On January 4th, Andrew Johnston, formerly the Chair of the Poplar Grove Community Council (our neighbors to the south) took an oath of office to join the Salt Lake City Council to represent Fairpark in District 2. We sat down with Andrew to pick his brain about the upcoming legislative session, transportation, homelessness, and other issues particularly important to the west side. Born and raised in Utah, Andrew says, “I love my neighborhood. That’s why I’ve been involved in the Poplar Grove Community Council and now Salt Lake City Council to make Salt Lake a better place for me to live, for family, for my neighbors, for everybody. I’m proud of the west side and anyone who takes up the challenge to make this a better place. I mean, it’s a great place to live! For all the folks who are new to the area, or folks who are thinking about getting involved but haven’t yet, there are lots of ways you can participate. Come on out, and get involved. There are lots of opportunities for things you might really enjoy, and if you look for it, you can find some cool things you can do to help make the west side a great place to live.”
Andrew Johnston was born and raised in Utah, spent some time in Maine for school and work, and then came back about 11 years ago and found a beautiful house Poplar Grove right by the river, and that’s what drew him to the west side. “I love my neighborhood. That’s why I’ve been involved in the Poplar Grove Community Council and now Salt Lake City Council to make Salt Lake a better place for me to live, for family, for my neighbors, for everybody. I’m thankful for people who suit up and show up and are willing to take part, and try to make a difference.
Fairpark Gazette: As a person who lives on the west side, what vision do you have for the west side?
Andrew Johnston: We have great building blocks. What we have to understand is that none of this happens overnight. We didn’t get to where we are overnight, and we aren’t going to get to where we need to be overnight. But the momentum is in the right direction! I think natural market forces will continue to drive housing to be a premium in Salt Lake City, including the west side. We as west siders are in a unique situation, having so many single family homes that are affordable; but that won’t always be the case. We need to look at our housing stock as one big starting point, to make sure we don’t lose our housing affordability, keep our diversity in our neighborhood, and still grow the value of properties, making sure we take care of them, not just to grow values for tax purposes but also to bring in businesses, so people want to be here. We want people come from other parts of the city to come to the west side — to visit our neighborhoods, our small businesses, our parks, river and trails and other amenities.
FG: What specific actions will you take to support economic development on the west side?
AJ: Kyle LaMalfa did a great job starting this. There are community development areas in the process of being established, along 900 West for example. While this impacts mostly everything south of North Temple, the new community development area will attach to the North Temple Redevelopment Zone, and create a huge incentive for businesses and private developers. North Temple is in a great position, with Trax and RDA funding for infrastructure, so I see a lot of change is coming to the west side. We want to be able to link all that development along the 900 West corridor to connect the west side like a string, all the way from Glendale, to Poplar Grove to Fairpark. We also have projects in the works to connect the Jordan River and finish he parkway trail to have recreation options that make it easier for folks to live and commute in town.
FG: How do you see this impacting transportation?
AJ: We are going to have to look at transportation, and make sure you can get where you need to from the west side. Right now it’s not easy. We need to expand access so we can have development move west. Remember, we don’t want to overrun the west side with people, but growth is going to come anyways, so we need to be smart about planning and protect our residential areas and business notes. I don’t want us to be 9th and 9th, or 15th and 15th. We as west siders should have our own unique identity, so we can be the best parts of the west side we can be.
FG: Are there any specific issues you see impacting Fairpark that you want to share?
AJ: For Fairpark, a big, big piece is dealing with the homeless situation. The discussion about changing The Road Home and Rio Grande area directly impacts us. We all know that the homeless may come west to camp and hang out. Whether it is prostitution, pan handling, or other criminal activity, we need to deal with that, and we know that’s a problem for folks who live here in our neighborhoods. It’s not because we don’t care about the homeless, but it’s the crime that comes along with that activity. It’s important to say that we can change the perception for ourselves and for others. We can change that perception. The west side no longer a crime ridden place. The stats don’t say that anymore. If we can change that perception for ourselves and our neighbors, it will have major impact for our neighborhoods.
FG: As you know, the City recently unveiled the concept of scattered site approach to deal with the homeless situation. How do you see that playing out over the next 12 months?
AJ: The homeless issue will be a significant piece of discussion in the city and county, in the upcoming session and throughout the year. You have to understand is this is a two point problem and the scattered sites approach only works if we get housing and funding. First, if we are going to deal with the homeless problem, we have handle our housing problem. We’ve got to make sure there’s enough incentives to get enough housing for this population. Right now, we are short thousands of units of housing across the county, particularly affordable housing units. The scattered site approach is a good option, because smaller facilities allow us more flexibility to handle short term emergency services. If we can secure the housing, scattered site can work. The second piece is funding. When the city begins to provide services, and the word gets out, there is a chance that this demand could grow exponentially, so it will be an interesting balance in that we don’t overrun ourselves with the need of the entire Wasatch front and beyond, and still care for our own. This also means we are going to have to pay for supportive services long term, and there are a couple things involved in long term funding.
Number one, Medicaid expansion. Medicaid expansion most likely won’t happen in Utah. I wish it would, as that would allow us to find some ways to pay for this issue.
Number two, and more likely, if we could find a way to fund a small portion, specifically the medically frail population, which is often defined as people who are addicted to substances, and have serious mental illness, plus the physically and mentally frail. If that can be funded, we can pay for addiction services, mental and physical health, which is a big issue for chronically homeless.
The other big barrier, is that if you try to relocate homeless services to other areas, it’s all going to be a zoning issue. If these sites are moved to another area of city, or to another county, they’d have to agree to zone an area, which is a heavy lift for a community. If the legislature wants to usurp that, because they can, the legislature can override local zoning codes, like they did with the prison, and the community loses control in that situation. This will be an interesting conversation about housing, particularly about how you locate services and separate them appropriately, defining where they go, and figuring out how you make it so it isn’t a burden on the community and can be widely accepted, and also do it long term so there’s appropriate oversite. It’s a very complicated system — it’s not just about moving the Road Home. If you want to do it right, it’s going to take a while, and a lot of money. I expect a lot of give and take about control and authority about who owns the facilities, who runs them, and look forward to community input on the issue.
FG: What can you do in the Salt Lake City Council to improve relations with the State Legislature?
First, I have to say that the city does an excellent job with what they can do. The city and the county have lobbyists that do excellent work. It is important to understand that legislature represents the entire state, and that most of the state does not have the same economic opportunities that Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County have particularly. Also, a lot of the state is desperate for economic growth and jobs, and in some places in rural Utah, areas might be having a hard time even supporting school districts in some places because there’s no growth, forcing families to leave to find work. This leaves lots of legislators who represent these areas who think Salt Lake City continues to get richer, and all the growth happens here, and they miss out on it, so when we go to the legislature, proposing something that will benefit Salt Lake, it is important to find ways to have win/win. Things like forming coalitions, like finding out how can other areas of the state get some help, to help sustain themselves and provide growth, and not make it an ‘us vs them’ situation. I also see a clear distinction where SLC is primarily represented by Democrats, and other areas are not; basically that the Republican caucuses are able to set the agenda behind closed doors, without SLC, so it’s extremely important to find ways to build relationships, to get things done.
It’s so important that we have outstanding representatives like Rep. Sandra Hollins, Rep. Angela Romero, and Senator Luz Escamilla. When they work hard to build relationships, we have to acknowledge the work they do with that, because that can be as important as any policy position they take. Without working relationships, it’s very easy to get shut out of the process. Your reps are doing a fine job, working hard to build those relationships.
FG: In closing, what message would you like to share with the Fairpark residents?
AJ: I’m just so proud of y’all. I’m proud of the west side and anyone who takes up the challenge to make this a better place. I mean, it’s a great place to live! Everywhere you go, you run into negative connotations, like beliefs about what it’s like to be on the west side, what it’s been like on in the past, but it’s not like that anymore. I’m thankful for people who suit up and show up and are willing to take part, and try to make a difference. This type of work is tough. It’s hard and there are a lot of people who have worked on the west side for a lot of years. I’m thankful for that hard work.
For all the folks who are new to the area, or folks who are thinking about getting involved but haven’t yet, there are lots of ways you can participate. Come on out, and get involved. There are lots of opportunities for things you might really enjoy, and if you look for it, you can find some cool things you can do to help make the west side a great place to live.