SLC is becoming a strip mall

By By Andy Thompson

By Andy Thompson

It is an exciting time to be an urban-planning aficionado in Salt Lake City. This sentiment encompasses architects, city planners, politicians and the developers that shape the valley.

The downtown City Creek project, the emergence of a commuter rail linking Salt Lake City to Ogden and potentially Provo, the continued construction of TRAX lines and a promising vision of the city outlined in “Downtown Rising” all suggest that the Wasatch Front is aware of the challenges that growth and development present and is capable of integrating such issues successfully.

“Salt Lake City has all the components of a great community,” said Salt Lake City Planning Director George Shaw. “It has Temple Square, the University (of Utah) and the capitol that provides a synergy for the city.”

To accommodate Salt Lake City’s many features, a transportation system is in place-TRAX-that can viably serve the region, Shaw said. The city also seems to be embracing high-density residential projects, another element in active, walkable communities-what Shaw called “smart growth.”

The road to a more sustainable, healthy community, however, is not without its speed bumps. The most prominent consideration during the planning of future development is the balance between profit for the private landowner and compatibility with the public’s well-being. While it is important that projects are financially beneficial for the parties involved, the public good cannot be sacrificed for the pursuit of profits.

Currently, there are three relatively high-profile projects in Salt Lake City that must address this conundrum of profit versus public.

Sugar House’s Granite block

The “renovation” of Sugar House’s Granite block between 2100 South and Highland and Sugarmont Drive and McClelland Street is a done deal.

Craig Mecham, the primary owner of the block, notified tenants in March that they must vacate the premises by fall. High-rise condos and high-end retail will replace the local independent merchants that now occupy the space.

Mecham insists that some of the current tenants may move back after construction is completed. Of course, rent will be three to four times more expensive-rates usually only national chain stores can afford.

On the surface, this project does appear to satisfy the call for urban, high-density communities. Yet Mecham would not estimate how many condos will be built, just that it will be four to five stories high and that the units will be large and expensive.

At the street level of Mecham’s development will be a Starbucks, Williams-Sonoma, Borders and whatever other company can pony up the near $50-per-square-foot price tag.

As soon as next year, the west side of Sugar House will be Gateway South, with a new Banana Republic, Pottery Barn and California Pizza Kitchen to complement the already existing Old Navy, Bed Bath & Beyond and Rubio’s across the street.

Hopefully a fountain is also included in Mecham’s designs at the corner of Highland and 2100 South, where a soundtrack from the Pan-American Games will be perpetually played and where children can bathe on a hot summer day.

The independent retailers on this Sugar House block have had their day in the sun, Mecham said, and now it’s time for him to cash in on the property.

Sugar House is barely hanging onto its identity as it is-without these retailers, this unique Salt Lake shopping district will resemble Strip Mall, U.S.A. But, hey, who’s to say that a guy can’t make a buck?

This is the Place

In another spar between public space and private development, This is the Place Heritage Park is under siege from Ellis Ivory, the chairman of the park’s board of directors.

Since going private-a private foundation has overseen the park’s operations since 1998-the land where Brigham Young first laid eyes on the Salt Lake Valley is not churning out the cash necessary to sit undisturbed. Ivory proposes that an office building be built on the edge of Young’s old farm.

(The state should ask The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to pony up Ivory’s annual tithing to help offset the cost of running the prophet’s old domain.)

While Ivory’s deal doesn’t dilute Salt Lake City’s character on the same scale as the Sugar House redevelopment, it does smack of the same attitude that runs with their thinking: profits over community identity.

Another office complex along the foothills will further impose upon the open space that is Utah’s soul and, in this case, heritage.

City Creek Sky Bridge

The most publicized planning issue that faces the city is a sky bridge above Main Street that would connect the redeveloped ZCMI and Crossroads malls-dubbed the City Creek Center. The developer, Michigan-based Taubman Centers, Inc., views Main Street as a detriment that might attract shoppers away from spending money and into the downtown streets. Taubman would like the shoppers to remain enclosed within the malls, especially on the second level of retail, where there are less frequent visitors.

The developer is so adamant about having a sky bridge that it’s willing to eliminate the outdoor walkways proposed for the ZCMI block if it does not get its way.

Great idea, Taubman-I’m sure two giant indoor malls in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City will rake in tons of loot. Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?

What downtown needs is people on the street patronizing all the merchants, not just the ones leasing property from Taubman. To secure a higher percentage of profits for its second-floor spaces, the developer is holding the city’s center hostage.

The City Creek project-with a mixed-use area where residents have access to public transit and can walk to the grocer-is hopeful, but a sky bridge negates this progressive plan.

When asked about his aspirations for Salt Lake City, Shaw said that he would like for the city to retain its sense of place and identity.

While each proposed development mentioned above might seem benign enough to Salt Lake City’s identity when analyzed individually, the three projects together reveal an alarming movement toward a homogenized city and a further incorporation of America’s strip mall.

Christopher Peddecord

Development of the City Creek Center continues downtown and includes the construction of a sky bridge over Main Street to connect the redeveloped ZCMI and Crossroads malls.