I-15 expansion a source of anxiety, frustration for SLC residents who face potential relocation
Nov 25, 2023, 4:49 PM
(Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)
SALT LAKE CITY — The Milicevic family has moved twice in their lives — neither time by choice. A proposed I-15 expansion may force them out a third time.
The family arrived in Germany as refugees during the Bosnian War in the 1990s. Then, when their new home was no longer welcoming to refugees, Asmir and Mirsada Milicevic and their two boys moved to the United States, settling down in the west side community of Salt Lake City where they’ve lived for the past 25 years. One of their sons owns the home next door and the other lives across the street.
“Now when we finally settle here with the kids, with the grandkids, now we have to move again — for what? For somebody in Farmington to come home 15 minutes early from work?” said Mirsada Milicevic, who is now retired. “It’s like the whole life is just a fight for the life. … How can we afford another house? Maybe a one-bedroom apartment. After all these years, like 40 years working around the world, it’s not fair.”
The family is among a number of residents frustrated with the Utah Department of Transportation’s proposal to expand I-15. UDOT has said the project will not require razing any Salt Lake homes. But 24 homes on the west side, including the Milicevics’, have been identified as “potential relocations” should the project move forward. Those adjacent to the identified homes, such as Ado Milicevic’s, will also feel the impacts of construction and fear likely lowered home values.
UDOT says the expansion, in conjunction with other projects like double-tracking sections of FrontRunner light rail, is key to meeting travel demands as the Wasatch Front grows. UDOT spokesman John Gleason said a final decision on the project will not be made until the end of the study process established by the National Environmental Policy Act.
“We are focused on being as thorough and considerate as possible in determining the best solution for the future transportation needs,” he said. “The public has an opportunity to be involved in the process every step of the way, participating in defining the needs, shaping alternatives and providing feedback on the alternatives selected. This feedback is essential in helping us shape the final decision.”
For the individuals living in the 24 potential relocations, the properties represent homes, retirement plans and their sense of security. The proposed expansion represents uncertainty.
The Milicevic family could sell the three properties and move back to Croatia — an option they’ve seriously considered — but they worry no one will want to buy a home that’s essentially in limbo.
“There goes our retirement plans, or theirs (my parents’) at least,” Ado Milicevic said, adding that he probably wouldn’t want to stay put through construction. “I have kids and that’s going to be a lot of pollution, dust and lights and probably waking the kids up at night. … But again, that is going to bring down the value, right? So I can’t sell now. If I wait, then I’ll lose out on even more money. So it’s kind of a no-win scenario when you look at it.”
Denisse Gonzalez worries about the impact on her children, who would likely have to move schools during a relocation. Although she and her partner want to eventually upgrade homes as their family grows, she said they planned on keeping their current home so their children could live there and attend college nearby.
“It’s devastating because this is our first home so having to just pick up and go isn’t easy,” she said. “It was just part of our life plans, so for them to just take that away, it’s pretty crappy.”
Retired chef Frody Volgger plans to enjoy retirement in his west-side home, which he’s lived in for 26 years. He hasn’t heard from UDOT about how a potential relocation would work, but said he is amenable to relocating temporarily during construction. A permanent relocation, however, would be devastating for Volgger, whose home is already paid off.
“I have no problem doing this. I understand — you know, that’s progress,” he said. “As long as I don’t have to leave my house because economically it would be really bad because replacing this house and going somewhere else with all the prices gone up — I would have to use up my savings. I plan to live a few more years and I want to live good.”
Property owners can expect “fair compensation” for their land or “relocation benefits,” according to a draft environmental impact statement. Gleason stressed that while there are no required residential relocations in Salt Lake City at this time, the residents of the 24 potential relocations “may not want to be there due to the potential for construction activities occurring close in proximity or limiting access to the properties.”
“If this is the case, UDOT may buy their home or make other arrangements, per wishes of the owner,” he said. “This would be arranged on a case-by-case basis with each owner.”
He added UDOT attempted to contact each of the 24 properties prior to the draft statement release and has since connected with the few it was unable to contact previously.
Distrust and frustration
“I think they’re going to do what they’re going to, they don’t care who it impacts is my thinking on it,” said resident Pat Molina, who’s owned her west-side home since 1991. “I feel like if you put up a fight, they’ll just take it anyway. I know that’s a horrible attitude to have and I should stand up and fight, but again they told us a pack of lies with the concrete walls, so that’s what we’re getting again.”
Molina’s home, which is located right off the freeway near 1200 North, is not one of the 24 potential relocations. But she and others worried for the better part of a year which homes would be impacted. UDOT floated the number of 24 potentially impacted homes fairly early on during the process but refused to publicly release the locations until the draft study was released in September. Instead, community members relied on a map that a private citizen with mapping experience created using county parcel data and a review of available UDOT documents regarding the project.
That lack of transparency has been a sore point for residents, many of whom expressed distrust and frustration toward UDOT. A no-build option, which would leave the freeway as is, is another point of conflict, with residents questioning whether it was actually under consideration or just included to fulfill the study’s requirements.
The department has since identified its preferred option as one that would add one to two additional lanes in each direction and an express toll lane between Salt Lake City and Farmington.
“The no-build alternative is always a consideration, and we measure other options against it,” Gleason, the UDOT spokesman, said. “In this case, as summarized in the draft environmental impact statement, the no-build option does not meet the project’s purpose and need, which is to improve safety, replace aging infrastructure, provide better mobility for all travel modes, strengthen the state and local economy, and better connect communities along I-15 from Farmington to Salt Lake City.”
Ado Milicevic reported receiving conflicting information from UDOT employees about the specifics of the project and its impacts.
“Everybody knows that they already know what’s going to happen. So why make people spend money or be in this limbo for another year and a half? It’s just like they don’t care,” he said. “They’ve been lying from the start.”
Volgger said UDOT has only contacted him directly once, over the summer. He has also attended a number of the community meetings UDOT has held. Although he believes a no-build option is the best scenario, he doesn’t believe it’s something UDOT ever seriously considered. He said he wants UDOT to be specific about the project time frame and how it will compensate residents.
“They’re just playing the game,” he said. “The government does whatever they want and we’re just little flies. They’re not concerned. They say they’re concerned. It’s just lip service. They do exactly what they want. They have done it in the past and they’re going to do the same thing now.”
Argyle Court, the street the Milicevics and Volgger live on, is a quiet one. It’s a place where all the neighbors know each other and look out for one another. Signs opposing the I-15 project dot the street, and the well-kept lawns and homes make it clear the owners take pride in their homes.
But the neighborhood wasn’t always that way. A few decades ago, dilapidated sidewalks, graffiti and high crime defined the area — a consequence of the freeway first cutting through the city in the ’60s, says NeighborWorks Salt Lake CEO Maria Garciaz.
Since her nonprofit spent about $3 million transforming Argyle Court in the late ’90s, several million dollars have gone into revitalizing the Guadalupe neighborhood and surrounding area. Garciaz said she and other members of the I-15 coalition, a grassroots movement against the project, favor the no-build option and more investment in public transportation.
“I’m afraid that if that expansion happens, this neighborhood will go back to looking like what it used to,” Garciaz said. “It’s a gut punch.”
Many of the families who benefited from NeighborWorks’ Argyle Court project still live there today, including Janet Fisher, who called the street “a huge success story.”
“I feel that our street sort of represents everything they say that they want for the west side: affordable housing, diversity, a great neighborhood,” she said. “So the thought that, in the interest of making people’s commutes a few minutes less, that they would destroy this is just heartbreaking. It’s really very hard to understand. What are the priorities?”
Long-term residents like Fisher lived through a prior expansion that took place ahead of the 2002 Winter Olympics. That expansion moved the freeway right up to Fisher’s backyard and brought a significant increase in noise and dust.
I feel that our street sort of represents everything they say that they want for the west side: affordable housing, diversity, a great neighborhood. So the thought that, in the interest of making people’s commutes a few minutes less, that they would destroy this is just heartbreaking. It’s really very hard to understand. What are the priorities?
“To say it was difficult to live through is a gross understatement,” Fisher said. “It was major and so those of us who lived here during that time just have very bad memories of it and very bad memories of the relationship with UDOT.”
She recalls bright lights and her house shaking as construction workers worked through the night. She said a number of driveways were damaged and workers conducted excavations around homes to anchor them against the new weight of the freeway. Fisher said she does believe UDOT is communicating better than it did before, but the department’s hesitation to make any promises causes anxiety in the neighborhood.
Like a number of her neighbors, Fisher is retired and planned on spending the remainder of her days living in her home. She wonders how a relocation would impact her quality of life after spending 25 years building relationships within her community. She reminisced about the gardens she helps care for on the street, the various home improvements her husband helped neighbors with and the kind words they shared when her husband, Jim Fisher, passed away in 2021.
“This house actually holds an awful lot of memories for me,” Fisher said. “It’s sort of a bizarre thing to think UDOT will determine your future. … It’s not just moving, it’s establishing those relationships, having that history — those are sort of the intrinsic things that don’t get mentioned that really make a difference in your quality of life.”