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Orem eyesores may topple soon

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OREM — Drivers zooming down 800 North in Orem are faced with a stark contradiction.

The south side of the bustling city street, which acts as a gateway to Provo Canyon, boasts white picket fences, tidy rose bushes and manicured lawns.

The north side is not faring so well. More than two dozen houses have been abandoned along the heavily traveled route, creating something of a shantytown.

The landlord?

Utah's Department of Transportation, which has been buying up the houses since October 2003 to make way for widening 800 North from 400 West to 1100 East.

UDOT estimates that by 2030, Orem's population will increase by 33 percent, and traffic is expected to increase by about 50 percent to 100 percent on 800 North. The thoroughfare's widening is expected to cost some $49 million.

"I'm really glad to see them finally widen 800 (North)," said Greg Brown, who lives on the north side of the street.

"It really needs it," he said.

"There's too much traffic now. It backs clear up to my house from Main Street every day."

Residents on the north side of 800 North told the Deseret Morning News that UDOT informed them about the project four years ago, allowing them plenty of time to find new houses and relocate.

"We've been trying to communicate with the residents and businesses in this area since 2002 in one form or another, so they've been able to stay up to date on what's going on," said Geoff Dupaix, a UDOT public involvement coordinator. "We take communication with the public very seriously."

It's that communication, according to residents, that has kept the project from turning into a difficult place for them to live — even with the row of unsightly properties lining the street.

"Obviously, it's not fun to move, but they have tried really hard to be helpful," said Linda Cowburn, whose family owns a hair salon located on the north side of the street and has lived there for the past 35 years. "(UDOT) has been really, really nice. Since we've known it was going to happen for a long time, it's not that bad. We've been expecting it for so long, it's almost a relief that it's finally happening."

Dupaix said UDOT was more concerned with other aspects of the project than in not creating an eyesore but pointed out that while some of the 60-plus houses to be demolished were acquired early on, most have been vacated only since the latter part of last year and the first part of 2006.

"I only noticed (the boarded-up houses) three days ago," said Hilarie Smith, who lives in an apartment on the south side of the street.

Her front windows face several of the abandoned houses.

"It's all new to me. I'm a little worried about what it will be like (during construction) and wonder how long it is going to be in front of my house, but I'm excited for the finished product. The artist renderings I've seen are beautiful."

So, why did UDOT leave the houses standing in a state of decay rather than tearing them down immediately after they were acquired?

The main reason, according to Dupaix, is because of the cleanup work involved in the project. For example, he said, all the houses must be checked for materials such as asbestos before they can be demolished.

That work is going on now in preparation of demolition, which should start in the next few weeks. UDOT officials hope to put the project up for contractor bids late this month and begin utility work this fall and construction of the new road by early next spring. Construction is scheduled for completion October 2008.

Orem residents living on 800 North have also been lucky when it comes to crime and fires.

In Salt Lake County, abandoned houses have become a target for violence, drugs, transients and fires. In the past year, vacant houses in the Salt Lake area have been host to at least seven fires, one marijuana bust worth $500,000, and a hideout for three fugitives accused of a series of burglaries. In the past two years, two bodies of murder victims have been found in vacant houses in Murray and South Salt Lake.

Orem Police Lt. Doug Edwards said police haven't received reports of problems on 800 North since UDOT started buying properties and boarding up the houses, he said.

"It's a little bit of a different kind of populace," Edwards said. "We really haven't had problems. We'll respond, of course, if someone sees something suspicious."

E-mail: alinford@desnews.com