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Cottonwood Park in Salt Lake City is being modernized

In 2022, voters approved millions to improve parks in Utah's capital. Now the city plans to use some of that money at Cottonwood Park on the west side.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A homeless camp along Jordan River, across from Cottonwood Park in Salt Lake City, on Monday, April 29, 2024.

Melinda Slighting regularly brings her dog Blarney — like the famous Irish Stone — to the off-leash dog run in Cottonwood Park, even though it's quite a distance from her home behind the Utah Capitol.

It's big, grassy, ​​and the other pooches and people who go there are generally nice.

But it's hardly perfect.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Melinda Slighting plays with her dog Blarney at Cottonwood Dog Park in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 29, 2024.

“The hard part is that when I walk in I see a lot of camping, homelessness and drug problems,” she said. “There were some nefarious individuals. For this reason I am not bringing my 5 year old granddaughter. I don’t want her to see anything like that.”

Slighting's concerns are widespread in this large, grassy park bisected by the Jordan River near North Temple and Redwood Road. But Salt Lake City officials want to make improvements using some of the $85 million in general obligation bonds approved by voters in 2022.

Plans for Cottonwood Park are still in the early stages, but the city's public lands department is considering better signage and additional amenities such as shaded areas.

The park is a place where the city's problems and recreational opportunities must coexist.

Park faces ongoing problems

On a weekday afternoon in late April, several dogs, including Blarney, exhausted their energy while their owners rested on benches and picnic tables scattered around the park. A few runners were jogging on the Jordan River Trail in the afternoon. A family was using the playground across the river in the southern half of the park.

Rising behind the playground are the now-vacant offices that once housed the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food – a building that state officials say will soon be demolished. A locked public toilet is located closer to the river near one of the park's two bridges. Part of the bridge is damaged and fenced off, meaning pedestrians don't have enough space to pass each other.

A handful of tents remained pitched on the riverbank. At least two garbage cans in the park overflowed. A mallard duck swam past a floating plastic 7-Eleven cup and other debris in the river.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kira Johnson, Salt Lake City public lands planner, accompanied by her dog Otis, at the Cottonwood Dog Park on Monday, April 29, 2024.

Kira Johnson, the city's public lands planner who is leading the effort to breathe new life into the park, acknowledged that the roughly $750,000 budgeted for improvements will not be able to address all concerns, he said However, she and other city officials want to know what matters most to the community.

“We’re trying to figure out, ‘What does the community want in their neighborhood park and what would benefit them?’” she said. “What would encourage more people to use this space so that there are more eyes in this area and therefore a greater sense of security?”

To address ongoing safety concerns, she said, the city could add lighting and improve sightlines throughout the park by leveling existing berms.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trash and debris piled up on the edge of Cottonwood Park in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 29, 2024.

Johnson understands the public's safety concerns. On her bike ride to work, she often leaves the Jordan River Trail in the park and rides on city streets until she rejoins the trail at the Archuleta Bridge, which spans the railroad tracks near the Utah State Fairpark between North Temple and 200 south. It's a detour she takes to avoid a section of the trail where there are usually large illegal camps.

The money for park improvements will not be used directly to alleviate homeless encampments, Johnson said. For months, however, city police and other law enforcement agencies have been stepping up drug enforcement along the Jordan River Trail. Since last fall, officials in Utah's capital have also made it a point to dismantle makeshift camps in public spaces.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A homeless camp along Jordan River, across from Cottonwood Park in Salt Lake City, on Monday, April 29, 2024.

In a statement, city police said officers conduct daily patrols along the trail to “combat and prevent criminal activity.” The number of arrests along the river and North Temple from October 2023 to March 2024 increased 29% from October 2022 to March 2023, the department said.

Early stages of planning

Johnson added that the path of the trail through Cottonwood Park can be confusing and that she would like to include clearer signage to make it easier for users to navigate.

The city is only in the first phase of community engagement on the improvement project and is encouraging residents to complete a survey asking what they would like to see in the park.

Responses to the survey and conversations Johnson has had at community events will be incorporated into a conceptual design. Once this is complete, residents will have another opportunity to comment.

And don't worry: The dog park — and its annual Halloween costume party for puppies — isn't going anywhere.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cottonwood Park in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 29, 2024.

Anna Harden

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