a new cop shop there? What better way to tell the gangbangers of Glendale, Poplar Grove, and Rose Park that their "ownership" of the streets will come to an end? Best police practices include putting the cops where the crime is. Building a new cop shop on the west side will provide maximum benefit to the ENTIRE community.

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