Becker blinks: No cop shop on Salt Lake City's Library Square

Besieged mayor eyeing other downtown sites as he mends fences and presses for November bond.
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Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker is giving up on his plan to put a cop shop on downtown's beloved Library Square. But he's not giving up on getting a public-safety headquarters -- and the bond money to build it -- on November's ballot.

And now, at least some Becker backers, who chastised the mayor over the Library Square proposal, are not giving up on him.

"I support him now more than ever. It was like walking through fire -- but he did it," said Deeda Seed, a former City Council member who rallied 3,100 Facebook members to save Library Square's open space and suggested the issue could cost Becker his re-election. "In this instance, he showed that he was truly listening."

The Mayor's Office has been inundated with more than 400 comments from residents since Becker announced last month that the east side of Library Square was his "preferred" site for a five-story police-fire building and a three-story emergency-operations center.

On Wednesday, he walked away from that idea.

"We certainly are responding to what is clear public sentiment that people do not want to see us touch Library Square," Becker said. "To me, this is the way the public process is supposed to work, and I'm grateful for that."

In May, former Mayor Rocky Anderson called the hotly disputed proposal a "betrayal" of the public's trust. Moshe Safdie, the award-winning architect of the renowned Main Library, dubbed such a design a "fundamental transformation for the worse." Even the city's Library Board formally opposed the proposal.

Becker pledged Wednesday to move ahead with plans for a "desperately" needed public-safety complex to replace the problem-plagued, quake-risky building on 200 South. His administration is re-examining a number of downtown locations -- including the east side of 300 East, across the street from the city's showcase Main Library, and the nearby Salt Lake Chamber parking lot and Ken Garff dealership -- along with some sites suggested by residents.

The mayor would like to plant the four- to five-acre site within walking distance of City Hall to create a "civic campus." He could pick the spot in time for a June 16 City Council hearing.

And, in November, voters could be asked to endorse a $125 million bond to fund the complex. Such a measure would tack an extra $71.82 onto the annual property-tax bill of a $250,000 home.

"I'm going to support getting this on the ballot in the fall. All of us are a bit nervous about waiting," given the poor condition of existing police headquarters, said City Councilman Luke Garrott, who opposed the Library Square site. "The early exposure that this issue has gotten might actually help [the bond measure succeed]."

Ultimately, the "Library Square saga," will help Becker, too, said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

"It shows that he is willing to think outside the box, but then actively encourage public input and participation and make a firm decision," Jowers said. "Had he ignored the overwhelming opinion of his constituents ... it could have been his death knell."

Still, Salt Lake City architect Ray Kingston, would be "hard pressed" to vote for Becker's re-election in 2011, even though Kingston campaigned for the mayor's first term.

"I no longer trust him as much as I did when he was in the [state] House of Representatives," said Kingston, who argues a public-safety building on either side of 300 East would harm views to and from Library Square. "It was an unimaginable direction for him to recommend."

Nancy Tessman, the former library director who helped steer the Main Library's construction, said she will take the "longer view" when she evaluates Becker's performance. She objected to the idea of placing the public-safety center on open space that the city had so carefully incorporated into Library Square during a multiple-year planning process.

"I'm happy with [Becker] today," she said. "His intentions are good."

Tessman hopes Becker's final site recommendation is made with a key ingredient from Wednesday's decision: public comments.


What's next for the public-safety complex?

The Salt Lake City Council will hold a public hearing June 16 at 7 p.m. in City Hall, 451 S. State St., Room 315.

The council could vote in July whether to put a $125 million bond on the November ballot. Mayor Ralph Becker expects to recommend a site before then.