Is Garfield School sale a hush-hush deal?
Government » Developer says presumed sale to Westminster College is too cozy.
The Salt Lake Tribune
Updated: 09/28/2009 06:58:47 AM MDT
By Derek P. Jensen
Salt Lake City's impending sale of a historic schoolhouse in Sugar House has elicited a crescendo from critics who argue the deal was greased -- with scant public input -- a curiosity given Mayor Ralph Becker's oft-trumpeted era of transparency.
Quietly, the city is angling to sell the old Garfield School, 1838 S. 1500 East, for $2.2 million. All signs suggest nearby Westminster College will be the selected buyer, intent on expanding office space and establishing a fine-arts hub.
But neighbors, and the lone developer erecting condos in the heart of Sugar House, insist the transaction talk is too quiet. John Gardiner says his "tasteful" blueprint for bungalows, craftsman cottages and 22 condos, flanked by a pocket park alongside Emigration Creek, got short shrift.
"If you look at that plan versus an office complex for Westminster, they're just night-and-day different," says Gardiner, who concedes he has a commercial interest. "But we've never been able to get anywhere with the city."
Neighbors, who crammed the Garfield gym this spring to log complaints, also fear a deal with Westminster would expand the college's reach -- bringing student rentals, nuisance crime, traffic and plunging property values.
"If Westminster goes in, then we're just part of the campus," Shawn Rossiter fears. "It seems kind of stacked. I would like to see the other options on the table, and then the neighborhood could weigh in. The neighborhood is not informed."
During the summer, the city opened a bidding process for Garfield. But skeptics note that step followed an April "open house," where representatives from Westminster -- and no one else -- were invited by the city to present the college's plan.
Any day, the recommended winner for the 4.6-acre property will be posted on the city's Web site, according to Becker's chief of staff, David Everitt. It will be accompanied by the criteria used by a selection committee of city property staffers and executives. At least one other bid, besides Westminster's and Gardiner's, was reviewed, Everitt says.
Once the choice is unveiled, residents will have a week to provide feedback to City Hall. The winner then will be selected by Becker.
"This is a much more exhaustive process than anything the city normally does for surplusing property," says Everitt, noting the city is not obligated legally to reveal bid information for surplus property. "The mayor is pretty confident it will reach the people it needs to reach."
Gardiner, who is building the 29-unit Urbana project in the Sugar House business district, barely could contain his incredulity.
"If their idea of a public process is a week on a Web site," he scoffs, "that's really under the radar. No one would even notice."
Earlier this month, he sent a letter to Becker calling the city's denial to let him present the bid publicly "surprising and disappointing." He argues land use should be considered before a sale, not after, and flow through typical community-council and planning-commission channels -- complete with public hearings.
Prime property on the city's east side is a rarity that ought to be handled "thoughtfully," adds Gardiner, who has lived in the area 19 years and walks past Garfield daily on his way to work. He envisions 22 condos in the old school and bungalows to the north -- a $7 million project -- and says he also is flexible on the school's sale price.
Any housing would require a zoning change from the current institutional use, which can take up to a year. And no one is convinced the neighborhood would find the housing plan more compatible.
"People don't want housing," City Councilman J.T. Martin says. "The only dialogue I've heard in terms of wanting housing are from the people who want to build it, who want to profit."
City leaders, who bought the building for $2.1 million from the Salt Lake City School District in 2006, had eyeballed the property for a police and fire precinct. But after the $192 million public safety bond failed narrowly at the ballot box in 2007, Becker has been looking to unload the school, which closed in 1970. It was appraised last fall at $2.2 million.
A sale may displace the Visual Arts Institute, which has hosted community classes at the 1916 building for more than 20 years. But the Planning Commission voted in May to preserve the school facade, which fronts 1500 East.
Surplus transactions are typically low profile, says Property Manager John Spencer, who notes the city is usually in buying, not selling, mode.
"This is a strange one," agrees Jerilyn Midthun, a city procurement specialist, who says public bids are uncommon for surplus parcels. "We're breaking new ground."
That proves the city's commitment to transparency, Everitt says. "The mayor will carefully consider public comment on this," he says, although Becker also will place "great weight" on the recommendation.
Everitt denies the sale is "greased," but says "it's fair to say that Westminster came forward at the very, very beginning."
Mae Vincent, who attended the open house, wasn't convinced.
"This was all cut and dried with Westminster," she alleged.
Soon, the city Web site will have the answer, with -- officials say -- rationale.