Here’s a recommendation to Salt Lake City Council members regarding Mayor Rocky Anderson’s Walkable Communities and Transit-Oriented Development ordinances: After more than three years of hemming and hawing, just pass ’em.
Yes, it’s common knowledge that divorcing someone from their car is more painful than most amputations. Even with the price of gas at an all-time high, we can rest assured that, in the future, people will be driving hybrid SUVs. It’s also true that, contrary to other major metropolitan cities such as Denver or Portland, Ore., Salt Lake City hasn’t experienced a downtown renaissance fueled by a flight from the suburbs.
In fact, according to the latest U.S. Census figures, Salt Lake City’s population has diminished slightly. We love our family-oriented suburban lots with water-sucking lawns, so much so that we’ll brave even the most torturous of commutes.
More sadly still, travel past 2100 South in Salt Lake City and, except for the geographic landscape, the sight is hardly discernable from that of Phoenix. Strip-“malled” America is one endless motion of driving, followed by walks across a parking lot to the store, followed by walks across a parking lot back to the car, followed by more driving. Sidewalks? Those are part of an era long gone. It’s safe to say that, as a nation, Americans now walk more square feet of parking lots than any other surface.
San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans: It’s hardly a mistake that the most cherished, and most traveled to, cities in America remain those with large downtown swathes of storefronts located adjacent to sidewalks, places where a sea of parking is almost a sight rarer than a unicorn, and where the pulse of urban life can be felt on a daily basis. By and large, these cities also attract a large core of creative, entrepreneurial businesses.
Yet, here in Salt Lake City, we have a Council seemingly more worried about falling into the good graces of retail developers rather than the best aesthetic interests of city residents. We are a city lacking even the most fundamental ordinance that might protect what storefront districts we have: the 9th & 9th and 15th & 15th intersections of Sugar House. Meanwhile, the “big box” behemoths continue apace, and not just along the 300 West corridor, but also possibly even in the heart of Holladay. Everyone worries about the specter of raising taxes when sales-tax revenue falls, but it’s high time this Council realizes that when enough zoning ordinances respectful of a small-business climate are put in place, a lot of businesses follow suit. Any city can give Wal-Mart, Target and shopping-mall developers a big parcel and lots of RDA money. Planning a vision and creating an environment for the long-term future takes decidedly more courage and time, but the dividends can be immeasurable. Need proof? Ask all the people in Portland, Ore., who used to live in Salt Lake City.
If Salt Lake City needs more “walkable” places to shop, eat and spend time, it also needs a zoning blueprint that allows for meaningful coordination between public-transit agencies, business developers and municipalities. That’s why the Council should stop sniffing at Mayor Anderson’s Transit-Oriented Development ordinance and give it some serious thought as well. Hopefully, after talking about creating storefront districts, we’ll one day do a whole lot more walking.