Residents rail against school sale to Westminster
SLC » Selling it may displace the Visual Arts Institute, which has occupied it for 20 years.
Salt Lake Tribune
May 1, 2009
By Derek P. Jensen
Salt Lake City's whisper-quiet negotiation to sell the former Garfield Elementary School to Westminster College has east bench residents in an uproar.
They fret stretching the campus above 1300 East will wreck the neighborhood with student rentals, traffic and nuisance crime. They worry about plunging property values. And they wonder why the impending deal was not first subject to a public bidding process.
"This was all cut and dried with Westminster," Mae Vincent complained amid 100 residents who crammed the Garfield gymnasium at 1838 S. 1500 East on Thursday night to learn more about the sale. "This residential property around here will become more commercial and it will deteriorate."
Shawn Rossiter, who last summer traded his duplex across from the college for a house closer to Garfield, worries about campus creep and an influx of rowdy rentals along the trim, tree-lined streets. "It's what they can't control that I'm worried about," Rossiter said. "Westminster means we become College Row."
A sale also may displace the Visual Arts Institute, which has hosted community classes at the historic schoolhouse for more than 20 years. Right now, Garfield resembles a funky art museum with papier-mâché animals roaming the hallways and framed portraits that give the lethargic 1916 building life.
Institute director Bruce Robertson thought he had years to raise the money to purchase the property. Besides art classrooms, he envisions a print shop, gallery, library and artist studios -- plus converting the sprawling parking lot that overlooks a covered patch of Emigration Creek into a public green space.
"We've had a vision for it," he pleaded Thursday.
City leaders, who bought the building for $2.1 million from the Salt Lake City School District in 2006, had eyeballed the space for an east-side police and fire precinct. But after the $192 million public safety bond failed narrowly at the ballot in 2007, Mayor Ralph Becker has been looking to unload the school. It was recently appraised at $2.2 million.
Developers looking to erect condos have come calling, as have non-profits looking for the city to basically give the property away.
But City Councilman J.T. Martin, who represents the neighborhood, told residents neither plan was appealing -- nor was a drawn-out bid process. "We've got to get it sold."
Westminster representatives did their best to calm the crowd Thursday, noting the deal is not yet done. The college hopes to house non-profits or administrative offices at the old school, according to spokeswoman Annalisa Steggell, and it may be able to share the space with the arts institute.
"We will respect and honor the historic nature of the building," said Steggell, adding that depending on the cost of restoration, Westminster hopes to incorporate the "beautiful attribute" of Emigration Creek.
Since the 27-acre campus is "space poor," Steggell noted it makes sense to move offices to Garfield to free up classroom space on the main campus.
"It's not our intention at all that this would be a Westminster extension parking lot," added history professor Gary Daynes.
Still, residents fear everything from "four story glass office buildings" to dormitories.
"I just don't understand why this meeting is only about Westminster College," Don Wiscomb said. "There's many alternate uses."
Councilman Soren Simonsen, who wants to ensure the building, arts institute and access to the creek is preserved, says he was a "little surprised" the school was not put up for public bid. And at least one resident grumbled that Becker was not in attendance Thursday.
But a handful in the gymnasium didn't seem to mind, arguing that unlike a strip-mall builder, the college is a good neighbor with a sense of history that will treat the building with the proper sense of "romance."
Said Scott Peterson: "This looks like a pretty darned good alternative."