Community east-west trail finally complete after 30 yearsSep 11, 2023 03:02PM ● By Genevieve Vahl
After 30 years and piecing together both funding and physical sections, the final leg of the 8-mile, east-west Parley’s Trail has been completed with a bridge on 900 West over the Jordan River, to be celebrated with an opening ceremony next month.
Headed by Parley’s Rails, Trails and Tunnels (PRATT) Coalition, the completion of the bridge over 900 West and the Jordan River completes Parley’s Trail connecting the west part of the valley to the East Bench. Construction on the section began in May and recently culminated this August.
“One of my favorite things about this section of trail was the influence PRATT had with common sense and vision,” said Juan Arce-Larreta, the chairperson of PRATT Coalition.
Six years ago, the coalition looked at this zone of the trail, finding it dead ended at a newly renovated 900 West. “It became this six-lane interchange, an on-and-off ramp where cars were now going 45 and accelerating to get onto the freeway, or decelerating coming off these high-speed main roads,” Arce-Larreta said. “So when we met there, we agreed we can’t expect or ask people to cross here, it’s just not safe.”
There were ideas of diverting the trail traffic to a safer crossing point down the way. But realistically the members knew asking that of riding cyclists and pedestrians was futile. “When you build a trail that comes to a main road, if you don’t have it going straight across, they’re not going to do it and you set yourself up for failure and create a dangerous situation,” Arce-Larreta said.
Thus the team ideated a bridge to solve the problem. The bridge brought the project from a $1.5 million to a $6.5-million project. “But do you do it right or do you just do it? I believe you do it correctly, you don’t do it in a hasty way,” Arce-Larreta said. “Let’s do it the right way, and that would be building a bridge.”
A look back at the Sugar House tunnel
A similar problem arose back in the ’90s at 1300 East in the heart of Sugar House. The road was too busy, too dangerous of an ask for bikers and pedestrians to cross the main vein through the tightly packed, urbanized area. In 1992, Salt Lake City adopted an Open Space Master Plan, ideating the concept of an off-road bicycle pedestrian corridor connecting Hidden Hollow to Sugar House Park, ultimately connecting Parley’s Canyon to the Jordan River Parkway.
In 1998, Kids Organized to Protect the Environment (KOPE) of Beacon Heights Elementary launched a problem-solving campaign to brainstorm ways to cross 1300 East between Sugar House Park and Hidden Hollow, finding that a tunnel would be the best solution.
“Kids are expected to be thinking outside the box,” said Lynne Olson, a former board member of PRATT Coalition. “When you allow young people to be a part of the solution planning, they come up with some pretty creative ideas, which, given enough thought, can be implemented into a truly remarkable product. And that’s what happened here.” The Draw at Sugar House was born.
In 1999, the University of Utah Department of Civil Engineering’s Community Transportation Team confirmed a tunnel would be the safest crossing, at the site of the historic Utah Central Railway. “It would cost less than an aerial bridge and would create fewer hazards to pedestrians than a traffic light and crosswalk,” Olson said. The PRATT Coalition was then formed in 2000.
In 2002, The National Endowment for the Arts New Public Works Initiative awarded Salt Lake City Planning Division money to host a juried competition to design the pedestrian crossing. “The winning design by local landscape architect Steven Gilbert and famed environmental artist Patricia Johanson was chosen for its careful attention to the cultural and ecological history of the place and its potential to enhance the transportation corridor,” Olson said.
An artist’s vision and design
Johanson is an internationally known environmental artist who combines engineering, sculpture, landscaping, flood control, wildlife habitat and an outdoor classroom into her designs that work within the environment in which they are set, taking inspiration from the land and natural ecological patterns of the area. “We need to envision and implement shared landscapes that collaborate with nature, rather than build more infrastructure demonstrating power and control,” Johanson wrote for the publication “Humans and Nature.” “By incorporating functional infrastructure within the living world, engineering can become more resilient, inclusive and continuously creative, harnessing and preserving the biological processes on which we all depend.”
The design, coined Sego Lily Plaza at the Draw, is both artistic and functional, including a major sculptural element only visible in its entirety aerially, in the shape of a Sego Lily, the Utah state flower, for its significance in the survival of early pioneers to avoid starvation by eating the flowers’ bulbs, per Native American recommendation.
In the case of a 100-year flood, the installation directs water overtopping the Parley’s Creek detention pond in Sugar House Park to collect in the basin that is the Sego Lily to then flow under the eight-lane highway draining into Parley’s Creek in Hidden Hollow. The 1300 East road is a certified dam, but even with this year's unprecedented snowmelt that flooded Sugar House Park, the water didn’t even make it to the Lily diversion mechanism, remaining in the well-designed basin of the pond with 1300 East damming it. The three petals function as the dam’s armature. The north petal rises 30 feet to counter waves to prevent erosion from under the road if a major flood were to happen. The east petal is striated with irrigation channels with seven veins representing the seven creeks that flow into the Great Salt Lake Valley. The south petal has winding pathways to get up to 1300 East.
“It is a major piece of water-control and transportation infrastructure, incorporating Parley’s Trail, which links the Bonneville Shoreline Trail to the Provo-Jordan River Parkway,” Johanson wrote. “This would be the first flood control system in America that has not only been designed as a work of art, but also accommodates many layers of functionality, from safe highway crossings to trails, wildlife corridors, educational programs and tourist magnet,” Olson said.
On the west end of the tunnel is a sculpted floodwall, faux “slot canyon” built featuring hoodoos representing Echo Canyon which was a “natural conduit through the mountains, used for thousands of years by wildlife and Native Americans migrating between the Rockies and the Great Basin,” Johanson wrote of the functional sculpture that features water catchment basins and habitat ledges for native plants and animals. Echo Canyon was the final leg for early pioneers before crossing the Weber River and scaling the Wasatch Mountains. “Johanson’s land art floods the imagination with memories, symbols and feelings of the men and women who walked the same path over 100 years ago, as well as reminding us of the forces of nature we do our best to negotiate with,” Olson said.
The term “draw” “was used by Utah’s earliest settlers to describe the sunken riparian corridors that carried water off the Wasatch Mountains, most of which have now been filled,” according to Johanson. It is a low area, sloping down in one direction only and sloping upward in three others. “I never design until I have discovered the meaning of the place,” Johanson wrote. “Each place has a unique set of conditions and we need an intimate understanding of what it has been, is now and will become in the future, in order to create a design that is more than a willful act.”
Connecting communities with the trail
“It was cost prohibitive to do the trail all at once,” Arce-Larreta said about Parley’s Trail. So the trail has been piecemealed together for the past 30 or so years as funding has been raised for each new section. “Say the first phase of the trail we completed may have cost $2 million and a comparable section of the trail is now costing $6 million. Inflation costs increasingly went up,” Arce-Larreta said. “Every time we would come to another phase, it was another major fundraising effort and campaign.”
As it was for the Sego Lily Plaza and the Draw, Olson said. “But it was because there was such a coalition of people intent on making this work for as many communities as possible that made it a bit easier to get funding,” Olson said. Johanson’s project got funding primarily from the federal government, the second largest donors being the state and the county with some private donations.
“There were a lot of people in the public who didn’t think putting money into some artistic elements in the underpass was a good use of funds,” Arce-Larreta said. “But people love it now. It’s an amazing amenity in the community and people still don’t know about it.”
Parley’s Trail helps connect communities across the valley. “This is bridging the gap, connecting community,” Arce-Larreta said. “It’s connecting a lot of cities. People are going to be able to go from the East Bench to the west side in a relatively safe way. When they get to the Jordan River Parkway, we broke down this last barrier between 900 West and the Jordan River. The use of the trail should go way up as people discover it more and more.”
Even though the trail is officially complete, work on it still remains. “We’re not turning our back on the trail at this point, we’ll continue to improve it. Now we can add a bench here, or events there,” Arce-Larreta said. “The community needs to continue to be involved in not just the trail, but in their local community park and their local sidewalk and storm drains to make the community a better place.”
Now with this community amenity in place, Arce-Larreta encourages people to continue thinking big, about what else could better the Salt Lake communities we are all a part of. “If people see an opportunity to bring amenities to their community like the Parley’s Trail, they should not be intimidated about accomplishing their vision,” Arce-Larreta said. “They might be surprised to find that with a little time and effort and commitment to the project, just what they’ll be able to accomplish.”
The opening will be held in September to celebrate the decades of work to put Parley’s Trail together. λ