Chicago Street: A Last Stand on the West Side

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Consuelo Bonilla and her granddaughter Alex Leal Vergara are used to the calls and knocks on the door.

On this one-block stretch of Chicago Street, with new apartment buildings quickly being added along North Temple and now closing in on her home from all sides, Bonilla is on a short list for visits from outsiders who want to pay her to leave. So, after a while, the calls aren’t so jarring.

Bonilla wanted somewhere for her family to grow up and moved in when her granddaughter Vergara, now 22, was just 8 months old. 

Consuelo Bonilla

She bought her single-family home on Chicago Street almost 22 years ago because of the affordable price and desirable location. It’s close to Downtown, even closer to the airport, but it also has the added green space. 

The home is identical to the one next door, whose owners bought it a few months after Bonilla. They both have patios in the back where they enjoy spending their time and numerous dogs of many different breeds and ages. 

Bonilla chose this street because of the park, all the families in homes nearby, and the proximity to downtown. She also wanted a place for her daughter’s family to grow, with her first granddaughter already born. 

Alex remembers playing with other children on the street and hanging out at the park, watching trains go by. 

“This street was full of families and friends, and it was great, even with its problems,” Vergara said when reflecting on her life on Chicago Street. 

“This neighborhood has seen a lot of change, good and bad,” Bonilla said. “But it’s changing really fast lately.” 

Alex even pointed out that her grandmother has lived in two other homes on the street as her daughter’s family started growing.

Alex Leal Vergara

“She lived in the now triplex, then the duplex down the street after my siblings were born. As she got older, she moved back in with us,” Vergara said. 

Neighbors have come and gone for their own reasons. Many say they came for the affordable home prices and the neighborly feel of the west side.

Others moved after getting the call that by now the neighbors on Chicago Street are all too familiar with, and some moved because they knew the call was coming and opted to avoid the inevitable decision that the remaining residents now face.

Those who remain all have one thing in common: They all live in homes that are targets for redevelopment by investors eager to buy up the few remaining homes and build new housing under the city’s Transit Station Area zoning.

Almost every month, they get contacted by a developer offering a price they say is below market value. 

Residents who don’t own their homes are targets, too, even though some of them don’t even know it. In the past three years, neighbors who got the call have moved, their homes have been torn down, and new apartments have taken their place. More change is coming.

Across the street and down the block from Bonilla, two families from Mexico have been renting a home for roughly the past year. One of the homes is being rented by a group of construction workers who are all working on projects nearby. They like the area and enjoy the affordability and proximity to work, downtown, and other services.

Neither group knows their homes are owned by a developer who is working through the approval process to tear it down and build new housing in its place.

Rental homes that are currently awaiting a proposal to tear them down.

This block of Chicago Street highlights what it’s like to live in the path of rapid redevelopment in Salt Lake City neighborhoods that were rezoned for dense housing near transit. The calls, the anonymous landlords, the constant change. It shows what it’s like for some residents in neighborhoods that are often home to a higher proportion of minorities and lower-income residents.

Some of the owners who remain have no intention of leaving, including James Cummings, a newer resident who bought a home here a few years ago. 

“I’m not leaving, and I know some of my neighbors aren’t either. I will be like the old guy from ‘Up,’ a house surrounded by apartments or other development,” said Cummings. 

This is the story about residents making their last stand on the west side of Salt Lake City.

Changes on Chicago Street 

Chicago Street between North and South Temple at about 950 West was a quiet residential street with a park bordered by other small neighborhood homes and the Trax and Frontrunner rail corridors. 

Walking down this section of the street now will show a new townhome project whose finish is in question, a row of boarded-up homes awaiting demolition, an empty lot for a project that has not started, and just 12 remaining houses — eight of which are owned by investors.

On a street once lined almost exclusively with single-family homes, all but four homes are headed for the wrecking ball.

The residents who have stayed have felt the pressure of what’s going on.

James Cummings, a newer homeowner on the street, spoke about the struggle with the numerous different projects and developers and how he doesn’t know who is doing what, where, and when. 

“The developer of the property to the north of me tore down two good homes, built half a fence, and now I can’t get ahold of anyone, some saying the project went bankrupt and changed hands again,” Cummings said. 

Vacant lot next to Cummings home.

He bought his home a few years ago due to the price and location, even if the evidence of huge change was already present with boarded-up homes, empty lots and large-scale apartments being erected along North Temple.

The home he bought was previously the first home owned by Clint Hoffar, who fixed up the property and enjoyed his neighbors before ultimately selling due to what he saw as problems. 

“We saw development coming and our neighbors leaving,” said Hoffar, who bought a home in Poplar Grove. “The homeless issues, drug problems, and constant offers of developers gave us the motivation to leave before we were stuck or had to take a low offer.”

Hoffar was not alone in moving, and other neighbors on the east side of the street noticed the exodus.

“Around 2020, many of the people across the street moved out and sold to someone who temporarily rented the homes before boarding them up,” Vergara said about the vacant homes across from hers. 

Other owners and renters on the street who were willing to speak wanted to remain anonymous for many reasons. Some were uncomfortable speaking with the press, and others distrusted strangers, given the high turnover and pressure for change. 

The home with two families from Mexico found the location ideal and the rent affordable. Another home is rented by a group of construction workers living together. They, too, enjoy being close to work, other multifamily construction projects along North Temple, and the price for what they are getting. 

Bonilla described this neighborhood as “mixed and full of character.” 

“I’ve seen a lot of people move in and out, and some even stayed till the end of their lives,” she said. 

That began to shift about 10 years ago, Bonilla said.

“Around 10 years ago, more people started camping, using drugs,” she said, “crime was growing.”

Alex, Consuela’s granddaughter, grew up in the home and shares similar sentiments as her grandmother. 

“There used to be families in almost every home. Friends and neighbors. However, people started leaving, and then homes were bought and rented out,” Alex said. “Now, they are empty and abandoned.” 

Vacant boarded up homes on Chicago Street.

Others on the street, including Cummings and Hoffar, agreed with this, pointing to the semi-private strip of land in the back of their homes, an informal alley. There have been many occurrences of illegal drug use and other negative activities occurring there, with little police help or presence. 

“We used to call the police a lot, and they helped at first, but now people are gathering again around vacant homes and the park,” says Alex 

Neighbors were happy when the city temporarily closed Madsen Park. They say police cleaned it up before the city reopened it. However, new boarded-up homes awaiting development are attracting drug users and camping to the street. 

“I used to feel safe in this neighborhood, but when I was around 10, I got catcalled by campers in the park, and the street hasn’t felt the same,” Alex said.

When speaking with most of the remaining residents on the east side of Chicago Street, many said the exact same thing: “I want to stay here for as long as I can.” While some did say they would be willing to leave for the right price, none of the offers have even come close. 

“I’ve had phone calls, but not anyone in person, unlike my neighbors,” Cummings said. “This, as well as a price well below my home value, indicates to me they aren’t that interested or motivated.”

Many share this sentiment because they couldn’t afford something of similar size and location anywhere else in the Salt Lake City area. Do they stay because they have to, or is it because they want to and love the area? 

Moving on the same street, relocating there even during the peak of construction, and the increase in population and traffic is not enough to drive them out. Why would pressure from developers to do anything more? 

Even with so many projects, many are along this short stretch of Chicago Street.

All construction projects at different phases along North Temple. Provided by Salt Lake City Economic Development.

The Last Stand

Chicago Street is one of many places around Salt Lake that have seen a rapid change in neighborhood character and value as investors capitalize on upzoning that occurred near light rail across the city.

But few areas encapsulate the pressure residents face while living on streets like Chicago and Emeril on the west side. Often, these homes are the last remaining affordable homes in the city; leaving home on the street often means leaving the city.

Salt Lake City policymakers have spent recent years working on a collection of changes that seek to balance a pro-development stance with protections for residents like Bonilla.

Thriving in Place is Salt Lake City’s most recent attempt at anti-displacement policies and programs. This plan, recently approved, seeks to help prevent loss of owner-occupied homes, and affordable rentals across Salt Lake that may be removed for new development.

The TSA zone implemented over 10 years ago is fulfilling what it intended with housing and construction, and only now is the city attempting to implement policies like Thriving in Place to combat negative outcomes it allowed and made the way for.

The Chicago Street Townhomes, on the south end of the block, sit incomplete. The developer ran into financial trouble late last year.

What Salt Lake chooses to do next with transit corridor zoning, and as it maintains a development-friendly stance in an effort to solve a housing affordability crisis, could determine where these and other residents end up. 

New updates and comprehensive zoning code changes are coming, and the city is looking to deliver those to the Planning Commission and City Council later this year. 

The people in this story are not alone, and neither are any residents of the west side. As Salt Lake grows and changes, the pains will be apparent as progress is made. Local businesses are displaced, iconic buildings are torn down, and people are forced to move away.

Time will judge whether the city successfully walked the line. But Bonilla will know.

“I’ve lived here a long time, seen a lot of change,” Bonilla said. “Even after all that, I don’t want to leave.”

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Email Zeke Peters

Posted by Zeke Peters

Zeke Peters is a dual-masters student at the University of Utah studying Urban Planning and Public Administration. He works as a planner and designer in Salt Lake City. He currently resides in downtown Salt Lake and is from Austin, Minnesota, the birthplace of SPAM.