The Downtown Alliance, a nonprofit contracted by Salt Lake City to collect a property assessment to promote the core of the city, recently released the results of its marketing survey. That report polled 605 residents from across the state about their forays into Salt Lake City: What brings them back, what keeps them away and would they consider living in the ever-rising downtown?
Two questions in particular seemed to divide visitors from those who would like to make downtown home. When survey respondents were asked to identify one thing that would make them want to visit downtown more often, 25 percent said "improved parking." Among those who said they would consider living downtown, 36 percent said they would because of downtown's "convenience, close proximity and access to everything."
Convenience vs. parking may represent the central conflict when downtown convenience means perhaps a city core that is more walkable and bikeable, yet conversely less parkable. It's a conflict that Downtown Alliance Executive Director Jason Mathis is aware of, but not troubled by. He argues that a lack of parking is, in many ways, a sign of a vibrant downtown, and that a good downtown is an experience people are willing to pay for when it comes to parking.
"Nobody comes downtown to park, they come downtown for entertainment, shopping and culture," Mathis says. "The goal of a downtown is to be compelling enough that people are willing to pay a little bit more than if they were to pull up to some free parking at a Bed, Bath & Beyond."
But for those in love with the convenience of downtown, the alliance's survey dovetails with two key demographics: Millennials and empty-nesters. The ability to walk a block from an apartment and shop for groceries at Harmon's, go to a bar or take Trax to a Jazz game, is especially appealing to both groups. According to the survey, the biggest groups that said they would live downtown were ages 18-24 (46 percent), 25-29 (33 percent) and then, near the other end of the age spectrum, those ages 55-64 (27 percent).
The Downtown Alliance recently celebrated the city's booming residential retail success, citing 1,800 new units completed downtown and an overall vacancy rate at 3 percent. This upward housing trend is similar to those in other urban cores across the country—but in Salt Lake City, Mathis says, this trend was buoyed by a downtown experience, largely shaped in recent years by the City Creek Center effect.
The Downtown Alliance once heralded the mall for helping bring shoppers to surrounding businesses, but Mathis now says that, in reality, not many small businesses felt much of an effect from the mall. Still, he says, City Creek provided a shot in the arm for downtown amenities and projects.
"It's not like people are coming to City Creek and saying, 'Oh, I'm going to Macy's,' and then walking two blocks someplace else," Mathis says. "But it's true that City Creek led to the biggest convention year we've ever had. It led to the 222 [office building] being built, which will inject 8,000 new downtown employees. It led to office lease rates at all-time highs, vacancy rates at all-time lows and a spate of new residences being built."
For Mathis, however, parking remains an issue, and will continue to. As for promoting downtown, the alliance does coordinate with the city, but he says that, rather than fight for cheaper or more parking, the nonprofit will instead seek to educate the public about parking. Mathis dislikes seeing so many surface parking lots in the city, when they could be developed for better uses, he says.
For Downtown Alliance spokesman Nick Como, parking in any major city is always an issue. Como believes that, in some ways, Salt Lake City is just experiencing growing pains when it comes to dealing with inconvenient parking.
"A lot of people compare Salt Lake City [today] to Salt Lake City in 1980, rather than Salt Lake City to somewhere comparable like Portland or Chicago," Como says.
Reid Ewing, a professor and incoming chair of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah, agrees that Salt Lakers may struggle more as they adjust to less convenient parking. Ewing authored a 2014 study that surveyed residential preferences of individuals in the Salt Lake City region. While the study found most in favor of smart growth, it also found that "convenient parking" was the first concern for those surveyed about choosing a place to live.
"We seem to be more conservative and auto-oriented than national surveys suggest that the national public is becoming," Ewing says. Still, he agrees there should be fewer surface lots downtown. "That's just part of the process of urbanization."